Psychologist Dr. Shirley Glass can’t tell you exactly what will happen when you find out your partner has been cheating on you, but she can give you a fairly good idea based on her 40 years of research into marital infidelity. Most people will go through several distinct stages of pain and readjustment, and how they and their partners go through them together determines whether their relationships will survive.
The first stage is the “Moment of Realization.” This is the precise time your suspicions are confirmed or that exact moment you find out in an undeniable way that your partner has been involved with someone else. If your partner tells you in person, you may have a better time of it than if you find out through a private detective you or by finding love emails. Either way, the moment is one of profound pain and suffering and one you never forget. In fact, most people remember everything about the moment and relive it in their minds a thousand times in “flashbacks.” They experience deep anxiety and feelings of being unsafe, and their adrenaline and stress levels increase in the same way they would if they were enduring physical threats to their lives. What’s really sad is that the one person who used to listen and share their problems has become the actual source of the danger they fear. They typically feel isolated, humiliated, afraid, and deeply depressed.
Dr. Glass calls the second stage “Immediate Aftermath.” At this point a “style” of coping emerges. Some people shut down emotionally and experience only numbness. This group may start avoiding being around other people, even family members and friends, and they don’t want to talk about the affair with their partners or anyone else, including counselors. Their outward manner seems all right, but inside they are constricted and numb.
Other people do the opposite and become hyper-emotional. They have crying jags, and their emotional states can shift from angry to depressed to guilty about their own part in what happened.
Others become obsessive and can’t stop thinking or talking about the affair. They question their partners relentlessly — one man told Dr. Glass that his wife had turned into the “Grand Inquisition.” They want to know details about meetings, what the lover looks like, gifts that were exchanged, etc. They look at old calendars to check out dates, and they read the emails between the lovers. At night they can’t sleep because their minds keep racing obsessively about their partners’ affairs. If they have childhood issues, since as histories of parents who cheated or trauma and abuse, these surface and increase their pain.
As the realization of what happens sinks in, many people who find out their partners have cheated on them experience posttraumatic stress syndrome that can last a year or more. They retain the obsessive need to talk about the affair. They become hypervigilant in that they overreact to sounds and other stimuli, becoming easily startled and fearful. They have “flashbacks” in that they will cry or otherwise become depressed when a song or color or some other little thing triggers memories of the “moment of realization.” They have intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts about the affair and trouble concentrating.
Dr. Glass describes the whole sequence as “an emotional earthquake at the end of the Richter scale.” While she says that things get better with the passage of time, her main advice is to get professional help.
Glass, Shirley (PhD). Not Just Friends: Protect Your Relationship From Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.