The revelation of an affair is a serious relational and emotional trauma. Put simply the world as you knew it is no longer and everything you thought was real is up for question. This can permeate your whole life and extend to the other person, family and friends as you try to piece together what happened and who was involved.
This trauma is so painful it leaves the person who has experienced it hyper vigilant to triggers, or reminders, of the traumatic event and everything you can imagine may have led to it. The triggers can be wide and varied and seemingly random such as seeing the same car that the other person drove or the theme of infidelity in a movie or on television, or driving past a place where the infidelity occurred, family photos, seeing your partner on their mobile phone or your partner being home 5 minutes late…the list is endless. Triggers can be overwhelming in their intensity and impact when they hit (sometimes out of the blue) and can cause mild anxiety right through to full panic attacks and physiological responses such as nausea or even vomiting. As they cannot be avoided the best way to manage them is to learn strategies for dealing with them – lessening their impact over time until eventually they do not bother you at all.
Obsessive thoughts or ruminations are another side effect of the trauma – rumination and obsessive worrying tries to prepare you for every bad thing that may happen and blunt the fear of uncertainty. In the form of good/bad evaluations it tries to perfect a flawed world, reliving events to effect a different outcome. Unfortunately all it does it keep you focussed on what is bothering you making you more anxious and feel a greater sense of loss and disappointment. Again these thoughts need to be intentionally managed to disappear over time.
How? In the early days when you are still in shock and thoughts and triggers are running wild it can feel incredibly overwhelming to think about getting it all under control. What follows is a list of strategies (in no particular order) that can begin to help you do that. Find the easier ones to work on first.
- Start tracking them in a journal. Collect a list of triggers and obsessive thoughts. Knowing what they are is the first step to being able to work out the best way to get rid of them. Notice if there are any thoughts attached to the triggers eg seeing a happy family photo of the time the affair was happening may be linked to the thought “that was all an act”. Notice any physical sensations that the thoughts or triggers create and track them. Often the very act of writing them down helps to see them more objectively for what they are and their effect can be lessened. Example: If a trigger is seeing the same type of car the affair partner drove on the road, writing it down can help you understand that just seeing that type of car does not mean that he or she is in it. Now you are aware it is a trigger it will be easier to remind yourself of that next time you see that car.
- Observe the sensations that the trigger or thought is causing without trying to control them and begin to remind yourself that it is just the flight or fight response designed to protect you from danger. Don’t fight it – it is unpleasant and painful but will not cause death (even though it may feel like it). Think of it as a wave washing over you and it will pass in the same way. Example: Your partner goes to kiss you and you are overwhelmed with pain and sadness by the thought that she/he kissed someone else, someone that wasn’t you. Take a moment to let the wave wash over you. Tell yourself – this hurts but I will get through it. Just like a wave this will pass.
- Understanding that your thoughts and feelings are transient creations of your mind rather than true facts about you and your world. Recognise that you are having that thought or feeling acknowledge it, accept it and then bombard it with facts and let it go. Example: This is one of the reasons finding out about the facts of the affair is important. Your imagination can be far more vivid than the truth.
- Take mental breaks – this can be physical like going to a safe and nurturing place, meditating, walking in nature or taking a bath. Or momentary such as really noticing and living in the present moment. If it comes into your mind during that time tell it to go away you are on a break. Example: washing the dishes notice every dish as you place it in the sink, feel the warmth of the water and the roughness of the sponge. Focus only on that and give your mind a break.
- Finding alternative explanations and explore concurrent realities: expand your thoughts by bringing in other possibilities and /or finding out what others think to see if there are other ways of seeing the same event. In particular really listen to your partner’s version of the events as they may contain the gems that can help you expand your thinking and lessen the need to ruminate. This is hard because we like to believe that our partner’s think the same way we do especially about fundamental aspects of life like shared values. Perhaps you do still share the same values but your partner just found it hard to live them for a period of time for some reason – understanding that will help.
- Reframe or turn around your thoughts and triggers or replace your thoughts with different ones – ideally more positive but if that is too much of a stretch just neutral will do at first. Example: if your obsessive thought is “he/she couldn’t have really loved me to do what they did”, it may be too hard to turn it around to “he/she did love me despite what they did” so start with a more neutral but less painful thought such as “they weren’t thinking at all to do what they did”. Put on a card a number of neutral or positive thoughts that you can pull out whenever you are struggling to move away from negative thoughts.
- Exposure – if people or places or things cause triggers then facing them until the feelings lose their effect can help in a controlled and safe way. The longer you stay there or the more often you do it your anxiety will diminish. Example: If you have to see the affair partner socially or in the community or at work take charge of the affect this will have on you and push through the discomfort until the impact is neutral and then insignificant. If you can plan and know in advance that you will see them you can prepare, bombarding your brain with positive affirmations such as “I can do this” and focus on breathing calmly.
- Reclaim an event or place as your own. Focus on the good times you had there rather than the affair. If the affair comes into your head keep replacing it with your own memories of better times or create new memories Example: if a certain restaurant is a trigger go there with some friends for an enjoyable experience and reclaim it as your own.
- Limit the time you will allow yourself to ruminate. The longer you allow the thoughts to accumulate the more likely you will move into the physiological symptoms. Say to yourself – OK I will allow myself to think about it while I hang the washing on the line and then I will get on with my day…but if you don’t give yourself some “processing” time it may come out in your dreams or at other times when you don’t want it to..
- Talk about it – the triggers, the ruminations and all of it. Find some good listeners and just get it out.