“It’s like carrying a backpack full of rocks”, says a male betrayed spouse and long-time friend.
“Why don’t you drop the backpack, it’s been years since your spouse’s affair?”
“If I’m not carrying the backpack, I don’t feel safe, I feel out of control, when I’m out of control, bad things happen.”
It sounds insane. But I totally get it. After living and working in the field of infidelity recovery for almost a decade, it’s my story, it’s many stories. And it’s sad, frustrating and confusing when hurt spouses are stuck in this loop.
Not every betrayed spouse gets stuck in this place, but depending on personality, family of origin trauma, attachment styles and the track record of the unfaithful spouse, it’s not an uncommon place to stop, and never leave.
It’s the cycle. I have a client. He’s working his tail off to heal his marriage and work on himself. Individual therapy. Groups. Accountability. Sleepless nights recounting every detail of his affair to his anxious spouse, over and over again. It was me. It was the fellow women in my affair recovery healing groups. It’s my clients.
At 6 months, I don’t bat an eyelash at a hurt spouse acting this way, at 12 months, I still wait, but by 18-24 months if I’m not seeing some semblance of a few sunny serenity days here and there, we’ve usually got complex trauma trouble on our hands.
What makes a betrayed spouse react this way, despite having the poster-spouse for affair recovery? It’s not possible to list all the variables in one article, but I will highlight a few.
We are all wired to feel safe and secure. Some need it more than others, some have better brain chemistry to tolerate risky situations, and live ok in the “unknown” after infidelity has occurred. Someone may have a strong spiritual faith, and this provides the balm to sooth anxiety that something may happen again. Another may have had a spouse who had one affair, while having an awesome, trauma-free childhood with parents who created secure attachments and always provided support and encouragement when challenges arouse.
But what about the hurt spouse who was abused as a child and didn’t bounce back? Or parents divorced and caused deep wounding which caused an anxious attachment style (where one worries non-stop about being abandoned by the people he/she loves and needs the most), or a betrayed spouse who was genetically pre-dispositioned for anxiety because his/her grandparents, parent, sister, uncle and brother are all the same? As an adult who has been betrayed, these types of people may develop complex PTSD, coping skills that include needing to be one-up in a power position to feel safe, and a lot of control to feel secure. It also may create a anxiety-producing level of dependency within intimate relationships.
My point is, as an unfaithful spouse, get curious. If you have a beloved hurt partner who wants to stay in the marriage after an affair, you have been following the infidelity recovery plain laid out by a professional specialized in affair recovery, it’s been over 18-24 with fidelity and without any new information being disclosed, then it sounds like you have a spouse who could use your help. When an unfaithful spouse gets curious, instead of resentful, angry, indignant or disappears, it shows unconditional love and commitment to the betrayed spouse. It shows you’re willing to do whatever it takes, including putting the pieces together of how your partner’s past may be playing into the present healing and future thriving of your marriage.