Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Stages of Grief and Infidelity

This is a chapter excerpt from our book, Healing Infidelity: How to Build a Vibrant Marriage After an Affair. You'll find not only other helpful articles in that book, but our story of how she entered the affairs, how I found out, and how we successfully rebuilt.


Both the hurt spouse and the unfaithful spouse go through the stages of grief. Sometimes one or both will get stuck in these stages for various reasons. I am taking the classical stages of grief and applying them to the loss of infidelity to help both hurt spouses and unfaithful spouses understand what they are going through, so you aren't blindsided when these emotions and feeling arise. They are part of the healing process.

These are usually associated with tragedies of various kinds like a death in the family, someone getting cancer, loss of functionality due to an auto accident, etc. The loss of an affair is a little different in that the beginning of grieving toward healing may not be able to get fully underway until the parties involved feel fairly confident that the affair is over, which for some couples can be months, years for the determined, or never.

Hurt spouses suffer the loss of trust, the loss of security in the relationship, the loss of innocence, the loss of who they viewed their spouse to be, loss of feelings of love, if not loving commitment, and other related losses. Many suffer loss of self-esteem because they feel the affair was some deficiency in them, and the spouse must not love them as much as they thought because they chose someone else over them. Additionally, if it ends in divorce, the loss of the whole relationship itself.

The unfaithful spouses will, upon hitting discovery day, at least experience the loss of their secret life, and if they successfully cut off contact, the loss of those relationships. Additionally, they'll experience the loss of their marital intimacy and the trust of their spouse. They'll also experience the loss of their self-respect and self-esteem for what they did (many respond to this in various ways, including denial, shifting guilt, acting like everything is okay, or not wanting to talk about it because they don't enjoy being whipped up on). If it ends in divorce, they also can experience the loss of that relationship.

There are five general stages of grieving most people who suffer loss go through. Not everyone will experience all of these, and they can overlap, or one may feel they've gone beyond one stage only to find themselves back there again. There aren’t any neat lines and boxes when one goes from one to the other. You can experience two or three of these things all in one day. But there is a basic progression, and how well you heal from it for yourself (not taking into account any exterior circumstances that could delay or prevent it, like the unfaithful spouse having another affair or the hurt spouse leaving, never to return, etc.) will vary on successfully progressing through these stages.


This is the usual first stage. The event doesn't seem real. It can't be happening. There must be some explanation. She would never do this to me. Hurt spouses are especially vulnerable to "gas lighting" during this phase, because they are already predisposed to doubt what they are realizing has happened, even with solid proof sitting in front of them. At this stage, the hurt spouse wants to believe there is a reasonable explanation.

I remember my first reaction upon reading Lenita's online confession. I said, "No! No! No!" I had to look away from the computer and sit in a chair, trying to take in what I had just read. It was just so out of character for her, I couldn't believe it was true. Yet, there it was, staring at me in black and white. Though I knew inside it wasn't likely to be the case, I hoped like wildfire that when I confronted her, she would go, "OH! You must have read what I wrote last night to that guy! I was just saying that to play along with him. It was all a big joke." Or, "I knew you installed that key logger and wanted to get back at you. Ha ha! Got you good!" Which would have been a very mean trick, but I would rather that had been the case.

For the unfaithful spouse, the denial may be more along the lines of not believing they'd been caught, and the gig was up. They had convinced themselves that they would never be caught, that they could keep this hidden. Suddenly, that's all falling apart, and for the first time perhaps, they are thinking about what discovery means and its ramifications. But they don't want to consider that. It is what they've hid from for the length of the affair, thinking the two lives could remain separate and not affecting the other. Initially, they may not have wanted the affair to end, and deny that it has, even if he also, at the same time, wants to rebuild with his spouse, which is where much of the ambivalence comes from. They don't want to let go of either life, lose either life, and they are in denial that it has come down to that choice.


Once it sets in that the affair has happened, and denial is more an emotional disconnect than a mental reality, the anger sets in. For the hurt spouse, the anger is obvious: How could you do this to me? I thought you loved me? You broke our vows! You deceived me! How dare you put my life at risk with unprotected sex behind my back!

The unfaithful spouse can experience anger, even if it appears irrational from the hurt spouse viewpoint: Don't talk about him that way! He is a human too. Why do you keep whipping me about this over and over, I said I was sorry! Why don't you work on yourself more, the marriage isn't all about me? I had needs too! He met them! Pride can easily keep an unfaithful spouse defensive rather than cooperative. He can also be angry at himself or the affair partner for allowing the discovery of the affair.

The point is, both experience loses, and anger is one reaction for many in dealing with the causes or perceived causes of those losses. How easy it is to get over that anger can be due to several factors, including the repentant attitude of the unfaithful spouse, the personality of the hurt spouse, and whether one or both can empathize with the other's feelings of loss. The ability to do the later is usually the opposite of being angry, so the more one is able to look past their own pain and be concerned for the other, the less anger will have a hold.

At some point, the anger begins to feel pointless, as it becomes evident that it is doing more harm to the one who is angry than it is to the other. But in the beginning, the hurt spouse especially feels almost an obligation to be angry, to not appear to let the spouse off "easy." But if it is held onto, it can prevent the hurt spouse from moving toward healing even if the unfaithful spouse does all the proper steps and heals.


One stage some go through is bargaining. This is traditionally thought of in a death loss, usually the person saying something like, "God, if you'll just bring her back, I'll go to the mission field," or some other deal.

In an affair, this is more likely to be reflected in an attempt to get back to the pre-affair life. In hurt spouses, it may be along the lines of "If you'll do these things, I'll stay and rebuild the marriage." Or in drastic cases, the hurt spouse might even say in not so many words, "Just don't flash it before my face, and I'll look the other way. Do what you want as long as you don't leave." Sort of a mixture of denial and bargaining. Or, "God, why did you let this happen to me? Fix him and I'll be the best wife ever."

An "in the fog" unfaithful spouse may think, "If I tell him this much of the truth, I can keep the affair going," or "If I don't tell him everything, I won't have to deal with his hurt and pain, and my shame and guilt." Post-fog unfaithful spouses may say in effect, "If I do everything she wants me to do, be the best husband I can be for a week, six weeks, six months, [insert whatever perceived time frame], then she'll stay and things will go back to 'normal'." Of course not realizing that this is called "rebuilding," not "remodeling" for a very good reason. What is built back won't look like the original, and it will take a good two years minimum to accomplish under the best of conditions.


Once the hysterical bonding dies down, and the reality of what is appearing to be the new normal has set in, depression can start to build. Fostered by changing identities, unresolved issues from the affair, or marital issues magnified by the affair, the hurt spouse or unfaithful spouse begins to feel that these are never going to get resolved or fixed. This grows even worse if the hurt spouse discovers continued contact with the affair partner, a new affair has started, or the unfaithful spouse hasn't told him everything and more truth trickles out. The things he thought would "fix" the marriage don't seem to be working, and during this time it can seem the hurt spouse and/or the unfaithful spouse take ten steps back for every step forward.

But even in good rebuilding, when things seem to be going well, there can be a time of depression. It can be experienced early in the process when you are unsure if he is going to break contact with the affair partner, or he doesn't seem repentant, commit to rebuilding like he said, or other related issues. Likewise, later in the process, as you gain perspective with the movement of time, you will look back and lament the losses you've sustained, and that will end up being expressed as depression.

It is in this stage that many couples in rebuilding can hit a wall. The one in depression will appear to have suddenly gone from being hopeful and happy about the marriage to despairing that it will ever work. They lose hope either from being tired of the constant effort and struggle of the rebuilding process with no seeming signs of things getting better, or have unrealistic expectations of how long the rebuilding process would be and how hard it is to go through.

Some will end up giving up at this point, fearing things will never improve or work, and getting out of the marriage is the only solution left. Others can get stuck here for months, even years, effectively halting a full healing and restoration of the relationship. If the couple realizes this for what it is, a natural part of the grieving process, and are patient with each other through it, and work to get past it, it usually leads to the final stage where a fuller healing can begin in earnest.


Here, both parties have come to terms with their losses, and accepted them. They no longer are obsessed with them and desire to look ahead rather than focus on the mess behind them. They are tired of being angry and depressed over it. A new "normal" is on the way to being established and identities formed that offer security and trust strengthened to functioning levels. They have let go of the hurts, that even though they are still there, aren't allowed to guide their lives and rule their thoughts. Forgiveness plays a part in reaching this stage, as injustice and anger is released and replaced with a more optimistic outlook for the future.

The key point becomes, that though it will always be there, the hurt and events of the affair are now considered "in the past" and the focus is on the future, whether one is rebuilding or in a divorced situation. That usually allows the couple to more fully focus on themselves, or the individual on a new relationship to spend their future with.

Hopefully this will be helpful in understanding some of the issues being dealt with by both sides of the affair, and strengthen the chance for healing and rebuilding to be successful.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Top 5 Traps of Hurt Spouses

Rebuilding a marriage from infidelity is hard work for both spouses. Granted, the bulk of the work falls to the unfaithful spouse. They destroyed the hurt spouse's trust. Only the unfaithful spouse can rebuild that trust over months and years. Way too often, the unfaithful spouse is not willing to make the commitment and do the work necessary to create the emotional security for the hurt spouse to heal and "get over it."

With that as a given, there are traps that a hurt spouse can fall into that prevents healing from taking place despite heroic efforts by the unfaithful spouse. For hurt spouses, you'll want to make sure you avoid these traps when possible so if the rebuilding fails, you can confidently say it wasn't because you didn't do all that you could to heal.

1. Staying in Victim Mode

Yes, the hurt spouse is a victim of the unfaithful spouse's cheating and deception. While they may not be a victim in other marital rough spots, when it comes to being cheated on, rare is the instance when the hurt spouse is in part to blame for the unfaithful spouse's decision to cheat.

That said, being a victim isn't the same thing as living in victim mode. Being a victim is a fact. Living in victim mode is to wear that status as a manipulative tool to guilt your spouse into submission. Especially if the unfaithful spouse is already feeling guilty, it can be tempting for the hurt spouse to take advantage of that emotional insecurity.

In so doing, however, you prevent the healing of the marriage by creating an unequal relationship dynamic. Instead of partners, you lock someone into emotional slavery until they can't take it anymore and leave. The unfaithful spouse will not likely heal because instead of repentance-producing guilt they'll feel unredemptive shame.

For sure, the hurt spouse will naturally live in victim mode in the days and weeks following the discovery of the affair. Unfaithful spouses will need to be patient, understanding their spouse is dealing with trauma levels of emotional pain during this time, and they are a victim in this case.

The hurt spouse will need to leave living in victim mode if rebuilding is to succeed. 

2. Claiming Moral Superiority

No two ways about it, cheating is morally wrong, sinful, and destroying to all involved. Most unfaithful spouses who have lived through the aftermath of what they've done get that. Even some in the midst of their affairs know this is true, but give into the passionate romance of it anyway.

Because of that, the hurt spouse can develop an attitude of moral superiority over the unfaithful spouse, using it to manipulate the unfaithful spouse. It is the flipside of the coin for point #1. Instead of manipulating with guilt, the hurt spouse manipulates with their own "holiness." Bring up past failings is not effective because everything else pales in comparison to the huge sin committed by the unfaithful spouse.

This trap prevents successful rebuilding for the same reasons as #1: it creates an unhealthy relationship dynamic. It is tempting for the hurt spouse because they've been out of control for the duration of the affair. Exerting control over the unfaithful spouse gives the hurt spouse a temporary sense of security.

In the end, it destroys any chance for the unfaithful spouse to rebuild real security back into the marriage.

3. Having Your Own Affair

There are many reasons a hurt spouse may be tempted to have their own affair. Revenge. Entitlement. Giving up on the marriage. Perceiving the door is now open to do what they always wanted to do. Believing the mythical "this will make us even" justification. Attempting to bolster the lack of self-esteem from the affair, just to name some popular reasons.

The problem with all those reasons is cheating is not wrong because people and culture says it is, but because it is so destructive to all involved, including the unfaithful spouse. One doesn't heal by inflicting more damage upon themselves and their spouse. It only complicates the ability to rebuild.

4. Bigotry

That is, bigotry against unfaithful spouses as a group. Generally this is reflected by applying labels to the group as a whole, often in absolute terms. "Cheaters are narcissistic. Cheaters are abusers. Cheaters are morally bankrupt. All cheaters don't give a damn about anyone other than themselves." Etc.

Such conclusions are often reached by spouses whose marriages are falling apart due to the affair, getting a divorce, or forced to live in a loveless marriage. They tend to generalize their experience onto all unfaithful spouses. Such labels can give hurt spouses a sense of explaining the why of the affair but in very straightjacketed terms. It can also feed into #2 above.

If a hurt spouse in rebuilding picks up on that attitude and "explanation" from such sources, it does what any bigotry does: treats people as an impersonal classification instead of as individuals deserving respect. That creates an "us vs. them" dynamic that will short circuit any rebuilding attempt.

5. Getting Stuck in the Grieving Process

To progress toward healing from infidelity, the hurt spouse will progress through the grieving process until they come to a point of acceptance. Acceptance is the point where the hurt spouse no longer focuses on the pain and loss of the affair, but looks ahead to the future. Doesn't mean the hurt spouse never thinks about any of it again, only that their life is not defined by a preoccupation with their loss.

The general stages of grief leading up to acceptance is denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. A chapter in our book is devoted to this topic. Each stage has the potential to trap a hurt spouse and keep them from progressing.

For some, denial is their security. They are the ones likely to say, "I wish I'd never discovered the affair," and promptly attempt to forget it ever happened. The issues never get dealt with, and the unfaithful spouse has no motivation to make the changes they need to make. Rebuilding doesn't even get off the ground.

Others get stuck in bargaining. They end up enabling an unfaithful spouses inappropriate behaviors by making deals as if it is their fault. "You cheated on me because I wasn't giving you enough sex? Okay, I'll give you all you want, then you won't cheat on me." Or insert whatever reason the unfaithful spouse might indicate as to why they had the affair. Such a spouse believes if they just make them happy, they won't leave them.

Then of course depression is a big trap. The hurt spouse laments the loss of how life used to be. The blind trust they had. The joy they experienced. The innocence lost. Lost health can factor into it if STDs are involved. It is here that moving on means coming to acceptance. Many hurt spouses are afraid to give it up. For some, they can't because the unfaithful spouse isn't rebuilding trust. In other cases, releasing that mourning feels like suggesting it wasn't important what was lost.

Until acceptance manifest itself, healing will not happen. Most hurt spouses will need to go through most of these stages to get there. Some of them may take longer than others. But allowing yourself to stay in a stage longer than necessary stalls not only the grieving process, but also the rebuilding.

Those are my top five traps that can keep a hurt spouse from healing, and therefore, keep the marriage from surviving the affair.

Can you think of any more you'd add?