Today I am responding to an excellent question I have recently received because I know most people affected by an affair carry this fear – and it is not just the betrayed spouse. Twice lately I've had some freak out moments. Was out a couple of times over the weekend with someone who doesn’t know about the affair and saw people who looked like the Affair Partner (AP). Sent me into slight panic attacks at the thought of actually bumping into her one day and having no idea how to handle that kind of a situation (one for my own self sanity and two if it was to happen in front of someone who doesn't know what's happened).
This situation is very similar to any other trigger associated with an affair but seeing the other person, either accidentally or planned, is definitely up there on the difficulty scale. It can be like a dread that hangs over most betrayed partners that one day they will have to face the AP. Because of the way affairs start the AP can be in our communities, may even have been a friend or family member or part of our extended social network. They may live or work in close proximity to us and the chances of one day bumping into them at the shops or a social event is real. Or, as in my case, I knew I would have to see her each fortnight due to our ongoing contact with the child. Being prepared gives you the confidence to know you can handle it, if and when it happens.
Firstly it helps to understand what is going on so you can recognise it, catch it and manage it. Dreading bumping into the AP is in itself part of the problem. The dread, which is a feeling of fear, keeps us hypervigilant (constantly alert) to the threat of that fear becoming real and it is that hypervigilance that often causes us to misinterpret what we are seeing, make it seem like we are seeing the AP everywhere. Our brain doesn’t even need to see all the facts before it alerts the amygdala to kick in with the flight or fight response. It goes something like this: shoulder length dark hair spotted from behind – AP match – amygdala responds flooding adrenaline and cortisol into our blood stream causing increase in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle tension. Then the person with shoulder length dark hair turns around and the brain registers it is not the AP but it is all too late. The body is already in full physiological arousal and you need to take the time to calm down before you can feel normal again. The side effects of this can be shaking and nausea and you may need to sit, and it is unlikely the people that you are with would not have noticed you acting a bit strange – possibly strained and serious or agitated.
All this happens in a split second (see my full description of amygdala hijacking and managing it here). Once you are hypervigilant the amygdala is never far away. It makes sense that the AP is registered by the brain as a threat. At the moment you found out about the affair they became part of the trauma that forged a cement pathway through your brain. Their behaviour threatened your wellbeing and all the alert systems in your brain are staying on high alert to make sure they can never do that to you again. The problem is that if the affair is over, the threat no longer exists but the hypervigilance can keep you anxious and panicky and not having a lot of fun in certain settings. For your own sake you need to stop the emotive part of the brain from going into overdrive over the slightest perceived threat. Essentially you need to conquer the fear so you don’t need the hypervigilance.
3 Steps that will help:
1. In your imagination or in your journal think or write about what it would be like to meet the AP. Test out some different scenarios: in the street; at a party; at work…what do you think they will say? What do you think you would say? If you need to, write all the things that you would like to say no holds barred and then write the version you would actually say that would maintain your core values and integrity – keep you feeling good (and also ensure that people around you who do not know what happened are none the wiser). Ascertain from this what the worst thing that could happen is in any of these scenarios. Remember whilst the meeting is bound to be uncomfortable it is unlikely to cause death!
2. Write yourself a list of why he or she is no longer a threat to you. Memorise and repeat it whenever you begin to feel anxious about the meeting potential. I am really afraid of snakes and when in the bush remember snake safety and the all important one that is applicable here – they are more afraid of you than you are of them. You have done nothing wrong – the AP has and if they realise this they may just be more afraid of meeting you than you are of them.
3. And lastly if you do think you will meet them, work out what you will say – doesn’t need to be long just “Hello [insert name] ” And move on your way. Then, just like an actor learning lines, practice looking at them and saying it. Practice until you can do it and then if you have to meet them get out there and win the Academy Award.
These 3 steps will help tame your brain and reduce the need for hypervigilance. The more you practice the more the brain gets the message. You will feel better about yourself for maintaining your integrity, you will have faced your fear and it will get easier and easier each time you have to do it. And the people you are with won’t even notice.