Relationship Connection: I keep having flashbacks about my husband’s affair

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Question

I caught my husband in an affair a year ago and we’ve been working through it. I’ve chosen to stay married and we’re both working in counseling to heal. However, I keep having thoughts about my husband’s affair and I want to bring it up, but I feel I’m just going to make things worse.

He’s very patient with me and doesn’t get angry at me for wanting to talk about it. I’m just tired of how much it still comes up in my thoughts and I feel like it’s just always there. I don’t want to keep dragging us down by talking about it, especially when he’s doing his best.

Since his affair, he’s been open and willing to fix things. We’re healing, but I don’t see these memories and feelings going away anytime soon. Am I doing something wrong?

Answer

What you’re experiencing is completely normal in the aftermath of a betrayal. It’s a trauma response; much like the reactions soldiers or victims of natural disasters have in the months and years following their overwhelming experiences. Even though you weren’t in immediate physical danger of losing your life, your body has a similar response to the discovery of your husband’s affair. Your life, as you thought you knew it, flashed before your eyes. This sudden reversal of your reality is jarring and makes it hard to navigate the world you thought you understood. Even though the risk of death from disease contracted from a sexually transmitted disease is a reality of having a sexual affair, this type of physical danger is different than the immediate danger of war or natural disasters.

Because the new reality doesn’t match the promises made in your marriage, your brain goes through an exhaustive sorting process of trying to figure out what happened, how it could have happened and what will happen. There are so many unanswered questions. Psychiatrist Anna Fels described this process in a 2013 New York Times commentary:

Discoveries of such secrets typically bring on tumultuous crises. Ironically, however, in my clinical experience, it is often the person who lied or cheated who has the easier time. People who transgressed might feel self-loathing, regret or shame. But they have the possibility of change going forward, and their sense of their own narrative, problematic though it may be, is intact. They knew all along what they were doing and made their own decisions. They may have made bad choices, but at least those were their own and under their control. Now they can make new, better choices.

But for the people who have been lied to, something more pervasive and disturbing occurs. They castigate themselves about why they didn’t suspect what was going on. The emotions they feel, while seemingly more benign than those of the perpetrator, may in the long run be more corrosive: humiliation, embarrassment, a sense of having been naïve or blind, alienation from those who knew the truth all along and, worst of all, bitterness.

Insidiously, the new information disrupts their sense of their own past, undermining the veracity of their personal history. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. Memories are now suspect: what was really going on that day? Why did the spouse suddenly buy a second phone ‘for work’ several years ago? Did a friend know the truth even as they vacationed together? Compulsively going over past events in light of their recently acquired (and unwelcome) knowledge, such patients struggle to integrate the new version of reality.

For many people, this discrediting of their experience is hard to accept. It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new “true” version on the other. But putting a story together about this kind of disjunctive past can be arduous.

Part of the reason this processing is so difficult is because the trauma from the betrayal is stored deeply in the body to protect you from further harm. It’s stored in the same area where breathing, heart rate and other automatic functions originate. These are all designed to keep us safe and alive. When something reminds you of the betrayal, your body responds to protect you. Your breathing changes, your heart rate increases and you lose your ability to think beyond the present moment. Even though there isn’t a physical threat to escape, your body is doing what it’s designed to do; protect you.

These moments can be triggered by direct reminders of the affair or even something ordinary, like a moment feeling of powerlessness. The way you handle these triggers will, in large part, determine how well you heal from his affair. I encourage you to use these triggers as an opportunity to seek support from your husband and others who know your story. Don’t hold them in and shove them into an emotional corner. Instead, talk about what feelings and thoughts surfaced. You’ll discover needs that your husband and others can help meet.

Also, it can be helpful for your husband to work on being proactive by reassuring you on a regular basis before you get triggered. For example, if you’re heading into a situation where there will be potential reminders of the affair (time of year, a location, etc.), then your husband can anticipate this and ask you what you need and check on your emotional well-being. Instead of both hunkering down to get through these moments, use them as an opportunity to draw closer to one another.

You have a husband who is accountable and wants to help you heal. Don’t prevent him from doing the very thing he’s instinctively doing to create a better marriage. Honor the strong emotions that come up instead of trying to shove them out of the way. Your body is reminding you that you need safety and connection. Your husband wants to be that guy for you, so allow these surprising and difficult moments to turn you toward each other.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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11 Comments

  • Sapphire November 29, 2017 at 9:05 am

    You had every right to be hurt and angry. This will always be a bad memory and you have to accept that. Acceptance of the pain it caused releases you from its power. A good technical answer was provided, but honestly, he is going to get bored and start tuning out if you keep bringing this up. Women can talk a thing to death and men tend to flatline if a solution can’t be made quickly. What’s the point of trying to be better if your spouse can’t get over it? You made the choice to stay with him, which he interprets as to forgive him and move on, not to punish him for the rest of your lives. If you want or need to vent, do it in an online journal that no one knows about but you, and dump your poison there as well as the good things he is doing to make this better. Then take a deep breath and get back to building your relationship instead of marinating in the past.

  • comments November 29, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Sorry to say, but… once a cheater always a cheater. You know that your guy is capable of sneaking around on you, so for your own peace of mind you’ll have to keep him on a short leash. By that, I mean monitoring his phone, emails, keeping track of where he goes, etc. You’ll have to decide if it’s all even worth it.

    • redrock4 November 29, 2017 at 12:32 pm

      The author of the article makes some good points that will help you heal. But the comment above is silly and wrong. We don’t fix trust issues by turning into a private investigator and violating the privacy of our spouse. That kind of behavior will make you more paranoid and less healthy – and ultimately cause more problems.

    • comments November 29, 2017 at 1:44 pm

      Think of a spouse that cheats as a predator who got its first taste of fresh meat. It’s only a matter of time before it goes hunting for more. It can’t help it because that’s its nature.

      sexual infidelity may be the best reason to end a marriage, or at least a close second to an abuse situation

      • PatriotLiberal November 29, 2017 at 1:57 pm

        Infidelity and abuse are homologous, IMO.

  • PatriotLiberal November 29, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    This is quite complicated. He destroyed any trust that you had both worked so hard to build up when he betrayed you. You have very right to be wary of him and his actions. Ronald Reagans “trust but verify” quote comes to mind here. At some point in time you have to take a step and trust that will do something. Follow up on that trust. Do what you have to do to do that. Im not saying STALK him or anything like comments comment above but “verify”. Ask him to give you passwords to emails and phones and things and share yours with him. Check them but only when you feel that you REALLY NEED TO! Allow him to check yours. It will take A LOT of time and effort but you will work past it, you will trust him again.

    Also, talk to him. Im not saying bring it up every day but If you feel like you really need to say something, say something.

  • jigsywinnietippy12 November 29, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    I have to agree with Comments here, ‘Once a cheater, always a cheater’, unfortunately. My advice to you is to dump him as soon as possible, and run away as fast as you can. It will never get any better. You may hope and think it will get better, but it will not. There are so many people in this world who are users and great pretenders. In the beginning it all seems so wonderful, but only a small percentage of married people have a real and lasting relationship. My best advice is to really try to get to know someone before you get married. (at least for a few years). Even then, there are no guarantees that it will work. (we can only hope). In reality a person does not have to get married, it’s not a requirement in this life!

  • Diana November 29, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Try talking to your husband about what needs to be fixed. Remember, communication is the key for building a healthy relationship and marriage. If that doesn’t work and he decides to continue with his affairs with the same person or a different one, then you need to move forward and take legal action.

  • ladybugavenger November 29, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    Divorce him! You’ll feel better, I promise.

    • Redbud November 30, 2017 at 1:31 am

      I will chime in that, yes, once a cheater always a cheater. That being said, since you’ve given him another chance, see how things go, but have a backup plan in case you need to bail. The sad truth is that when a spouse cheats, you will never, ever forget it! One thing you might want to try, is sit down with your spouse, and talk about the cheating. Before you start the conversation, you both mutually agree that ANY question can be asked, and comment can be made, and do not stop the conversation until are completely done with your questions. Do not turn it into an argument, and set aside your emotions as best you can. You need to agree that from this point onward, you will BOTH stop talking about it. Ultimately, you need to realize that there is no magic bullet to heal the cheating. Don’t expect to wake up one morning and say WOW, I am finally over it! It will never happen. You need to just be content with the fact that your relationship has permanently changed, and you just need to move forward by staying as positive as you can. DO keep an eye on him, but don’t make it obvious. Now, if he does end up cheating again or doing something else against your trust, then you need to BAIL and never look back! I would never forgive a spouse that cheated, so I give you KUDOS for at least attempting because you have more will power than I do!

  • mctrialsguy November 30, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    You need to start having flashbacks about your divorce!

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