You’re going along, in love as ever, and boom…reality comes crashing down when you discover your significant other has been having an affair of the heart.
A pit develops in your stomach the size of Cleveland when you see that the message “I wish you were here…I am thinking about you all the time” was sent to someone else last night at 10:30pm.
The stark contrast between what you thought was real and the actual reality can be shocking, overwhelming, and disorienting.
This was how one of my recent clients described it anyways.
Mary and John had been together for almost two years. Mary reported to me that she had never felt like this about anyone else before and that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with John.
Yet, three months ago, Mary discovered a long string of messages and photos between John and another woman that started only 8 months after they had started dating. From what she could tell, they never actually had sex, but that didn’t matter. She was devastated. “How could he say these intimate things to someone else?” she questioned, especially when as far as she could tell, their relationship was a happy one.
Emotional affairs can manifest themselves in all kinds of ways.
A married woman of 15 years who is constantly confiding with a “work friend” about her problems at home, while always making sure to look her best.
A man who gets in touch with a college ex and begins an illicit affair ripe with long telephone conversations, clandestine text messages, and frequent photo exchanges.
This kind of betrayal is as painful as sexual transgressions and is an even slippier slope. The person doing the emotional cheating often doesn’t see that there is anything wrong with what he or she is doing. After all, they aren’t kissing or having sex with this other person.
For instance, when Mary confronted John about his actions, he simply said “I get bored at work, so I text back.”
Beginning the healing process
When a betrayal like this happens, it is normal to experience anger, sadness, anxiety, sleeplessness, shame, or lack of appetite, but the biggest common misconception I see in my line of work is self-blame.
The person being cheated on feels like this is their fault, proclaiming that “if only I was more confident or adventurous or less anxious than this never would have happened.”
But if we look at how human beings operate, we can see that this is simply not true.
The one thing all emotional cheaters have in common is that they get caught up and seduced by their own low-mood thinking. They take feelings of boredom and insecurity seriously, so when another person comes along giving them positive attention, they welcome the dopamine rush that comes from this new and exciting interaction. Cheaters are essentially using the affair as a temporary band-aid for their own emotional discomfort.
What to do
With that being said, even though the cheater’s actions are a reflection of their own thinking, there is no universal “right” answer of what to do after an emotional affair. Some couples will stay together, others will choose to separate, and yet still others brainstorm a creative solution that works for them.
The biggest mistake I see clients make is not giving themselves enough time to reflect inward to their own gut instincts after a betrayal. Although the advice of friends is well-intentioned, taking the time to check in with your own inner wisdom and common sense and allowing your partner the space to do the same, is essential.
In couples that choose to stay together, the biggest challenge is the “thought-storms” that follow days, months, or even years after.
Be prepared that persistent thoughts in the form of worry and anxiety will likely show up for the person who was cheated on and that thoughts of insecurity and boredom will likely show up again for the transgressor.
Thought (in the form of memories and emotions) is the primary factor that prevents couples from re-establishing trust. However, it is possible to trust again.
The key in re-establishing trust is when couples understand that they do not have to act on or even believe every thought that enters their mind.
Gaining more awareness into the nature of thought helps immensely to tip the scales in the couple’s favor. In the case of Mary and John, Mary made a conscious choice to forgive John and reports that they are doing very well now.
I recommend learning more about thought-based healing methodologies like the ones listed below.
Start with these resources:
The 10% Happier App by Dan Harris for guided daily meditations
The Relationship Handbook by Dr. George Pranksy