I see many couples in the midst of overcoming infidelity in their relationship. Couples seek therapy in hopes of rebuilding their trust and connection to regain what they once had. In these circumstances, I have consistently witnessed a specific factor that prevents both partners from properly healing – the anxiety after an affair. What follows are observations of my work with couples and how the messiness of the emotions experienced post-infidelity can prevent relational restoration.
After an affair, both partners encounter very different manifestations of anxiety and worry. The betrayed partner is often on high alert. Their situation compares to a gazelle in the wilderness scanning the horizon so as not to become dinner for a hungry lion, always alert to potential harm. They need to ensure they will not be hurt again like they were with the previous infidelity. They were likely blindsided and deeply wounded by the affair which creates a determination to not let an affair go unnoticed for a second time. This explains the behavior of checking their partner’s phone, wanting to know their location, ruminating on the infidelity, and frequently asking questions about the specifics of the affair. Each action holds the promise of more knowledge of what could hurt them and temporarily provides a sense of relief that they are incrementally safer for the question. The anxiety serves as a safety measure for their own protection and well-being. Unfortunately, this anxiety cannot be satisfied by these actions. The partner will not be able to put their guard down, because of a fear that when they do, they will get hurt again. This vicious cycle brings emotional exhaustion and devastation for both partners.
The experience of the unfaithful partner tends to be forgotten. They committed the wrongful action and their choice to have an affair shook the core of the relationship, so their emotions tend to be discounted or brushed aside. However, highlighting and empathizing with this partner’s experience does not condone the affair. Rather, seeking to understand allows for a greater understanding of why the relationship does not seem to be healing.
I have witnessed the partner who committed the infidelity grow increasingly frustrated with their partner’s process for recovering from the affair. The betrayed partner believes, not only are they justified in their anxious actions to check messages and ask questions, but that through these actions will trust be rebuilt. Unfortunately, this process does not yield the desired results. Rather, the unfaithful partner feels interrogated. They desire to prove they can be trustworthy and often consent to these investigative acts from their partner. Although, each time they have their phone checked, they revisit the pain caused by the affair. They remember the hurt they caused and that they are no longer fully trusted. The unfaithful partner revisiting these thoughts and emotions repeatedly, paired with the perceived lack of progress being made in the relationship, creates a vicious cycle. Ultimately, the unfaithful partner becomes exasperated with the process. Both partners want to rebuild trust but are stuck in this unproductive process.
Underlying the unfaithful partner’s frustration are emotions of anxiety, fear, and worry. The unfaithful partner fears that the relationship will be continually stagnant without growth or change. They worry that for the rest of their lives they will be required to prove their trustworthiness without ever actually attaining it. The unfaithful partner feels like a hamster on a wheel running nowhere. They do not want to be stuck in that wheel forever. This fear turns to frustration because they think they will likely be ignored or not valued if they are vulnerable about their fears. Yet, in the midst of these emotions, a desire exists to be reassured of progress in the relationship. Both partners want to know that their relationship will improve and healing will occur. Unfortunately, this desire does not get communicated in the relationship and further prevents the relational healing from occurring.
Anxieties, worries, and frustrations between the two partners begin to clash. Even though the partners may desire the same end goal – a rejuvenated relationship – they cannot seem to progress to that goal because their emotions and communication create gridlock. In my experience, becoming aware of and understanding these competing emotions brings great peace. It allows each partner to know that they can put their guards down because they are not working against each other, but rather they are working together on rebuilding the relationship.