Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Infidelity as Retrauma: Why some of us take longer to heal

Over the five years I've had this blog and the hundreds (thousands?) of letters I've received, I've noticed that though many of us experience the same emotions post-betrayal, we don't all heal equally. Put another way, some of us are harder hit by infidelity than others.
That's not to say any of us get off easy. Infidelity is excruciating. It is to say, however, that some of us are devastated. And others of us are absolutely crippled by it.
My own working theory is that, for those of us who brought certain wounds into our marriage, infidelity re-opens those wounds. And we all know that re-opened wounds take longer to heal.
In my case, having grown up with alcoholic parents in an emotionally unsafe home, marriage (specifically my husband) became my safe place. I believed that I'd created a safe zone in a highly unsafe world. I let my guard down. Whew.
And then...
I wasn't safe at all, I found out. The guy I thought had my back was cheating behind my back. And all those feelings I thought had been exorcised – my anxiety, my shame, my fear of abandonment, my deep deep hurt from all those broken promises – came back with a vengeance. I couldn't trust anyone, I deduced. But underneath it all was that childhood conviction that I wasn't worth loving. I wasn't enough.
Turns out my working theory is supported by some pretty smart people. Shirley Glass, who can be credited with writing the definitive guide to affairs, Not Just Friends, has this to say about it:
Individuals who did not develop basic trust during childhood are especially vulnerable to deception by a loved one. Infidelity brings back all of those childhood wounds for a person who was lied to or whose parents made promises they didn't keep. Those who were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused in previous relationships may be retraumatized when someone they have counted on betrays their trust and dependency. Judith Herman writes, "Trauma forces the survivor to relive all her earlier struggles.... Traumatic life events, like other misfortunes, are especially merciless to those who are already troubled."
Wow. And yeah.
We might have thought those wounds were healed but if we're so destroyed by infidelity that we immediately go the "we're not worthy" mindset, then we had just done a really good job of dressing those wounds up as healed.
Thanks to infidelity, they're once again exposed to us. And though they might have been healing, we might have been on our way to that magical place called "healed", infidelity rips them wide open and we're left, again, with evidence of our injury.
I had been in therapy. I thought I'd slain those particular dragons. Turns out, I'd kept the dragons at bay but there were very much alive. And at the first sign of a crack in my own armor, they were back, with their dragon eyes of judgement, and their dragon fire of shame and disgust.
The dragons, of course, are my own worst critics. The dragons, of course, are me.
My conversations with myself were more like indictments about everything I was doing wrong, from the careless remark I made at a cocktail party to the dust behind my refrigerator.
But I didn't recognize my own pain. I thought I'd healed.
I thought healed looked like a perfect marriage and well-behaved children and lots of friends and a busy social life. Add in a successful writing career to show the world how accomplished I was. Turns out "healed" looked an awful lot like perfection. And perfection, I've come to learn, looks an awful lot like a pretty band-aid over a festering wound of shame.
Perfection covered a need to prove to the world that "see, I am worthy! I am smart. I am pretty. I am successful." Thing is, if I'd actually believed those things, I wouldn't have needed to prove it to anyone.
There are gifts in betrayal, if we're willing to look for them. For me, the retrauma of infidelity revealed just how shaky my sense of worth was – a worth based on achievement. Consequently, learning how to be kind to myself, which was nothing I'd ever allowed myself before, has transformed me.
I now know that healed is compassion and kindness and lack of judgement. Healed is about giving myself permission to be who I am, flaws and all. More than that, it's about giving everyone else permission too. It's knowing that I'll never be fully healed and that's okay because none of us are.
It's about forgiveness. Of those who've hurt me. But mostly, it's about forgiveness of myself.
Which is pretty much the same thing.


  1. This is one of my favorite posts yet, and I am finally compelled to write. I have heard the same things over and over since becoming a betrayed spouse: be kind to yourself, make yourself happy, etc. I get it, but I just don't get how. I am 3 months past D-day after discovering my husband's EA with a co-worker. As far as I know, it never progressed to the point where they admitted feelings for each other, but they did manage to talk on the phone every work day, multiple times a day, sometimes for hours, and on the occasionally weekend (usually while on family vacas, thank for that one, dear hubby). This went on for well over a year and a half. I thank the Lord that she lives 3 hours away, who knows how things would have progressed otherwise. He was my harbor, my safe place. And although I knew, after 14 years of marriage and two kids, we had hit a slump, I always knew I would never have to worry about him cheating on me. He wasn't that kind of guy, you know? Surprise on me!! I know that although we had been having trouble communicating/bonding amidst the daily chores of life, it was not my fault he chose to find it somewhere else. But the reality of it is, it kinda is my fault. I wasn't making our marriage a priority, or him. I put too many expectations on him on regards too my own self worth. I saw the signs everywhere and chose to ignore them, mostly because I trusted him and that he would always be there. The self doubt and insecurities I have now are simply overwhelming, far more overwhelming than those "childhood issues". Now I feel like all those insecurities have just been proven true. So how do you move on, and find that inner peace within yourself? And what's so wrong with expecting someone to make you happy anyway? How do you begin to slay those dragons?? Bless you for sharing your story Elle, and for helping the rest of us see that there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

    1. Broken,
      Believing those insecurities have been proven true indicates that you still think his betrayal was about you. It wasn't.
      You can't be perfect. You can never be exactly "right" to stop another person from cheating. Whether they will or won't has everything to do with the stories they're telling themselves and a willingness to cross the line.
      That's not to say that your complacency about your marriage didn't contribute to an environment of disappointment. It likely did. But you didn't cheat, did you? He did. He made that choice.
      It's important that each of take responsibility for what was going on in our marriage that led to a spouse feeling disconnected enough to be vulnerable to other options. If we choose to rebuild, it's really important to know where the weak spots were.
      But that's not the same as believing that his cheating was because there was something wrong with you. He cheated because there's something wrong with him. And that's HIS stuff to own up to and deal with.
      This is both of your chance to deal with a lot of a buried disappointment and feelings of unworthy. It's your chance to figure out just what "being kind to yourself" means. It's confusing when you've never seen it modelled. I remember thinking that being kind to myself seemed something like letting myself take baths -- it seemed that's what women were always talking about re. "self-care".
      I now know it's about respecting myself. It's about not silencing that part of myself that says "wait a minute. That's not what I want. Why am I agreeing to this?" Sometimes it's about being still with yourself long enough to even figure out what you want or don't want.
      Consider writing in a journal. Or meditating. It can be highly uncomfortable to just be alone with your thoughts when you've spent a lifetime quieting them or telling yourself they're not important.
      Get to know yourself. Go on walks alone. Cut pictures out of magazines that depict what you want your life to be (not the big houses, per se, but the feelings -- joy, peace, confidence). This will take time. But making friends with yourself is the best thing you'll ever do. It changes everything.


  2. It has been a year since my husband of 20 years decided to cheat. It was the single most traumatic event of my life. I have not gotten over it nor do I feel like I ever will. Reading your post made me realize that the wounds from growing up with an emotionally abusive father probably contributes to my pain. We are still together because I couldn't see throwing away my 20 year marriage, our family, our home, my life or what I thought was mine for a 2 month affair. I am struggling with craziness as the one year mark is on us. He has no contact with his affair partner and I don't understand why it is hitting me so hard.

    1. Leaning,
      You do know why it's hitting you so hard. Everything your emotionally abusive father said has come true, in your mind. You've likely internalized much of what he told you (I know I still hear my mother telling me I'm "selfish and don't care about anyone but myself" anytime I imagine giving myself something that I don't think I've "earned") so that you aren't even aware of it.
      What's more, this hits everyone hard, even the so-called emotionally healthy among us. A year isn't so long in terms of healing. And anti-versaries, as we call them, always affect us deeply -- reminding us, even subconsciously, of the pain.


  3. I love reading your blog, but this is the first time I have commented. You nailed this for me, every word. I recognized those feelings in myself almost right from the beginning: It's true! My mother was right! I really AM unworthy of love! Even my own husband doesn't think I am worth anything!

    In the three months since I learned of my husband's betrayal, my concious mind has been able to understand and accept that the affair was not my fault. I recognize that some of my feelings are a result of the re-wounding, leftover childhood trauma, and not only a response to my current situation. But my heart still goes to that dark place: I am not worthy. I am not enough. It's all my fault, becuase I am not perfect.

    Thanks for articulating what so many of us feel.

    1. Kris,
      If, at three months, you're able to understand intellectually that this isn't really about you, then you're doing great. Three months out, I could barely function.
      This recognition that you're re-experiencing childhood stuff is an important piece for you. And by examining it as an adult, with an adult's ability to suss out the bullshit, gives you the chance to put it to rest. You are worthy. You are enough. You always were.


  4. I agree completely. Growing up with a suicidal mother who was manic depressive and always told me "sorry wasn't good enough" (so naturally forgiveness isn't easy for me) my husbands ONS opened up a lot A LOT of old wounds for me (that I never got counseling for). But trying to see the bright side in everything (thanks to couples and individual counseling) we are both working through past hurts, hurts we did to each other, and becoming closer and closer each day. I still work on forgiveness and trust, but they will come as long as my husband keeps his end of the deal (which he has) :)

  5. Hi Elle and everyone. You may have already seen this. I got so much out of this piece and thought others might too.

    Have a great week :)

  6. Hi Elle, What to say! Great post. Infidelity is a big deal in married life. I don't know how easily one can cheat you, when your partner means everything to you!

  7. It's been 6 months since D-Day. Things are going OK....he has totally given up the porn & prostitutes. We have total transparency and has given me no reason to doubt his actions. We have stopped going to counselor however just because of $ and didn't feel it did anything we could not do. We have had great talks. No matter how good things get and how normal life is becoming after the trauma, in the still of the night, or the quiet of an afternoon, it just all comes to the front of my mind and the thought I still have is that I simply wasn't good enough. I was emotionally abused by my mother growing up (which I spent many years in counseling for) so I know this previous trauma adds to everything that goes wrong.
    One big concern I have is that I now have no interest in sex (it was great after D-Day for several months) and that scares me because could it lead him away again.
    I just don't know how to get it back. I'm confused :(

    1. Though you may not feel like your MC is helping, I would highly recommend IC for both of you.
      Though your spouse may be willing to stop his behavior and be transparent--Has he gotten to the root of why he was engaged in this behavior? It goes deeper and if he hasn't worked through these issues (and I think it takes years), then the real problem hasn't gone away. If there is a real concern that your struggling with sex is going to lead him down the escape of porn and hookers, then the problem is still there. The sex addiction is just a symptom of a deeper issue that takes years to heal.
      And if the trauma of your past is still coming up, it means that you still have more work to do.
      I know that while I didn't suffer neglect and abuse by my parents, they were emotionally disconnected and dysfunctional because of their own severe childhood traumas. The extreme low self-esteem I developed as a child, that feeling of not being good enough, definitely arose from childhood experiences and family dysfunction. I thought I got over it but I just buried it with minor "life successes" and looking okay to the outside world. D-day has uncovered the buried hurt once more. I know that this time, I don't want to bury it but I want to unpack it so it will be less likely to hurt me when pain and hurt rears its ugly head again.


  8. Infidelity can just add to the pile of hurts.

    The thing that is a silver lining ( although I would have far preferred to learn this elsewhere)- is that facing my spouse's infidelity and doing the work to heal from that finally let me authentically face the other issues ( emotionally abusive childhood, narcissistic mother, enabling father, golden child brother) and make good decisions regarding contact with disordered people.

    It means I was a giant mess, for a long time, in dealing with all of this stuff. But the work has been worth it, because I ended up in a place that was far healthier than the place I began. My marriage was not a bad marriage, and my spouse cheated because of what was wrong with him, but the changes I have made in all areas of my life, those are precious.

    1. I'm with you, Decorative! I refuse to say that infidelity was "good" for me or my marriage (damn near killed me!) but, like you, I can see that it, to some degree, forced me to deal with a lot of buried pain that I now feel free of. As a result, I'm living a more conscious, far more joyful life. Precious indeed.


  9. D-Day for me was March 7, 2014. Wounds are still fresh and I have had a rough past. Mother and Father emotionally detached and left me when I was 14. So I suffer with abandonment issues and have fought depression all my adult life. This affair my husband had, brought up all kinds of hurt and pain that I thought I had dealt with. The OW is his co-worker and he lies to me about talking to her. They are still friends and he thinks its ok. How can we work past this if he refuses to be honest with me? We have been in MC for 4 months now and he lies to the counselor. He lied about the affair until I could prove it. Then he tried to blame me. I have done everything for him. Supported him when he quit his job, supported him when he had to go out of town for training for another job, he had a lot of medical issues and almost died, I nursed him back to health. Bought him 2 vehicles, made him dinner every night, fixed the plumbing, mowed the grass....the list goes on...he did not have to lift a finger around the house. I asked him to have sex, he wouldn't, I asked him to go to marriage counseling ...he wouldn't. I was taking care of my sick father, who passed away in Oct., 2013. My husband was calling the OW while I was in grief counseling. He has been so angry and hateful towards me, he has thrown things at me in his rage and said horrible things to me. This affair went on for 2 1/2 years. Where was I? I have always been independent and proud of what I had overcome, this has turned me into such a helpless little girl....I have tried so hard to combat these feelings.....I just told him tonight I did not care if he talked to her, if he is friends with her....I don't care and I don't know if that is a bad thing? Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy on a rollercoaster of emotions....I just want this to be over...the pain, the hurt, and the anger....I know we all heal differently....I just pray that I can see myself past this and be as confident as the rest of the women on here...God bless you all and I pray that you can heal and be a better you!

    1. I'm so sorry for what you're going through and for everyone you've already gone through. Nobody deserves what you've had to endure.
      I want you to consider, however, that your husband's affair is a bucket of cold water dumped on your head. Painful? Hell, yeah. But a chance to wake up to the reality of your life. And that reality is that you're giving everything you possibly can to a man who doesn't value you.
      It's time to change that.
      Your task, in the wake of his abuse, is to start treating yourself exactly as you wished he always treated you. Kindly, with compassion and respect. Do things for yourself that you wish others had done for you. Give yourself things (without racking up a VISA bill) that you wish others would give you. Maybe that's a good book, or a night with popcorn and a movie...whatever. Learn to be kind to yourself.
      I suspect, given your crappy parents, you've learned that love must be earned. By doing things for people. By giving them things. By making their lives easy so they don't leave you.
      But you deserve love simply because you exist. You deserve kindness because you're a good person. But it absolutely has to start with giving it to yourself. It will feel weird. It will feel "selfish". It isn't. It's the healthiest thing you can do for yourself.
      And, as you slowly treat yourself as worthy, you'll begin to insist on respect from those around you. You'll begin to recognize your husband's abuse for the toxic nonsense that it is and you won't endure it.
      You can't change him. But you can change yourself into someone who knows she's worthy of a whole lot better than what he's been dishing out.
      Frankly, I think your "crazy" notion of not caring if he talks to her might just be a tiny voice of sanity that recognizes she can have him...and all the nonsense he brings with him. Maybe that's the voice you should be listening to.
      I have a feeling that if you truly cut him loose, he'd panic. But that's his problem.
      Yours is to act loving toward yourself, even if you don't quite believe yourself yet. Fake it til you make it, as my therapist used to say.
      The pain will dissipate with time (and therapy). The anger, used appropriately, is a good way to remind yourself that you don't deserve this.
      And the confidence? That comes once you truly understand that you have saved yourself...and that you are worth every bit of effort it took.

  10. You wrote this post about the same day that I decided to finally plant something in the garden that I'd had for about a week. Decided I needed to do something enjoyable since I was still freshly wounded from D-Day on April 10. But I hit a rock. A big one. No matter what I did, the rock would not budge. And all of a sudden I was furious; the rock turned into all my failed relationships over my entire life. I relived every single one while stabbing at the ground around the rock. I sobbed, cried, and hated that rock. It wouldn't go away. I exhausted myself. It started raining, and I had to leave it for another day, but the rain seemed to wash away my anger. It was so strange. When I had a bit of perspective a couple of days later, I realized the rock was going to stay there- I couldn't get it out- but the plant would probably be ok and grow over it. When I look at that plant now, I think about my personal rock and know that I'll also be able to grow over it. It was such a cathartic experience. We all have buried rocks, and some of us can exorcise them, some of us have to live with them and grow over them. Strange what betrayal does to us- we think we're ok, but then we discover we're not and we have to decide how to handle it.

    1. Ah yes... betrayal: the gift that keeps on giving. :)
      I'm fascinated that you were able to see a metaphor in this rock that was standing in the way of you easily planting a garden. The rock was neither good or bad. It's just a rock. It's our perception that makes all the difference. When we look at something (our spouse, our inability to heal more quickly, the people around us...) as standing in our way, we're helpless. We've handed over our power. But when we recognize that the only thing we can change is our perception, then everything changes. The rock becomes something we can either work around...or accept.
      Thanks so much for sharing this.

  11. How true that post was... I feel like every vulnerablity and hurt inflicted upon me over my 50 years on earth has been reopened also.... It's like my body is being scraped along the ground... being scratched to bits.... pain! I will never trust anyone above myself again.... I promise myself to take care of myself forever more... I am worth it.... I keep telling myself that... I am worth it... I accept myself flaws and all. Thanks for sharing your wisdom... it's such a big help. x

    1. mirken,
      I hear ya, sister! But I'm so glad you've found your way to a place of kindness toward yourself. There will be days you let yourself down. Days when the critics are louder than your voice of compassion. But notice that. And when you do, get back to that place of kindness.



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