No matter how you discovered it, the realization that your partner has been unfaithful can rock your world like an earthquake. You may be feeling shock, horror, rage, terror, or grief. You may have a strong desire to do something destructive (yell, hit, throw things, kick the cheater out), but STOP!
Take a few nice, deep breaths….and read this:
1. Realize you are traumatized.
When author and researcher, Barbara Steffens, asked women to describe the day they found out about their husband’s secret behaviors, they said:
“It was like when the plane hit the tower and everything crumbled."
“It was like being stabbed in the back a million times.”
“It was like I was assaulted, but by my best friend.”
“I threw up, couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, cried constantly.”
Whether these descriptions fit for you or not, there is always some amount of trauma when betrayal occurs in an intimate relationship. Intimate relationships are meant to be safe. When that safety is threatened, our bodies register danger in exactly the same way they do when our physical safety is threatened.
In the face of danger, whether physical or relational, our bodies go into fight-flight-freeze mode. Adrenaline is released, our heart rates rise, a state of hyper-arousal occurs, and it becomes difficult to eat or sleep. In fight-flight-freeze mode, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that can calmly think and plan) goes temporarily offline. It is in this aroused, super-upset state that possessions are thrown on the front lawn, angry words are spoken, and decisions are made that are later regretted. It is normal to temporarily be somewhat "out of your mind."
In the midst of a trauma response, avoid making decisions or taking actions that may affect the rest of your life!
2. Get support.
People who have been traumatized need to talk; they need to process what has happened to them. Don’t try to punish your partner by telling everyone they know (including their children, parents, and boss) about their infidelity. On the other hand, don’t isolate, telling no one. Seek out appropriate people who can listen, empathize, and remain calm. Talk to people that will not gossip or fuel the flames of hatred or retaliation in you, but will respond with maturity and wisdom.
A therapist can provide a safe place of complete confidentiality where you can pour out your thoughts and emotions. A professional who lists "betrayal" or “sex addiction” among their specialties, will have extensive experience to draw upon. They will help you assess your situation, come up with a plan, and take steps that will move you toward your goals, not away from them.
3. Make a plan. With the help of your therapist and support team, consider the following questions:
If you haven't already done so, how do you want to confront your partner? Do you want someone else to be present? What do you want/need from them at this point? What are the boundaries you will put into place? Do you want to require treatment as a condition of your remaining in the relationship? An effective confrontation can make all the difference in how this all turns out. Plan, not only what you are going to say, but the tone with which you are going to say it.
If you have already confronted your partner, what was their response? Were they honest and repentant or was there continued deception and denial? This may influence how you want to proceed.
Do you want to work toward saving the relationship or marriage? Many cannot immediately answer this question, especially when the relationship is longstanding or when there are children involved. Most professionals recommend taking a period of time (often 6-12 months) before making a decision. During that time you can pursue counseling and can observe what steps your partner does or does not take to repair the relationship. Also, this period of time allows your trauma response to calm down so you can think more clearly.
If you take time before deciding whether or not to stay in the relationship, what will each of you do during that time? What kind of counseling will you seek? Will you sleep in separate bedrooms? Will you temporarily separate?
Would it be wise to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases?
What plans do you need to make financially and legally in order to protect yourself? You may want to consult with a divorce attorney or financial advisor in order to know your options.
4. Be like tea.
Most importantly, now that this has happened who do you want to be? What do you want to display to family and friends. If you have children, what do you want them to see in you?
It has been said that there are three types of people--carrots, eggs, or tea. Each type responds differently when put into the “hot water” of adversity. In hot water carrots become soft and mushy. Will you be like a carrot and let your partner’s betrayal be the reason you fall apart? Or will you be like an egg? In hot water eggs become hard and develop a tough outer shell. Will you become an untrusting, angry, bitter person? Or will you be like tea? Tea was made for hot water. In hot water, tea releases its flavor and goodness and gives off a wonderful aroma.
In the midst of this difficult and painful situation, you can show self control and act in accordance with your values. If you wait until your trauma response has calmed down, invite healthy support from others, and follow a well thought out plan, you can be like tea. No matter what your partner does, no matter what happens in your relationship, you can experience the joy and peace that comes from emitting the wonderful aroma of a Godly character.