I want to, as always, point out that I am not a marriage expert, counselor, or licensed professional on any level. What I share is merely a mix of my personal experience, wisdom gleaned from others, including the marriage workshop that my husband and I attended, and my personal faith and knowledge from the Bible and the Holy Spirit.
Q. How long does it take to heal/stop triggering/really forgive and forget? (After infidelity or an emotional affair)
A. Healing and forgiveness are such personal things that it would be impossible for me to answer this precisely. I know that through researching this topic on my own, I have read that the average length of time it takes to go back to not feeling like a crazy person is 2 years. For me personally, I haven’t quite reached that length of time for one of them, so I will answer according to each incident.
The first indication of infidelity (at this point, in mind only) was in September of 2013. It had been going on for much longer than that, but this was when I first learned that there was a problem. I couldn’t hear certain languages spoken, or eat certain foods for a long time because of the specific ethnicity of this girl. It made me feel like a horrible person because I am not racist, by any means, but even seeing someone that looked like they could be that ethnicity caused me to have panic attacks. I would sweat, and my heart would race, and I would have to get away as soon as possible. By the time that Eric came home from our separation, I was well enough that hearing or seeing her name did not bother me as much. I was able to see people of her ethnicity without a panic attack. That would have been about one year after the initial knowledge, and a little less than a year after the physical affair came out.
The second affair was not revealed to me until Eric came home from our separation. This made the entire reconciliation process very hard on me. I had all but gotten over the hardest part of the healing process from the first girl by the time he came home, but my happiness was shattered again by having to have the wound cut back open and made bigger by this new revelation. This one was different for me because I had never seen this girl before, so I only had a few things that my son had told me about what she looked like, coupled with knowing where my husband met her and how they had spent some of their time together. This made it so hard for me because I had tiny pieces of things that were generic enough for me to look at everyone I saw and wonder if they reminded him of her. It tormented me that I didn’t know things about her because I was afraid of doing something that reminded Eric of her. For me, this made healing more difficult. I have mostly gotten over worrying about this one now, but again, it has been over a year now since I found out. I do, however, have a problem hearing her name to this day.
Healing is an ongoing process. Every time I think that I have healed, something comes along to poke at that tender spot and reminds me that I have a way to go to be complete. Honestly, I’m not sure it will ever be completely healed. I have given forgiveness to Eric and I have worked on forgiveness for the other girls. I forgive the second girl far more than I forgive the first because the second girl was being lied to about me, but the first girl knew Eric was married with children, and had met me on multiple occasions. I WILL forgive them, but I have hurt over the disrespect that the girl showed my children and myself. I also have a lot of anger for the way she manipulated and hurt Eric, despite the fact that their relationship may have continued if she had not, because my love for Eric causes me to be protective of his heart. IC think people have a hard time understanding this when I try to explain it… But I look at it like this: I have unconditional love for my husband. If my husband chose to leave me and give up on me, I would still never want to see him in pain. This is the heart of God. When we walk outside of His love and are unfaithful to Him, He mourns for us in our pain. I want to be more like Him, and I want my love to reflect His love.
Q. How do you handle beginning intimacy again after reconciliation? What if they bring new requests or new “tricks” into the bedroom?
A. In some ways, sex came easy to us after reconciliation. The physical distance and lack of connection are great motivators to get right back into things. In other ways, there were painful things connected with sex that caused more of an emotional distance. There were many times that we would be making love, and I would either start crying, or I would have to stop. There were also countless times that I broke down immediately after sex. This is not sexy. But it is ok. It is so hard to distance your mind from the knowledge that your spouse has been intimate with another person. I personally have deeply spiritual beliefs regarding marriage and the marriage bed, which made it very hard for me to feel safe or connected once Eric came home. The good news is that as you heal, and the more time goes by, the less these awkward encounters will occur. I think it took between 4-6 months for those depressing occurrences to stop.
I will warn that infidelity always comes with triggers, and sometimes those triggers can occur in the bedroom. I’ll be embarrassingly honest here in saying that I absolutely cannot use condoms because of Eric’s infidelity. I can’t to this day even consider it. This is a trigger that will probably bother me forever. I know it sounds silly and probably unreasonable, but it comes with the aftermath. I also had a lot of insecurities crop up after reconciliation, regarding my body. Knowing that the other girls he was with were younger and much fitter than I am causes me a lot of pain, mentally and emotionally, because I know that I cannot be what they were physically. This is not always a problem, but I occasionally slip into those insecurities, and it does affect our sex life when that happens. The one thing that I want to get across with this answer is that it is normal. It sucks that these things are the new normal, but they are. I don’t know that things will stay this way forever, but they might. The good thing is that Eric has been very patient with me, very tender and loving. When I experience triggers or insecurities, he is sure to lovingly address them and ease my fears and pain.
Let’s talk about bringing new tricks or requests to the bedroom. DON’T DO IT. If you are not the person who strayed, perhaps a frank discussion about this beforehand will help. I will not give details, but there was one tiny thing that Eric seemed to do differently when he came home, and it caused me a lot of grief. He reassured me and reassured me, but it still bothered me. I think that one thing you may have to just suck up and suffer through is missing out on something new that you liked. This is part of repentance. Leave that thing in the past and move forward, learning and experiencing NEW new things with your spouse.
Despite our awkward beginnings, Eric and I have rebuilt a very satisfying sex life together. The big picture is that nothing major has suffered from what happened. In fact, I feel as though our intimacy level and connection has grown deeper and more fulfilling than it was before. Things will level out with time, as long as you both communicate what you are thinking and feeling regarding sex together. Oh, and no expectations! Expectations leave you feeling unfulfilled. So the easy way to get past that is to not have them… Sex should be a relaxing and fun experience, not a quest for perfection.
Q. How do you regain emotional vulnerability once you have been betrayed by your spouse?
A. One concept that Joe Beam of Marriage Helper talks about is “bricks;” I’ll give a brief explanation on bricks. We all have a brick wall around us that we use to present ourselves to the world. These walls stand between us and the rest of the world to protect us from getting hurt. When we begin to trust someone, we “hand them bricks” from our wall to test the waters. If they do not use them against us, we will continue handing them more bricks; however if they throw them at us, we will build the wall back, and build it higher. When you have been betrayed, your first response is the build that wall as high as you can reach, and never let your spouse back in. But in a case of genuine reconciliation, you do not want to walk around with a wall around your heart forever. If your spouse is repentant and doing their best to reach you again, you having a wall keeping them from you will not help you to heal, it might do the opposite.
So how to allow yourself to let down your wall? My grief counselor told me one method that you could try. I was always so scared of Eric doing something to hurt me, so I would come up with these awful scenarios in my head that would cause me to feel perpetually unstable in my relationship with him. She explained that while it is normal to use past events to explain current behavior, it is not always healthy. You cannot look at the present through the lens of the past. I would say, “I’m afraid he’s still calling the other girl, but hiding it.” Her response would be to ask had I seen any proof of this. If I could honestly say no, I’d combed the phone records, gone through his internet history, checked his app usage, and seen nothing, then I could not say he had. So all that we can go on is current experience. This is hard to accept for someone like me that is a self-professed worry wort. But it actually helped me to rationalize when I would have a moment of inner turmoil.
Building emotional vulnerability and trust back up is a team effort. You must be willing to be vulnerable and to trust what you can see with your eyes right now, and your spouse must be willing to be accountable to you, showing you proof when you need it, and reassuring you. It comes down to choice and allowing reason to trump emotions every now and then, which is tough, but possible.
Q. How do you, as the wounded spouse, handle watching your spouse mourn the limerant object?
A. This is a tough one. I don’t know if every person goes through a mourning period after reconciliation or not. I assume it has a lot to do with the extent of the relationship. But it is a natural reaction to a loss of a close relationship, which unfortunately gets played out right in front of the betrayed spouse. I remember watching Eric sobbing over having given up his relationship with the other girl. I felt deep pain over the fact that my husband was missing this other relationship so badly when I was right here, but at the same time, my heart hurt for his pain. I think that it helps to know that your spouse is committed, even if they are going through withdrawals of sorts. There is nothing you can do to stop this, and as much as it hurts, you should not shame them for going through this. While there was one very painful event that I recall going through with Eric mourning the limerant object, it is the only time I saw it happening. I would hope that in the case of a genuine reconciliation the spouse who was in an affair would try to be cognizant of the betrayed spouse’s emotions regarding that. As far as controlling your own pain in the face of events like the one I experienced, watching them in pain over the other person, I recommend separating your knowledge of the situation from the pain that your spouse is feeling. When I watched my husband crying, although I knew why, my most overwhelming urge was to comfort him. I did comfort him, and this let him know that my love would cover that pain. We need to remember that love is not about us. If more people understood that, we would have less selfish decisions being made in marriages.
Q. How do you respond to friends and family members who either supported a relationship with the other person, or do not support the reconciliation of the marriage?
A. My parents would have never accepted another person in Eric’s life, but they never gave up on Eric. What that looked like in our separation was that while he was living near them, without a car, they would take him to get groceries, or take him to the laundry mat. In some ways, it felt like a betrayal to me for them to continue taking care of him, knowing he was with another person, but that faithfulness and love for him carried the relationship that we all have now. Had they chosen to not care for him while he was there, there might have been bitterness in him toward my family.
Having not gone through this personally, I can only draw from the closest thing I have to that… My mother in law treats my husband’s ex-wife like she’s more family than I am. This hurts very badly, but while it hurts me, Eric does all that he can to respect me and uplift me. We do not have a very close relationship with his mother because of her treatment of me and my children, as though we are not an important part of the family. Any time that his family has tried to insult or separate me or the children, Eric has chosen not to hold his tongue. As long as your spouse is willing to limit family time with the family that has disowned you, or defend you when any harm is done, you should be able to be strong enough to keep going.