The pain caused by a partner’s unfaithfulness is probably one of the worst kinds of pain possible to experience…certainly it is one of the worst that can dealt with in the context of your marriage or relationship. It hits like an overwhelming wave in the Gulf just before a storm. Sometimes the pain is expected, as when you are talking about the affair and you know the information is going to be painful, and sometimes it knocks you down, seemingly from out of nowhere.
One of the problems with pain is that…well…it hurts, so, naturally we want to make it stop! We want to stop feeling it so frequently we try to avoid it or mask it. What we don’t think of very often is the fact that the pain is there for a purpose. The pain is helping our shocked brain to process and accept the fact that our partner – the person we thought we could trust most and the person we believed would not hurt us – has betrayed us in the worst way. The acceptance of that fact is so difficult that it takes a while for our brain to be able to absorb the trauma so pain is one of the ways our brain slows down the absorption.
So, if we HAVE to go through it to heal, how do we deal with it? Here are seven suggestions for ways to 1) cope with the waves of pain when they threaten to knock you to your knees and 2) set the stage for being better prepared when those waves come.
Write, Write, Write. Journaling your thoughts and fears and questions is an excellent way to help your brain work through all the questions that are flooding your brain. Journaling actually is helpful at the time that the waves hit and also helps future waves to be less intense and long-lasting. There is a good reason for this. When we are focusing our thoughts enough to write, our brain senses that we are trying to “fix the problem” and it relaxes and isn’t as intent on reminding us that we have a “problem to fix.” Thankfully, the process of journaling over time helps us to process the shock, come to a place of acceptance and lessen the pain. When journaling, people frequently find that they sense themselves settling and their anxiousness losing its hold. Many of my clients tell me that their journal becomes their best friend!
Lean on your support system. Frequently, when someone finds their spouse/significant other has betrayed them, their first reaction is to withdraw and stay away from people. It is a natural inclination and something that we need work against. Even though it is not advisable to tell everyone you know what is happening in your relationship, it is extremely important to spend time with friends and family who you know to be supportive. While healing from betrayal, it is overwhelmingly common to question everything about yourself. You need to be around people who like you and believe in you…and you need to be around them frequently. Additionally, you need to be around people who make you laugh! This is definitely the time to have those lunches with friends and chats during breaks at work. If you do not have an adequate support system…and not everyone does…please find a counselor or talk to your pastor, priest or rabbi. Additional sources of connection can be found at places like book clubs, small groups or studies at your church, gyms, neighborhood walking or cycling groups, political groups or hobby clubs. One note of caution: be careful about what you tell members of your family about the affair. Although family members can be very sympathetic, their involvement can cause problems later if you decide to work to heal your marriage. Talk to your counselor about using family members for support following the discovery of an affair.
Schedule your pain. Really? Are you serious? Yes, I am! All during the day, you probably find your mind flashing to painful thoughts. What did he say to her? Did she talk to him about me? Is she more fun than I? Did they dance together? How could she tell me she loves me while she was talking to him? These thoughts can be like torture sometimes. At the beginning of the day start a list. I don’t care if it is on the back of an old envelope, on your list app on your phone or on an index card, just keep the paper or phone where you can easily add to it through the day. Additionally, plan a time later in the day, when you can read over this list and give it the attention it needs. After dinner…before a bath…when the kids are bathing…the time doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have a time scheduled and you are allowing yourself time to think through these things IF YOU WANT TO. Interestingly enough, over 90% of my clients decide they don’t need to go through the list when the appointed time comes. The important thing is that they allowed themselves to make that choice.
This is how it works: When the painful thought comes, take out the list, jot down just enough of the thought that later you will know what you meant, then tell yourself that you will think about this at the scheduled time. When the scheduled time comes, decide if you want to go over the list. If you don’t, then don’t. If you do, then read over each item, think about it and journal your thoughts about the thought or question.
This should make it easier to manage the thoughts coming throughout the day. Does it mean that you will not have pain during the day? Oh, how I wish we could manage pain this easily, however, most find that this habit helps them to feel more in control of the waves of pain and less at its mercy.
Practice Mindfulness. Think about it. The vast majority of your painful thoughts revolve around something that happened in the past (the affair, the deception) and your fears of the future (Will we stay together? Do I WANT to stay together? How do I know this won’t happen again?). The practice of mindfulness trains and strengthens our brain to better be able to focus on where we are right now. Right now, at this very moment, it is likely that no one is hurting you. This doesn’t negate the importance of dealing with what has happened in the past or with the decisions that must be made for the future, but it puts us more in control of how we manage the pain, how we make decisions for the future and helps us to experience more peace in the present moments. If you are new to mindfulness this link will help you get started. I frequently teach Mindfulness to my clients and find it to be extremely beneficial in my own life.
Intentionally plan something nice for yourself every day. What has happened to you has injured your heart and soul, so you are reeling from the pain of that injury. One of the most helpful things you can do for yourself because of its effect in the short term AND the long term is to intentionally, purposefully, do nice things for yourself regularly. Those things don’t have to be huge…picking up a small bouquet of flowers for yourself at the grocery store, stepping outside during your break at work and taking a short walk, getting that manicure or pedicure that you’ve been putting off, stopping by Barnes & Nobles on the way home from work and browsing through the clearance book or stopping at the beach and taking a peaceful walk. The point is not WHAT you pick, but that you pick SOMETHING that feels good to you. When we create one of those “ahhh….” moments for ourselves our brains release a small amount of dopamine, which tells our brain that something pleasant is happening for us. This has the effect of taking an aspirin for a headache. In the long term, it helps us internalize the fact that we are capable and helps us get in the habit of bringing joy to our lives.
Feed your soul. We are all a combination of body, mind and spirit. How do you feed your spirit? Do you pray? Do you read favorite passages in your Bible? Do you listen to encouraging music? Do you gather with others of your faith at your church or synagogue? Now is the time to lean on your faith and to take comfort in the fact that this experience has not caught God off guard. He is ready to provide comfort and guidance and will carry you through this difficult time. You will likely find it helpful if you combine this time with your journaling time. Write down the special passages/songs/messages that bring you comfort. Many people find comfort from actually writing their own prayers.
Keep a gratitude list. This is a simple practice and a wonderful habit for the rest of your life. When we are dealing with something as painful as an affair and our mind is swirling with all the thoughts surrounding what has happened, we can find ourselves seeing the world in an unbalanced fashion…by that I mean, we spend a lot of time thinking about painful, negative things and our minds begin to fail to notice the wonderful things that we are still surrounded by. If you are keeping a journal, simply turn to the last page and begin working your way to the middle. If you are not journaling, start a small notebook. Either way, all you do is, at the end of your day, write down the date and a list of three things that you are grateful for that you experienced during that day…you found a close parking place during a torrential rain storm, you noticed that your gardenia bush is laden with sweet smelling blossoms, your children didn’t argue in the car this morning…things that you can be thankful for. Take a moment and enjoy the beauty of those things. With time, you should find that you are looking for these positive things during the day, and when THAT happens, you will be helping yourself find, recognize and feel the joy and beauty that the days really do still contain.