Relationship Connection: How to live after discovering your spouse’s secret world

© Woman Image / Author: Bradley Gordon/ Flickr user: bradleygee/ CC-BY-SA-2.0

OPINION – In Lewis Carroll’s story “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the protagonist of the story, Alice, finds herself in a distorted world where big things are now small and small things are now big. As she tries to make sense of all of these bizarre changes, she interacts with a caterpillar that asks her about her identity. She replies: “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present.” Alice continues rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then …”

Discovering the secret life of your spouse changes your understanding of your life so profoundly that, like Alice, you hardly know or trust anything you thought was true about yourself or your relationship story with this other person.

For some, this discovery overtakes them like a nuclear blast that goes off on a calm morning, just when they thought things couldn’t be better. For others, it’s a slow realization that starts out with finding out little pieces here and there, wondering, suspecting, asking, and eventually putting everything together.

Regardless of how you discover their secret life, both experiences – sudden or a slow dawning – erode your ability to organize and trust your judgment. You think you’re crazy. Your body becomes activated with anxiety, tension, and even nausea. You know you’re not crazy, but still you think you’re crazy because you feel crazy. Even thinking that makes you feel even crazier. The spinning is almost too much to take.

You aren’t crazy. You’ve just been lied to, which now creates the tremendous burden of trying to synthesize new information with a story you thought had already been written. Even though you didn’t ask for this (who would?), please allow me to show you a few guideposts to help you get your bearings so you can find your way back to clarity and the truth about you and your situation.

Stop moving for a moment

The best thing you can do is stop moving so you can get your bearings. This isn’t the same as sitting down and giving up. This is about stopping your forward movement long enough to take in your present situation so you can regain your sense of direction.

Sometimes the movement is external and shows up as busyness, distraction, numbing addictive behaviors through the use of food, shopping, social media, television, et cetera. Sometimes the movement is internal storms of panic and chaos, even though on the outside you appear still and motionless. Regardless of how it manifests for you, being still and getting your bearings will make all the difference.

This is not a one-time event of stopping to find peace. It’s a new ritual you’re creating on a daily basis to give you the strength you need to reclaim your voice, your emotions, your brain, and your heart. It’s also something you can do each time you discover new information or get activated in your betrayal trauma throughout your recovery journey.

Now that you’ve stopped, what should you do? I recommend you practice some of the mindfulness exercises outlined by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

You are physically safe right now and don’t need to do anything physically to protect yourself. (If you are not physically safe, that is a different discussion for a different column; in short, you need to remove yourself to a safe place before you can assess and act going forward, you may need help and should not hesitate to ask for it.)

When you’re activated by the trauma of betrayal, you can’t think clearly to know how to move forward. So slow down and you will make better decisions.

Call for help

It’s not enough to calm your body, mind, and emotions by being aware of your present situation. Because you’re disoriented, you have to call for help. The sooner you can get help, the sooner you’ll find your bearings.

Chances are, you know someone who has already been down this road. Attending a 12-step meeting, finding an online community of support, attending a recovery program, talking to a licensed counselor who specializes in betrayal trauma, calling your pastor or church leader, opening up to a family member, or confiding in a friend.

You don’t need to sort out the details at this stage. You only need to know someone can see your pain and stay with you on this journey.

Trust your markers

Betrayal trauma uproots virtually everything you thought you believed and understood. Anna Fels wrote a descriptive essay for the New York Times called “Great Betrayals,” in which she outlined what it’s like for the betrayed party upon discovering a secret life of a loved one. She writes:

For the people who have been lied to, something … pervasive and disturbing occurs. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. Memories are now suspect. 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. Understandably, some feel cynical if not downright paranoid. How can they know what is real going forward?

A lost hiker looks for markers that help him navigate when he’s disoriented. In the same way that stars, mountains, and other markers never move from their place, your life also includes things that will never move and that can help you reorient yourself.

There are dozens of other markers that don’t move and will help you regain a sense of stability and trust. The sooner you can connect to these stable markers, the sooner you can have the experience that not everything has moved in your life and you can begin finding your way forward.

Here are a few examples of markers my clients have shared with me over the years:

  • Nature
  • Children
  • Music
  • Scriptures
  • God
  • Trusted friends
  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Journal

Connecting to your markers will remind you that not everything in your life is a lie. They will give you much needed respite from the journey of learning and believing the truth about yourself, your spouse, and your life.

Recovery is not a linear process that goes from dark to light in a neat and orderly pattern. Instead, you will be thrust back into darkness and confusion several times throughout the coming weeks and months. Although this forecast isn’t pleasant, know that every time you work through these steps, your ability to move from confusion to clarity improves. Eventually, you will have enough clarity to know where you are, who you are, and what you need to do to act in the best interest of yourself and those you love.

Related posts

Geoff will be holding a 2-day couples workshop on April 25-26 to help couples deepen their connection and strengthen their marriages in a fun and interactive setting. This workshop is limited to 10 couples.

hold-me-tight-book

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 solely his and not those of St. George News.

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

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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16 Comments

  • johnson April 9, 2014 at 6:34 am

    The betrayal I experienced in StG are these Mormons who acted or pretended to be my friends backstabbing me and lying to me. I don’t think I can ever trust a Mormon again.

    • Gunther April 9, 2014 at 7:28 am

      Sorry Johnson, this story is about couples and spouse’s. Your fabricated story and lame attempt at trolling is not believable. But, if making up stories makes you feel better then fire away.

      • Bub April 9, 2014 at 9:52 am

        oh come on now. you know he’s telling it like it is 😀

      • Johnson April 9, 2014 at 10:41 pm

        You are in denial about the facts in the way mormons treat non-mormons around here. Use them, but don’t stand up for them, right?

        • theclimb April 10, 2014 at 9:49 am

          Again, I’ll second @Gunther: This article has no reference to Mormons, or Catholics, or Blacks, or whites, or greens….it is specifically, and ENTIRELY about couples and betrayals inside of marriage. You may have a valid point but save it for the right forum.

    • Jacer April 13, 2014 at 5:10 pm

      Really Johnson??! That is like saying you would never trust a Catholic because of a pedophile minded Arc Bishop. Or a Latino because of the drug issues in Mexico. I am thinking you are just a Mormon hater. Sad.

  • Aaron April 9, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Do you have examples? This was super vague. “Spouse secret life” could be replaced with “they don’t make your favourite ice cream anymore” “your dog doesn’t like playing fetch” or “the Lannisters killed off king Robb”

    • Bub April 9, 2014 at 9:46 am

      Yeah, what the heck is this author even talking about… pffffffffffffffffff

  • Johnson April 9, 2014 at 8:42 am

    My experiences are still examples of betrayal. People who are adept with lying, using and backstabbing would make terrible partners in a relationship. Not only would they have the same mistrustful behavior, they probably would hide their true nature. You’ve heard stories about someone finding out about a secret affair or having a secretive second life (someone married being secretively gay or having a pornography addiction)? Well, that’s what I think you should expect from the backstabbers, liars, users who have no moral character of any value. They are only concerned about themselves and their outward images; there is nothing inside of value.

    • theclimb April 10, 2014 at 9:51 am

      Johnson, again, I’ll second @Gunther: This article has no reference to Mormons, or Catholics, or Blacks, or whites, or greens….it is specifically, and ENTIRELY about couples and betrayals inside of marriage. You may have a valid point but save it for the right forum.

      And being betrayed by people/neighbors/friends has NO COMPARISON to spousal betrayal. And I’m speaking as THE ONE WHO COMMITTED THE BETRAYAL! Get a grip, and save your hatred for another forum.

  • JOSH DALTON April 9, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Should have squashed the secrets before you got married.

  • hilde April 9, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Aaron if you would have scrolled down and read the whole story you wouldn’t have to ask…..I been there with someone very dear to me and I hope and pray they can make it thru all that pain……

  • Big R. Johnsen April 9, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    I’m sure that everyone looking at mr Johnson can tell there is a problem with his ability to stand up face the facts that he is a problem. I have met a lot of good people here and some that are from the large Johnson family that are reared here all wonderful people that have never stuck me from behind or lied with me. Allways treated with with respect and kindness. So as I said at first stand up mr Johnson add to the solution as for whats in your mind about getting stabbed in the back and the a gay remark could mean only one thing you like to recieve then turn it onto some one else and then blame any smaller group than you, we know there is a lot of Johnson’s in the world

  • Regular Dude April 9, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    With the come-ons and possible affairs with married women here, I wonder who has the most secrets, the men or the women?

  • becky April 10, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Clearly the people who are making negative comments have never gone through anything like being lied to in their relationship. Religion HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT! People in church and out of church make bad choices! There are a lot of factors that change in a relationship…to say things like you should have found out before you married is ridiculous! Lots of factors affect people in many different ways. Things like crazy drug addicted families, health problems, abuse, and drug/alcohol use. I have been
    through A LOT in the time I have been married and I too have been lied to about a secret life. The one major thing I took from Geoff is that it is not my fault my husband made poor choices. They were his choices and his choices alone. I used to blame myself for what he was doing which A LOT of people do! Just remember it is NOT your fault they have done what they did! Their program is a really great one to go through after you realize things have been hidden from you for a long time.

  • JAR April 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    If you have problems with a loved one, maybe the problem is you.
    Take Life Star up with their commercial, pay the retainer, then go find a good job and enjoy the line dancing music. (you owe me nothing for this non-professional advice).

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