Affairs are like car wrecks. The experience is shocking to everyone involved, whether they are to blame or have been injured along the way. In fact, according to Janis Abrams Spring, Ph.D, a researcher of infidelity for over 25 years, it's normal for hurt partners to experience post-traumatic-stress symptoms including hypersensitivity, an inability to concentrate and a loss of passion. We recently caught up with Dr. Spring when she answered some very personal questions submitted by iVillagers.
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"How do I stop obsessing about the details of the affair, including the sex?" --from murmaide
It will take a long time to heal. People think that the worst part of being betrayed would be losing trust, but many women who are hurt experience a feeling that is far worse, almost like a total disintegration of themselves. I tell my patients that this turmoil can last at least a year and a half. Since this is such a long time, they say they feel hopeless about healing, and I understand that.
Obsessing is a normal female neurological response to trauma. The first way to stop doing it is to understand that you're not crazy. Too often, people are ashamed to admit that they can't stop thinking about the affair, particularly women. Men have an easier time distracting themselves. Women remember the details.
Make sure to get into couples therapy. Sometimes the reason a woman is obsessing is because her unfaithful husband is not doing his job in rebuilding the trust. That is where a therapist can step in try to figure out what is going on and what the husband may or may not be doing to help her.
On your own, try thought-stopping. This means that as soon as you're aware of your obsessing, gently interrupt the negative thoughts. You should literally become your own coach. Ask yourself, What else could I be thinking about that's more stimulating? Think of a happy memory or a good book. Remind yourself that you'll never have this moment again and that thinking about the affair will do no good. (There are medications you can take to stop obsessing, but you must see a doctor to find out if you are a candidate.)
A woman's progress depends on many factors. If she becomes clinically depressed or blames herself for the affair, it will take longer to stop grieving. These are normal feelings though, and any patient who is honest with me says that healing took longer than they admit to others.
"My husband is a clam who won't answer questions. If he is just trying to avoid conflict, and should I abide by his wishes and stop asking?" --from pollyanna1032 No, absolutely keep asking questions. It's fine to ask an unfaithful partner to recognize the harm he has caused, because as a hurt partner, you have the right to know all the facts. If you are experiencing incredible aloneness, this will help you to feel more connected. Your husband must earn forgiveness. Plus, honesty builds trust in any relationship.
Also know that verbal reassurances are not the fix. Your husband has to prove his word his good. "Trust me honey" has to be backed by real evidence that he is sorry and wants to rebuild your marriage. For example, it's your right to know if he has run into his ex-lover, and more than that, it's your right to ask him to bring you if he's going to see her. Unfaithful partners have to do these things, even if they feel awkward or manipulated because it helps you to feel safe.
"What if my husband works with his ex-lover?" --from jill.2 This situation is really tough. You might feel as though you can't compete because your husband spends so much time with her. He can invite you into the office for lunch or coffee. This action is a specific salve to a specific wound -- trading your public humiliation for his public declaration. In other words, if he is willing to be seen publicly with you, it is like an announcement that he is working on the marriage, and it makes a very strong statement to the ex-lover.
It's also okay for you to get an informer in the office. Hurt partners who are recovering need information. You can ask a friend at his office if he is spending a lot of time with his ex-lover, taking long lunches or even just looking at her. This might sound crazy, and a lot of women I see say that, but you should know that it's normal and helpful.
"My children are old enough to see that something is wrong. Is there anything that I can say to them?" --from Anonymous
Telling children about the affair is not a good idea, but many hurt partners want to. This might be because you have a secret wish for your children to get mad at the unfaithful parent, or that you simply want support. What you need to know is that children derive their sense of self from both parents. The momentary pleasure of sharing will not be worth your child's confusion about her own identity. Also, it may backfire. In some cases, the children knowing about the affair makes it embarrassing for the unfaithful parent to return home.
If your children notice the tension in the house, the most helpful thing you can do is to validate their observations. Acknowledging that there is change and confusion will help them later. You can say, "You may have noticed dad and I are fighting. You are not imagining this. We are having marital problems, but we are working to get better."
It is crazy to deny the situation, but don't put your children in the middle. The one piece of reliable data is that kids suffer when they are caught between fighting parents. If you need to vent to someone, see a therapist or talk to your friends or your own parents. Kids will see how upset you are, but any discussion has to be purely factual, not biased.
"How long is too long to hang onto hope that your marriage will heal?" --from Anonymous
For any hurt partner, deciding whether or not to stay in the marriage is a decision that takes strength. You have to make a thoughtful choice rather than simply going with your feelings of depression, anger or even love. A person can feel tremendous love for her husband, but that doesn't mean he's earned it or deserves it.
Like I said, this process takes a long time. You have to look at your own personal situation and ask, Is my husband demonstrating a commitment to our marriage? Is he working to rebuild trust? Is he trying hard to figure out what the affair was about? This healing process is about taking concrete actions. You have to look honestly at yourself and learn lessons from your husband's affair.
Even though you might feel beaten up, look at how you may have contributed to the affair. Nobody makes someone else cheat, but you might have contributed to an intimacy issue at home. Understanding your own role is an act of courage. Did you make him feel lonely? Were you critical or child focused? No matter what the answers are, they can help you make a decision about your marriage.
Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D. is the author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful