Source: Shutterstock, Tero Vesalainen
When infidelity in a supposedly monogamous relationship is discovered, betrayed partners are emotionally traumatized. And why would they not be? After all, the person they most loved and trusted—the person believed to never knowingly hurt them – has just plunged a proverbial knife into their back. Even if the betrayed partner suspected that something was amiss in the relationship, they are typically emotionally blown away when they officially learn the truth.
The simple truth is that healthy long-term relationships begin and end with trust. Trust is the foundation upon which love rests. Unquestionably, intimate betrayal is a trust-buster that can lead otherwise emotionally stable individuals into self-doubt, darkness, and confusion.
In today’s mental health world, this type of betrayal is commonly viewed as an attachment wound. From this perspective, it’s relatively easy to understand why betrayed partners often display stress and anxiety symptoms characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[i]including flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, hypervigilance, powerful mood swings, and more.
If you have noticed any of this behavior in your significant other, you need to accept that it’s your fault and that your partner is responding in a very normal way to the pain and hurt that you have caused. So, while you are feeling resentful and impatient, wondering why your spouse won’t just let this slide so you can both move on, your spouse is suffering—deeply. And if you truly love your partner and want to save your damaged relationship, you need to find a way to care about the pain and provide emotional support instead of feeling rankled by the endless anger, demands, questions, withdrawal, and threats that usually follow betrayal.
In the immediate aftermath of discovery of infidelity, your partner’s emotions are understandably out of control, and you likely expect and accept that. What you might not understand, however, is that their emotional reactivity is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. In fact, you’re going to have to deal with the emotional roller coaster your spouse is riding until you’ve re-earned relationship trust —a process that takes many months.
There is no such thing as immediate (or even quick) forgiveness when it comes to relationship betrayal. Regaining intimate trust after betrayal comes about via honest, committed actions and honesty over time—usually at least a year. There is no fast path to such healing, nor should you expect one.
As you work to rebuild relationship trust, you should expect your betrayed partner to engage in or display some or all of the following perfectly normal symptoms of deep emotional betrayal:
- Detective work. Your partner may check your phone, browser history, emails, texts, apps, credit cards, and more.
- Mood swings. Your partner may be sad one minute, filled with rage the next, and then desperately affectionate, loving, and even sexual the next. These moods can swing from one extreme to the other with little or no warning.
- Shame and loss of self-esteem. Your partner may have worked very hard to create the best possible “us.” If so, their self-esteem may take a huge hit because of your cheating. Your spouse might suddenly feel unattractive and unlovable, no matter the reality.
- Global mistrust. By cheating, you have violated your partner’s trust in you and your relationship. This trust must be re-earned, and that takes both time and effort. For now, you need to accept that your significant other is likely to question every little thing you do and say (and everything you’ve said and done in the past).
- control, control, control. Because your partner no longer trusts anything that you say or do, they may try to micromanage your free time, finances, work life, social life, and more.
- Raging and attacking. Your partner’s anger may boil over at times, leading to verbal attacks, name-calling, devaluing the good things you do, and basically hitting below the belt. Your partner might also hire lawyers, tell the kids what you’ve done, recklessly spend money to punish you, and more.
- Obsessive questioning. Sometimes it seems as if betrayed partners are obsessed with the cheating, as if there is no subject on the planet that interests them more than your betrayal. No matter how much information you give, they will ask for more. Then, when you stop providing information, even if it’s because there is no more to give, they will accuse you of holding back.
- Avoidance. This is the opposite of obsessive questioning but equally likely. Basically, your spouse may work to avoid thinking or talking about your betrayal. Even more perplexing is that your partner might flip-flop between obsessive questioning and avoidance.
- Escapist behavior. Your partner may try to escape distressing feelings about the infidelity by drinking, drugging, binge eating, or spending, among other escapist behaviors. They might also want to escape from you, emotionally and perhaps physically withdrawing from you.
- Regression into past pain. Your partner may slide into feelings related to past trauma or abuse, meaning their current reactions may be about more than just you and the betrayal they’ve experienced with you.
None of these responses is easy to tolerate, especially if you have stopped cheating and are now being honest. When that happens, you will need to make a choice. You can react to your partner’s emotions, becoming defensive and making things worse, or you can swallow your pride, your ego, and your desire to be right, allowing your partner to feel whatever it is that needs to be felt while you continue a path of rigorous honesty so you can (eventually) re-earn trust and heal your relationship.