Infidelity 101: The Pain of Discovery

Copyright © 2010, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

Affairs come to light in a number of ways. There may be a period of time during which you begin to have suspicions about your spouse. Let's say your husband begins a fitness regimen and pays more attention than usual to his appearance. Or your wife starts spending more and more time away from home, claiming that she is running errands or "just going out" with some friends. Or perhaps he or she just seems somehow different. He may be irritable and find fault with things that didn't bother him before. Perhaps your wife seems distant and not as interested in conversation as usual. There may be less interest in sex than previously, or your partner may have developed a taste for some new sexual activities.

The list of potential red flags is virtually endless, and there are a considerable number of websites devoted to helping you determine whether your spouse is cheating. A word of caution is in order, however. While the behaviors noted on these sites can signal that something is seriously amiss in your relationship and that perhaps a third party is involved, they can also signal depression, anxiety, or simply a response to undue stress. It's important not to jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence and without considering addressing your concerns with your spouse. More on that later.

In other cases, the evidence is undeniable. You find a hotel receipt with charges for room service for two and an adult movie. The credit card bill lists charges for flowers or a gift you never received. Consumed with anxiety and doubt, you follow your spouse one day at lunch and observe him sitting close and holding hands with a woman in a restaurant. Perhaps your level of suspicion has risen so high that you decide to hire a private detective. Finally, the detective hands you a packet of photographs of your wife and another man holding each other and kissing in a hotel parking lot. In yet another scenario, your spouse says "We have to talk" or "There's something I have to tell you". Unable to stand the guilt or the stress of a secret relationship any longer, he confesses to you that he is having an affair.

Many words are used to describe the way people commonly feel when they learn of a spouse's infidelity--shocked, horrified, crushed, furious, even dazed by the revelation. Perhaps the most common word, however, is "devastated". This word appears repeatedly in descriptions of initial reactions to learning of a partner's infidelity. "Devastation" suggests that everything you took for granted, everything that made you feel secure in your relationship, has been ripped away. The trauma of discovery of an affair can have extreme and far-reaching effects. For example, you may be unable to eat, sleep, or concentrate on anything, including work. You may want simply to curl up in bed with the covers over your head, hoping the whole mess will go away. Or you may try desperately to go on as if nothing has happened. If you don't talk about it, maybe it's not real.

But denial, in the long run, doesn't work. If your spouse confesses his infidelity, you can't escape awareness of it and will most likely have to act. If you discover the infidelity on your own, then you have some critical decisions to make. These include whether, and when, to confront your spouse, as well as how you plan to proceed in the future. So, clarity and timing are critical. Many betrayed spouses choose to wait some period of time before confronting an unfaithful spouse because of confusion as to whether they desire to stay in the marriage, or, if not, what they would like to see happen. If there are children who would be subject to custody arrangements, or if the betrayed partner's financial status is uncertain, perhaps because of an extended period of time as an at-home parent, one may choose to wait before confronting the partner having the affair. Eventually, however, one either actively decides to stay or to leave, or by default remains in the marriage.

Again, initial reaction to discovery of a partner's affair tends to be devastation. You may find yourself tearful throughout the day, including at work. Conversely, you may at times simply feel numb and wonder why you're not more emotional. You may lie awake night after night, unable to sleep. Or, you may take refuge in sleep and find it almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning. Many betrayed partners are barely able to eat after learning of a spouse's affair. Others, however, comfort themselves with food or self-medicate with alcohol.

Another common reaction is obsessively thinking about the affair. These thoughts can involve images of the spouse with the affair partner, locations where they met, activities they engaged in, etc. Finally, you may find yourself engaging in mental comparison with the affair partner. What does he or she have that I don't? Is she more attractive? Is she a better lover? Is he more successful in business? Does he have a better sense of humor? Is she more fun to be with? The list of questions with which you can torment yourself is endless.

Although we don't have statistics on how often affairs are discovered by one partner versus how often they're disclosed by the other partner, it's certainly the case that cheating spouses sometimes voluntarily confess their transgressions. Some individuals eventually become so guilt ridden that they can no longer maintain their secret. In other cases, the burden of living a secret life takes its toll. Juggling a family and an extramarital relationship, while exhilarating at first, can contribute to anxiety and associated stress-related ailments, such as high blood pressure, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems.

Finally, affairs tend to have a natural progression, just like other relationships. They may be thrilling and all-consuming for a time. However, just like spouses in a marriage, affair partners develop their own routines. In the beginning, every stolen moment together seems like a gift, but over time, expectations develop as to how much time will be devoted to the affair. An affair partner may begin to resent time spent with the other partner's family, or the fact that the partner continues to have sex with his or her spouse. The affair becomes, in essence, a "shadow marriage", complete with its own set of expectations, disappointments, and resentments.

Regardless of whether you discover a spouse's infidelity or he or she confesses it to you, your life will be forever changed. There are immediate practical issues to be addressed, such as custody and financial arrangements, in addition to the overarching question of whether you feel you can remain in your relationship. Not all marriages recover from the devastation of an affair, but some do and manage to emerge strong and satisfying. In order for this to happen, most couples will likely need the help of a mental health professional who specializes in the area of relationship issues. Even if you decide that your marriage has been irretrievably damaged, a therapist can be invaluable in helping you deal with your emotional pain and issues of trust, so that you can move forward toward a healthy and independent life.