Read part one of this two-part article: How Do Affairs Happen?
The revelation of a partner’s affair (sexual or emotional) comes as a shock to the hurt partner, even when doubts exist. The loss of trust in a relationship is no different from a physical loss. The closeness of the relationship and the hurt partner’s perception of preventability were identified as predictors of the grieving process’s intensity and duration in a study on human grief by Bugen. The predictors wouldn’t be different in the case of trust loss as well.
The process of grief includes five emotional stages to recovery from loss, as per the Kubler-Ross model. This process is not linear, and the hurt partner can find themselves at any stage throughout varying timelines. The stages of trust loss, applying the grief model to the aftermath of an affair, would be as follows:
The hurt partner struggles to comprehend what happened and is often unaware of the Gottman-Rusbult-Glass betrayal cascade that the betraying partner experienced or is experiencing (Read further about the betraying partner’s struggles in the article, “How Do Affairs Happen?”). The hurt partner tends to minimize the pain of the affair initially and goes through the phase of “something is amiss, and it will be set right.” There is a strong need to confirm with the partner by asking questions in several different ways as they feel that this cannot be happening.
The hurt partner starts to piece together the incidents from the past, and the reality gradually emerges. There is apparent anger about the betrayal, hurt for being let down, and sadness about losing the relationship. The anger can be toward oneself for letting this happen, the partner who did this to them, and the liaison who shouldn’t have crossed the boundaries. But then, there is also the fear that the anger may push away the very person they still love. The fear of losing the partner results in suppressing anger, which may erupt abruptly at different points as the entirety of the situation sinks in. There may also be self-doubt about their role in the case, which is overwhelming, given the immense emotional stress already persisting.
The feelings of confusion, pain, anger, and other emotions seem unbearable and threaten the loss of control. It is a helpless state intensified by powerful emotions and therefore comes a need to regain control. The hurt partner tries to reset the past by exploring different paths, such as “if only I had stopped her that day when I saw her messaging,” “what if the other person had misused the situation and my partner is not at fault,” etc. There is a struggle to heal the pain faster by providing logical explanations and intellectualizing feelings. The hurt partner may try premature closure to postpone experiencing painful emotions.
Here one feels the full impact of losing a trusted relationship. The affair erases everything the hurt partner believed. While the first three stages are more cognitive and solution-oriented, this stage is emotional and experience-oriented. It might involve heaviness and isolation. The hurt partner experiences intense emotions of anger, sadness, and doubts that can feel like there is no more running away. Questions may arise like, “does my partner love me at all?” “I should have given more time and attention before,” “What do I do now?” etc. These questions address the concerns at a deeper level, releasing intense emotions. It is a difficult phase that can feel foggy. Though depression may feel like a comfort zone as the inner conflict lessens, dwelling here indefinitely is unhealthy and would need counseling assistance to move on.
Acceptance comes concerning what happened and what it means in the future. It is not a perfect resolution and permanent closure (with emotions and interpersonal realities) but a transformative stage following a significant change. The hurt partner may start to have thoughts like, “I am aware of what went wrong and can understand the reasons,” “I will be able to forgive and move on,” etc. At this point, the perspective is more on the present moment and future rather than the past. Hope is renewed about the restoration of the relationship. This stage feels different as the outlook towards several aspects of life changes.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Shirley Glass noted that the hurt partner often suffers from a PTSD reaction following an affair’s discovery. According to Drs. John and Julie Gottman, if the below symptoms persist, then the chances are that the hurt partner is experiencing PTSD.
- Recurrent recollections and intrusive visualizations: “Deja vu” events, days, locations, etc., tend to trigger flashbacks of affair specifics. For example, recurring dates of when the hurt partner had found out about the affair trigger memories and related emotions that can induce flooding (stress) and panic attacks.
- Oscillating moods, confusion, irritability, and outbursts: As the hurt partner struggles between feelings of betrayal and acceptance, there are periods of emotional numbing followed by explosions.
- Intense emotions of anger, hurt, shame, grief, and frustration: There are ambivalent fears of anger, guilt, self-doubts, etc., that can overwhelm the hurt partner. Empathetic listening goes a long way in healing.
- Hyper-vigilance and startling: Hurt partners can become startled and vigilant about mundane things like message notifications, phone rings, delay in replies, etc., and may seem to make impossible demands. Compassion and assurance will help.
- Avoidance, detachment, and seclusion: The overwhelming feelings appear challenging, and isolation may seem like the only option. The betraying partner often misunderstands it as distancing and tends to stay away. It may enhance the feelings of rejection in the hurt partner when what is needed is emotional support.
- Loss of focus and interest: The depression symptoms of demotivation, loss of interest, lack of energy, irregular sleep, no appetite, low feelings, etc., can persist.
- Hopelessness about the future: As the world, they know, collapses, there may be hopelessness and helplessness about the relationship.
Although not all partners hurt by an affair will develop PTSD reactions, many will experience grief and depression. Hurt partners may become obsessed with the affair’s details, feel powerless with their emotions, and need therapeutic assistance at such times. It is important to note that these reactions are normal responses and can benefit from couple therapy.
An affair shakes everything that the hurt partner believes in their understanding of themselves and the world. Gottman Method Couples Therapy can help a couple learn to atone, attune, and attach as they restore new purpose and meaning together.
Has your relationship experienced a sexual or emotional affair? The Gottman Institute is currently seeking couples for an international study on affair recovery. For more information, please click here.
Bugen, L. A. (1977). Human grief: A model for prediction and intervention. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 47(2), 196–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1977.tb00975.x
Glass, S. (2007). NOT “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity. Simon & Schuster.
Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples.
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2017a). The Natural Principles of Love. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 9(1), 7–26. doi: 10.1111/JFTR.12182
Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2017b). Treating Affairs and Trauma. Unpublished manuscript, Gottman Institute, Seattle, USA.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1986). Assessing the role of emotion in marriage. Behavioral Assessment.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 221–233. doi: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A Two‐Factor Model for Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce: Exploratory Analyses Using 14‐Year Longitudinal Data*. Family Process, 41(1), 83–96. doi: 10.1111/J.1545-5300.2002.40102000083.X
Hall, C. (2011). Beyond Kubler-Ross: recent developments in our understanding of grief and bereavement. InPsych: The Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society Ltd, 33(6), 8.
Holland, K. (2018, September 25). What You Should Know About the Stages of Grief. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/stages-of-grief