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Strategies for Dealing with Infidelity-Related Triggers
Now that we have defined what emotional triggers are, and specifically within the context of infidelity, let’s talk more about how to navigate them. The following are steps couples can take to manage these moments effectively.
1 – Recognize what is going on
It is important you can notice when you are beginning to experience a flood of painful emotions associated with the infidelity. This can be brought on by a host of things: an intrusive thought, a song on the radio, or driving through a certain part of town, just to name a few. When you recognize the flood, be compassionate with yourself. Often, our first response is to get frustrated with our heart and what we are feeling. Instead, being gentle with yourself and accepting what you feel is the way forward.
Don’t point out that your spouse is triggered or flooding. Instead, take all your energy and focus it on accepting that you feel shame, anger and other emotions as a result of the decisions you have made. Don’t try avoiding feeling these emotions by managing your spouse’s pain (trying to get your spouse to not feel difficult emotions); this is not true compassion. Instead, let your spouse know you are here and want to hear anything they want to tell you. This will be hard, but them feeling that you truly care and are willing to be with them in their hurt is an important part in this journey.
2 – Determine What You Are Reacting To
Try to determine if you are reacting to something that is a current threat (spouse is hiding their cell phone, becoming hostile, attempting to make you feel guilty for hurting) or if you are responding to a memory of what has been done to hurt you (seeing someone with the same name as the affair partner or hearing about the spouse of a friend struggling with porn).
- Am I reacting because the information disclosed has left “holes” leading to an inability to make sense of things, or am I reacting to the loss of connection with my spouse. Again, you are trying to make sense of what has happened. There may be times additional information is needed to fill in the gaps of your understanding. You will also be very sensitive to the level of connection you feel with your spouse. You are needing to feel cared for and understood.
How is your spouse’s pain tapping into yours? Your spouse’s hurting will touch on your hurt, as it is your actions which did the damage. Accept this reality; don’t try to avoid it.
- Am I feeling shame or guilt? If you are getting angry, there is a good chance shame and guilt are underneath the surface.
- Am I being unsafe or deceptive in any way? In other words, am I getting defensive, combative or manipulative in an effort to avoid my own shame and guilt?
3 – Ask for what you need
Determine what would be helpful. Do you need to talk to your spouse, do you need time by yourself, do you need to take a walk, call a friend? Give yourself permission to say what you need and then act on it.
Listen and respond to what your spouse needs with compassion. This includes answering questions which you have previously discussed or walking back through important moments of the infidelity. Understand this is not your spouse being unforgiving or vengeful, it is necessary and normal for healing from significant emotional hurts.
4 – If you choose to talk
Resist the urge to try to get your spouse to understand your pain by threatening to leave, end the marriage, or by saying you should go be unfaithful. While these provided temporary relief, they do great damage to you and your mate. In the end, you will have to go back again and again to this type of rage, and it will never be enough.
Saying “I am hurting so badly,” is much more powerful than, “I should go out and have an affair so you can know what it feels like.”
If they begin talking about their pain, don’t respond with “I’m sorry” or “I wish I had not done that.” When we focus on our sorrow by making those statements, we are handing our spouse a responsibility. “Hey, I know you are hurting, but could you acknowledge that I am sorry.” This may not be what you mean, but it is often what is heard. Instead, reflecting back to your spouse the emotions they are sharing with you in your own words is helpful. You can also let them know they did not deserve how you hurt them and you care about their pain.
Finally – Be grateful for the blow-ups. – No, I am not kidding!
- The blow-ups cause us to look at what is happening in ourselves and in the relationship. They make us face what is really going in our lives and do something about it.
- They are a cleansing process, one in which you can expect to find more junk to clear out than you expected, but don’t get discouraged. You are cleaning out the wounds, allowing complete healing to occur.
- The alternative is to live with ongoing pain, and distance, always reminded of the past.
- When we move from a mindset of asking, “Why do I have to?” to “What do I need to do?” we can begin to do what is needed to move into the next level in our healing journey.
When you experience triggers caused by an affair, it may seem like the pain will never end, but it will, and out of that, something new and exciting can be created.
- Hertlein, K. M. (2011). Therapeutic dilemmas in treating Internet infidelity. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 39(2), 162-173.
- Snyder, D. K., Balderrama-Durbin, C., & Fissette, C. L. (2012). Treating infidelity and comorbid depression: A case study involving military deployment. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 1(3), 213.
- Roberts, T. W., & Koval, J. V. (2002). Applying brain research to couple therapy: Emotional restructuring. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 2(1), 1-13.
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