Most hurt partners I've worked with have asked me how they can get past intrusive thoughts about the affair. Before they come to couples therapy, their involved partner may have told them details of the affair, leaving them feeling horrible.
To get past triggers understand them first. Label yourself the "hurt" partner (the one who was hurt by another's actions) and not the "betrayed spouse" (even if that's how you feel). "Betrayed" puts you in the role of the victim and the involved partner in a treacherous role. "Hurt" is a feeling state that allows for active healing.
Surviving infidelity is a process, not an endpoint. How will you engage in that process? This will determine the outcome. It is a long process that you will complete together.
What are emotional triggers after infidelity?
Take this story, for example:
Jody was riding in the car with Kent when they drove by a woman on the sidewalk with a bright red hat. Suddenly, Jody felt cold inside and full of rage. It took her totally by surprise. She suddenly had murderous thoughts toward Kent and felt like she did when he first told her about his affair.
She began to breathe deeply, as she was taught to do, and as she did, she began to make connections. The woman's red hat triggered a memory of Kent telling Jody that his affair partner, Amy, wore a red dress at the company party he attended without her.
Once she recognized this association (red hat = red dress), she was able to calm down and put into action strategies to manage how she was feeling. She thought first about what she wanted right now from Kent. While he had hurt her deeply with his affair with Amy, he was also the only person who could help her to heal.
She recognized that what she wanted was his complete attention as she told him about her trigger. She also wanted him to reassure her, as he had many times before, that he was so sorry that he had hurt her and would never do anything like that to her again.
She took a few more deep breaths before she began to speak:
"Kent, can you pull over when it's safe? I had a trigger and want to talk to you about it."
Kent was fully aware of what it took for Jody to tell him this. They had discussed how she believed that "she should be over this by now" after their ten months of work. She also told him that it was what he also believed, despite his repeated verbalizing to the contrary. He knew it could take 24 or more months of recovery for these triggers to all but stop.
He also realized that they were late for the luncheon, but his priorities were straight: He would be there for his wife when she needed him, and this was a time when she did.
As he pulled over, he shut the car off and turned to her. She put her hand on his leg and told him about the woman in the red hat, the association with Amy at the company party, and the toxic pressure in her chest that left her feeling grateful until she recognized it as a trigger.
"I'm sorry I did that to you, Jody; I know how deeply I hurt you" he said sincerely while looking at her head-on. "I'd like to know if there is anything you need from me right now."
Jody asked him to promise never to do anything like that to her again and to discuss it with her if he found another woman sexually desirable. He promised.
Then she asked for a hug that lasted 14 seconds. She could feel his arms around her over the shift. She took a deep, relaxing breath and told him she loved him so much. They kissed briefly but with feeling, and she settled herself back in her seat and said she was ready to go.
He started the car, and they went to the luncheon feeling calm and connected.
What happened there?
Let's break down the steps to healing:
- Jody was triggered by an external stimulus (the red hat) that she connected subconsciously to her memory of what Kent told her about the affair (the red dress).
- Her body told her she was in danger, her heart began to race, her blood pressure increased, and she responded as if she was facing an enemy and her life was in danger. (Gottman calls this "flooding."
- She began to breathe deeply, and as she began to calm down, new thoughts came to her, making the linkage that previously had escaped her. She was "triggered."
- She learned how important it was for her to practice self-care over these past months; sleeping more than usual, eating well, and exercising. Doing pleasurable things when she was up for it.
- She was hurt and hurt deeply. She was grieving the loss of her former marriage and preparing herself to accept this new one slowly. She wanted to be gentle with herself and figure out what she needed.
- She thought about Kent's behavior over these last ten months of healing. While she hated to bring it up to him, it was a promise she had made to discuss rather than hide her triggers from him.
- She considered what she needed from him at that moment. She needed his full attention.
- She needed to tell him what was happening to her. She needed the reminder. Despite how many times he told her before, she needed it again. He loved her, he was sorry, and he will never keep secrets from her.
- Kent knew what to do when Jody told him she had a trigger. He knew he had to take his mind away from the traffic and the luncheon and focus on his wife. He knew this was a process and was fully committed to making his marriage work.
- He communicated on many levels this commitment. Jody made it easier for him to feel less ashamed because she focused on her triggers and what she needed from him.
Recognize triggers can be internal or external.
In this case, a woman in a hat walking by triggered Jody. But she also had to carefully examine whether there were ongoing triggers in her environment that she could or wanted to remove. Kent's car he used to drive Amy to the hotel. His job, where she still worked in a separate division.
This is a very individual decision for the hurt partner.
For one wife, it may be that she can't heal as long as her husband works in the same company. She must be willing to face the consequences together of a new job search.
For another, such a job shift isn't necessary. Jody couldn't even consider staying in the same hotel where Kent had sex with Amy. That knowledge was too powerful to allow her to enjoy her stay.
Getting past intrusive thoughts and triggers
In order to heal from an affair, learning how to deal with triggers is a crucial task. This post outlines the steps for each partner to take. The hurt partner may experience as many as 1500-3000 or more triggers over the healing period. Be patient with yourselves, and follow these steps.
You'll get there.