After the Affair: How Infidelity Can Impact Behaviour in Intimate Relationships

After the Affair: How Infidelity Can Impact Behaviour in Intimate Relationships

Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming, but we can choose which ones to surf. – Jonatan Mårtensson

This post goes out to the couples experiencing the aftermath of infidelity. It aims to support you understand and navigate the cycle of behaviour following the infidelity discovery. Infidelity can feel like the world is exploding around you and imploding within you.

There is a common cycle that often happens after the storm and it can be confusing! Here is what I often find shows up in couples post infidelity:

Stage 1: The Discovery

In this stage, the discovery happens and the couple is at an all time low. Often there is anger, heartbreak, guilt, shame and sorrow. If you are reading this post, you may know this feeling right now or in the past. No surprises here, it is painful!

Stage 2: Unexpected & Significantly Increased Connection/Sex/Communication

It is common to lean into each other harder than ever after the initial discovery – the couple usually experiences more sex, more communication and more intimacy than ever before. Why? Often this is the result of a newly formed anxious attachment from the trust being eroded. The couples senses the fear of loss and innately makes moves to get as close as possible to keep us “safe”/coupled. In many regards, this survivalist mechanisms works with our sympathetic nervous system (ie we become highly vigilant). While highly vigilant we can attune more to our surroundings (partner included) due to the nervous system being on high alert to notice signals around us. Couples often report that it feels like “wow, this is the best we’ve ever been…” and then, step 3 happens which can feel very unexpected.

Stage 3: Abrupt Pull Away from Wounded Partner (Anger/Confusion Ensue) – Perpetual Search for the “Why”

This stage is extremely difficult and often results in that feeling of “walking on eggshells”. The wounded partner moves to the mentality “why does my partner get to benefit from what they did to me” following stage 2. This leads to hurt and the anger/pull-away happen. Then the same re-attaching behaviour, so on and so forth. This often leaves the other partner feeling confused, on eggshells and they may act out in negative ways out of shame and discomfort (i.e. yelling or expressing sentiments like “get over it already”). This experience is also compounded by the wounded partners pain and often, a strong desire to find out/understand the “why” behind the cheating. This search for the why is often consciously and/or unconsciously the wounded partners way to regain a sense of control and make sense of the experience that feels overwhelming.

Stage 2, and 3 are not linear, and may toggle back and forth leading to a rhythm that looks like this:

How do we move out of the cycling of stage 2 and 3?

This will sound difficult for both parties, but post infidelity recovery is a marathon and not a sprint. That is hard to hear, especially if there is an avoidant in the relationship who may want to move through the regrettable incident quickly. There are two important elements for moving through this stage:

1. Time – the injured partner will need time to process the betrayal trauma (see post on betrayal trauma), Depending on the experience and their life history, this may take more or less time. There is no correct or incorrect timeline – be patient with yourself and your partner.

2. Nervous System Regulation – The Injured Partner Needs to Feel Safe Again and The Partner Who Cheated Needs to Work Through Shame

a. Injured Partner – The injured partner is likely to be feeling very anxious, and their nervous system is on alert for danger/threat. The injured partner will need to undergo a healing journey (likely with external support) to work through any betrayal trauma that may have arisen. Learning to soothe their nervous system and regain their sense of autonomy over their life is important to reestablish safety.

b. Partner Who Cheated: You need to heal too. It is imperative that you work through your shame, and likely this will require exploring your emotions with a professional not with your partner at first. Do not skip this important step because you need support as you have a hard job ahead. That job is to support your partner with coregulation. The injured partner will experience waves of emotion, and it’s important to support them re-regulate during times where they get triggered by remaining calm, attentive, empathetic and stable. This needs to be done continually and often to help them trust again. You cannot control their experience or triggers, but you can support the way you approach it.

It’s hard to do especially when shame is present so remind yourself you are human and think progress, not perfection! If you are a visual person, think about yourself being the straight line through the wave of the graph above. This is the time to apply/use the learnt skills (i.e breathwork, grounding) to show up for your partner when they are in distress. Support them to feel safe by validating their experience, and where possible reassure, reassure, reassure. If they need space, give it. If t hey want to talk, listen actively. This will be a masterclass in your own ability to regulate when your partner is in dysregulation and it is tough! However, by meeting your partner in dysregulation (i.e getting angry when they are angry) you may further the pain as they will likely feel unheard, unloved and unseen.

In a nutshell, aim for consistency, accountability and radical transparency.

Stage 4: Emotional Charge Lessons/We Re-learn to Navigate the New* Relationship

This next stage is fragile, and not all couples can get here. If you land here it signals the frequency, duration and intensity of highs and lows have been reduced. Importantly, not due to withdraw or shutting down but due to forgiveness. A true stage 4 cannot happen until all the emotions have been processed. Rushing to stage 4 can lead to unprocessed emotions that will make their way out through indirect ways. At this stage, a sense of acceptance occurs and the couples sees the opportunity to build new meaning together. Renewed, less turbulent, intimacy occurs and ideally play/joy.

While rebuilding meaning/friendship, it is helpful to work with a professional to watch for the four horseman which include defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling and/or contempt which are relationship minefields (Gottman Institute, 2019).

If you have experienced betrayal trauma, the shame of cheating or you are a couple going through this cycle – I am here for you. Feel free to reach out and I am happy to support you through this experience.

Talk soon,