Maybe the infidelity was a one-time event that occurred during a drunken evening, or it may have been quite intentional—months or years of texts, phone calls, romantic dinners, and of course, sex. Perhaps it was a deeply emotional connection with one other person, or it involved one-night stands with various partners.
Not only are you left with pain, you are left with distressing questions: “How could you?” and “When did this begin?” and the deeper question of, “Why?”
I cannot tell you why your partner did this — that question will take exploration beyond the scope of this article — but I can tell you why it hurts so much.
We’re attached that way.
Meaning, we’re hardwired for connection.
As children, we sought to bond with our caregivers, and it’s been said before that what we seek in romantic relationships is to recapture some of that unconditional love that we hopefully experienced as a child. If we had nurturing parents, they responded to our cries for comfort and we were told how sweet and cute and lovable we were. In seeking to relive that same nurturing, romantic partners often call one another, “baby,” and “darling” and other adoring names.
When I say that we’re attached to others, I mean that we have an internal attachment system (or bonds) that function so as to keep us close to those we love.
In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew Liberman writes, “When human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way it responds to physical pain.”
The pain we experience in betrayal often feels like an attack on our body. It hurts like hell. It’s almost surprising just how much it can hurt. And like a physical attack that inflicts deep wounds, betrayal makes us feel unsafe.
This wasn’t the agreement we made.
It’s true that sometimes partners will agree to have an open marriage (whether you agree with that concept or not), but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a situation where two people agreed to be monogamous. They agreed to not have sex with anyone outside their marriage or relationship.
Sometimes the betraying spouse will say to me, “But I had to do it. My wife wouldn’t have sex with me.” Or, “I felt justified in the affair because I carry so much resentment toward my husband.” Neither of these defenses takes into account the fact that this was not your original agreement. You have broken your partner’s trust. You were not honest. You lied. You deceived. If you were unhappy, you had other options — to leave, to get a divorce, to request to go to couples therapy.
If you have hurt your partner, my purpose is not to pummel you with guilt, but to help you see why it was a betrayal — and that you won’t be able to express the genuine empathy and remorse that you need to convey to your wounded partner until you account for the broken trust. Your partner is not only hurt but may have been deeply traumatized by your actions.
I feel I no longer know this person.
The betrayed partner says, “I thought I knew this person with whom I made a commitment, but now I wonder — do I really? What else am I going to find out?”
Maybe you were gaslighted by the one who had the affair. When you began to suspect infidelity and asked about it, perhaps they said, “You’re crazy! What’s wrong with you? You’re imagining things!”
And so, now you wonder if you really know this person. What else don’t you know?
It’s going to hurt.
I’d like to say there’s a quick fix, but typically you have to process the hurt before it can heal.
Your betraying partner may be in a hurry to move past it, but you will need time. They may have said, “I’m sorry,” numerous times, but if you can’t get passed it, you’re probably experiencing symptoms of trauma.
Some betrayed partners experience nightmares, anxiety, irritability, flashbacks, brain fog, depression, and/or other symptoms. In this case, you need a therapist who has specialized training to help you work through the trauma. One method that I offer to my clients is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which can work wonders to help reprocess memories and sensations that have become stuck in the body.
Yes, the pain of infidelity is real. You are not crazy. No, it’s not fair that you should have to see a therapist. You did nothing wrong. But it’s up to you to decide what to do about the pain that you’re dealing with. You will benefit greatly by having the help of a confidential, competent, and compassionate professional to help you heal.