So what happens when infidelity has occurred in your coupling? Most people will experience symptoms that mirror the symptoms of grief. You will feel shock and disbelief. These may be followed by profound sadness or intense anger. This can be the most traumatic and damaging event in a committed relationship.
A barrage of questions may flood the mind. Can I stay here? How could he/she do this to me? How could I not know? Is the relationship over? Can we heal from this? I thought he/she loved me!
Infidelity may take several forms. Financial infidelity can be very damaging, when one partner hides spending practices. We usually think of infidelity in the context of sexual behavior, when a partner has had an extramarital affair.
Of course there are degrees to this behavior. One may have an emotional affair. This may develop into an overtly sexual encounter or series of events. Addiction can also be present when one partner, even before the relationship begins, has started down a path of escalating behaviors. Pornography, random hook-ups, driving to the big city for a prostitute and the serial relationships of the traveling executive can be evidence of sexual addiction.
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Betrayal defines the experience of the partner. People cope with betrayal in different ways. Some may try to believe the offending partner’s lies. They may try to tolerate or normalize the behavior. Some doubt themselves and begin to second-guess their reality or culpability.
The unfaithful partner has been hiding their shame or has been in denial of the behavior. Once they confess, the defenses arise immediately. Shame can also motivate confession but could just as easily hinder the process. Hopefully, the offending partner can fully disclose their behavior (and I would suggest this happen in the presence of a helping professional).
But once the shock wears off and the internal bargaining has failed, the victim is left with the awful feelings of betrayal. Shame and confusion dominate. The victim may question their body image or wonder how they pushed the offender to this behavior. They may feel paralyzed, or worse — they may feel obligated to try to win their partner back into the committed relationship. The couple may experience sexual dysfunction or aversion.
Studies show that intimate partner betrayal may be more difficult to process than other traumatic experiences. The psychological damage may be akin to one who has been victimized by sexual abuse or molestation. The secrecy and willing decisions accrue damage that builds a residue that is difficult to wash off. The very ones who we hope are loving and protecting us have caused the hurt and humiliation.
One’s whole sense of safety and stability becomes weakened. Finally we lose connection. This suffering can seem hopeless and overwhelming.
The experience can be overwhelming, but I am always hopeful about the strength of a committed relationship. If both partners can be honest and work through their feelings, trust can grow. If both partners can tolerate their own pain and validate the other person’s healing process, love will emerge. Ultimately, we have to get past the shame and offer a healing hand of forgiveness.