Getting Past Infidelity Triggers | Recovery Part 1
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Infidelity triggers [intrusive thoughts after the affair] are torture, for everyone.
Learning how to overcome triggers after infidelity is key to your marriage surviving.
Otherwise, you keep reliving the infidelity years later.
In this article, we share from thousands of hours of affair recovery experience how affair triggers can actually be an opportunity for healing.
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Understanding Affair Triggers
Infidelity is a traumatic experience. Whether the betrayal was a physical or emotional affair, pornography use, or even a one-night stand, the result is the same: Infidelity rips away the sense of security and safety in our most important earthly relationship. As a result, our world is turned upside down.
For the betrayed spouse, you start to question your reality. All the things you thought you knew about your life now feel unsure:
- Was anything real between me and my spouse?
- How did I not see this coming?
- Do they still have feelings for the affair partner?
- Is my marriage over?
- Can I ever recover?
The one person you most want reassurance from is the one whose word has proven to be false. You are hurting, with seemingly nowhere to go.
If you are the betraying spouse, your world has also been shattered. While engaged in the infidelity, deceit provided an artificial separation between your actions and reality. Until now, you did not have to deal with the impact of the decisions you were making. Now that the truth has come out, you are dealing with the impact of your actions for the first time. Betraying spouses have questions too:
- Why did I do this?
- Can my marriage be saved?
- Do I want to stay in my marriage?
- How am I supposed to reassure my spouse when they have good reason not to trust me?
Sometimes, you may feel so overwhelmed with it all you think the best solution is simply to walk away, thinking maybe that would save both you and your spouse from more pain. However, this is not the truth.
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Infidelity results in a betrayed spouse experiencing emotional triggers.
Emotional triggers are essentially intrusive emotions and thoughts resulting from the trauma of the infidelity. Similar to PTSD, experiences in your day to day life will quickly remind you of the betrayal, leaving you swept up in a flood of painful thoughts and emotions. Your nervous system kicks into high gear, responding to the situation as a threat to you. Additionally, you feel a surge of adrenaline; your whole body is on high alert. Only after this intense initial response, can the prefrontal cortex kick in, the part of your brain used for reasoning and higher-level thought. It’s the part of the brain that makes sense of situations, and in this case, whether or not you are actually in danger.
The reality of the situation: Significant emotional trauma creates triggers. For the betrayed spouse this means the devastation of the infidelity. Betraying spouses have triggers as well. Often they experience overwhelm when they come face to face with the shame and guilt of their actions. Recovery from these is not optional and will not be mitigated by ending the marriage. Instead, we must learn to navigate these triggers effectively.
The first thing to understand for both of you is what triggers are not:
- Triggers are not an attempt by the betrayed spouse to punish the betraying spouse.
- They are not an effort to “rub it in.”
- They are not a sign of unforgiveness.
- Triggers should not be confused with insight (ie: believing you are suddenly seeing your spouse or situation clearly, as strong emotions can leave us convinced what we feel is the truth).
- They are not a set-back.
So, what are triggers?
Triggers are an opportunity.
Yes, you read that correctly. As hard as that might be to believe at first, it’s true. Indeed, they are an opportunity for a little bit of healing and connection to occur in your marriage.
As you have likely said or thought in this process, “I cannot go back in time and undo what I did.” This is correct. However, healing is not about you going back in time, it is about showing up with compassion and empathy in the present, able to care for your spouse’s wounds. You must:
- Have a mindset of gentle, compassionate curiosity. Your goal is to care for and understand your spouse’s pain. This will require you to acknowledge your own shame and guilt over your actions, which will most often present as anger.
- Step into and not away from your spouse’s pain. Our natural reflex is often to move away from someone who is hurting, especially someone who is hurting as a result of our actions. However, your spouse will experience this as abandonment. Therefore be willing to move towards them in those moments, or wait patiently if they need time.
- Look past your spouse’s anger and see their hurt and fear. While it is true that on the outside this may not be easy to spot, it is absolutely there.
Use responses like:
- I really want to understand how I hurt you.
- You didn’t get to decide whether or not I put you through this, but I am not going anywhere now.
- I am committed to figuring out why I did this.
- I want to answer any question you have, even if it is one I have already answered.
- It is okay if you need to talk about . . . again.
- What are you feeling?
- I said I was sorry. What else do you want from me?
- I can’t go back and change what I did.
- We should just move on.
- I have already answered that.
- Finally, you must process your own shame and gain understanding about why you did what you did. Superficial answers, such as “I was selfish,” are completely inadequate for both you and your spouse.
Triggers are important, as they are moments for you to be able to process your pain. You don’t want to feel pain; no one does. But our decision is not whether or not we feel pain, but what we will do with it. Betrayed spouses are often fearful they will hurt indefinitely, that if they start crying they will never stop. However, find encouragement in this good news: If you process your pain, you will not stay stuck in it. You certainly can move to a place of healing.
- When you are triggered you need to talk about it, to process your thoughts and emotions. In order to heal, you are working to put together a clear and coherent picture of what has happened and why.
- You will also need to experience genuine compassion and care from your betraying spouse. You need to have a strong sense they care about and understand the impact of their actions. They need to stand with you in the pain, so you can be “not okay” and they are able to handle it.
- Finally, you will need to see them working diligently to figure out why they acted as they did. It’s a commitment to you and the marriage for them to be willing to face their own shame and understand themselves.
Understanding what emotional triggers are and how to navigate them is essential in successful infidelity recovery. The fact you are reading articles like these is a good indication you desire to recover well. Healing is possible, and we are here to help. Contact MCO to set up an appointment with an experienced infidelity counselor today.
- Snyder, D. K., Baucom, D. H., & Gordon, K. C. (2007). Treating infidelity: An integrative approach to resolving trauma and promoting forgiveness. psychologist psychologist, 12. 
- Glass, S. P., & Wright, T. L. (1997). Reconstructing marriages after the trauma of infidelity. 
- Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2012). Research on the treatment of couple distress. Journal of Marital and Family therapy, 38(1), 145-168. 
- Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2005). Treating couples recovering from infidelity: An integrative approach. Journal of clinical psychology, 61(11), 1393-1405. 
- Learning to Love Again After an Affair – The Gottman Institute
- AffairRecovery.com – First Steps Bootcamp
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