Towards emotional safety

Trauma, growth, safety and fidelity after disclosure

Intimate betrayal is humiliating. It assaults dignity.

Often its legacy is a traumatic injury and traumatic grief.

Reports of post-traumatic growth outnumber those of deterioration but that can take some time. Everyone’s journey to growth is unique.

Multiple or serial infidelity, held secret, accumulates injury, and then posts it forward to the day of opening it like one of those time capsules buried in the school yard but without much to celebrate.

We mistake betrayal bonding for love. This is going overboard to help one who has been destructive to us or obsessing about them long after they have left.

We underestimate the cost of humiliated fury in personal and national history.

We have trivialized trauma in many ways. Everyday use of the term is synonymous with extreme distress rather than the neurological injury clinical psychologists understand by trauma.

We report traffic accident deaths but not the years it takes the families, ambulance officers, witnesses and the injured survivors to retrieve some quality of life from the wreckage.

If your lover had died, you could bury them. If it were a date rape or home invasion you could call the police and hopefully never see the offender again. But with intimate betrayal the wrong doer is alive and well, back from a big adventure. Always there, in your face.

When they hold you, you ask, ‘is that how he held you?’ and when they climax you ask, ‘did you think of her’. When they talk about a new interest you ask, ‘was that theirs?’ When there is one of your anniversaries, you ask did your lover come here on our day and to our special place. The answers are always right next to your own experience of the times and places that were betrayed.

It is impossible to get away from other everyday events, which come out of left-field and trigger distress, flashbacks and reliving. You could see your partner and lover together or fear that you might. It’s impossible not to scan the environment for risk factors and plan how to avoid them or contain your reactions to them.

It’s the same when you walk out into what used to be a safe world, not knowing who you will bump into or who else saw ‘them’ together some time ago. They ask you about ‘them’ in a knowing, conspiratorial way perhaps assuming that it is sanctioned by you or that you’re just too dumb to know.

If the affair is ongoing, then these effects are multiplied since, once exposed, the fact of it cannot any longer be denied without significant damage to your own self-worth.

The only way to begin healing intimate betrayal is to build safety. For some it may be a safety they had taken for granted or one they never have had either in marriage or their family of origin. There are layers and layers of safety. Body, mind and spirit.

It is not safe if the straying partner continues infidelity in any way either actual, threatened or symbolic.

The attitude of ‘toughing it out’ is making claim to an invulnerability that breaches all we know about intimacy and is thus another kind of infidelity.

Continued deceit and denial is also infidelity – more of the same.

‘Stage managing’ the disclosure process continues the denial.

All this applies to financial infidelity as well.

Allowing an illicit affair to continue, even allowing it to end with dignity, demands more than most betrayed are willing or able or ought to give in return for what? A mad idea that they will eventually get used to it and come to appreciate being devalued and misused by their partner’s undignified and ongoing betrayal? That they will become, for example, a swinger too?

Complex post traumatic stress disorder

Humiliation trauma is a likely result where the straying partner has serial affairs over many years. However, where the betrayed is blamed for the repeated affairs of their partner, is belittled and bullied at home and humiliated in public, and crucially feels unable to leave the situation i.e. effectively a captive, then complex post traumatic stress is more likely.

Sometimes the repeat strayer is suffering from a prior psychological trauma and cheats when they are dissociated. They cheat when they feel overwhelmed by traumatic responding and enter an altered state of mind to cope with that overwhelm. What is learned/experienced in that dissociated state of mind is more likely to be recalled and repeated in a similar state of mind.

Jointly exploring the triggers for dissociation or disembodied acting out, can be a fruitful way to understand the state of mind that supports serial infidelity.

One way to get a sense of the possibility of intentionally lying (as opposed to shamed forgetfulness) is to get the strayer to retell an event or small series of events in reverse order – from the end to the beginning. Try it for yourself first so you learn why that is so before you ask it of a strayer.

End the affair and end the endings of the affair

This means:

  • A clear, unambiguous and declared end to the affair.
  • Specifically defined contacts with the third party if they unavoidably work together or are a member of close family, friendship, community or neighbourhood group.
  • Getting smart about toxic interaction patterns and triangular patterns and not feeding them.
  • De-friending them on social networking sites.
  • Pro-active disclosure of accidental meetings, of sms or email contacts or any other form of relating including the ‘just once more to say goodbye’ thing.
  • How many just once more’s does it take to end it?


Declaring an end

Example 1

One of my clients, in her mind, had completely finished with her extra-marital affair partners many years ago. In my assessment, I thought so too but her partner wanted her to make the ending more public and contemporary.

In his reading of her past emails and letters (which he had obsessively collected) she had described one of them as, ‘the love of her life’. She wrote that she had never felt anything like that with this husband of 25 years.

If you can imagine it, this knowledge wounded him back to a place even before they were married.

In some ways he had a right to a more ‘clear, unambiguous and declared end’ but on another level he was punishing her and wanted more humiliation of her before he was satisfied.

The two processes intermingled almost inextricably in his mind as the hurt was so profound.

In effect he was asking her to restart the relationships with them so that she could then tell them anew it was over.

That marriage ended in divorce in a sense because in his mind the affairs hadn’t ended, and she could never end them on his conditions.

He was not suffering from a syndrome called morbid jealousy.

Rather his trust was irreparably broken by her serial offending.


Methods of disclosing non-sanctioned contact

In most other situations it helps to avoid a method of disclosing any contacts with the former affair partner as if the wrongdoer were fronting the school principal or the family doctor. Hurt and shame stifle spontaneity anyway but when you are expected to report in like a prisoner on probation or an automaton checking in their time sheet without a real response back, it defeats intimacy.

The best approach is to own up as soon as practicable after the event. Each delay erodes a bit more trust.

Safety extends to the need to know – secrets are not safe. The betrayer would be well advised to open a window into the affair and pro-actively volunteer ‘unsettling, guilt-producing and controversial’ information so that the betrayed does not have to extract it by a process of threats, accusations and surveillance.

Opening the window is making oneself vulnerable to hurt.

An unwillingness to expose oneself can be another level of infidelity that betrays the wounded person’s need for restoration of safety.

Plan for the future breakdown of these plans.

Disclose and close any other re-entry points to the affair by predicting how the agreed boundaries might be breached in the future, which accidental meetings are likely to occur and then develop inner awareness to catch the process of re-offending before it takes off.

Then if you continue feeling significantly unsafe get professional help as a couple as soon as possible. I recommend that for ones nervous system, because the longer traumatic reliving and/or humiliated fury continue, the more damage to the body’s capacity to heal.

It can take months to get in to a good couple’s or family therapist familiar with trauma and betrayal. All of us in this industry know if we catch this stuff early we do our jobs better, but once it is entrenched the elaborations become problems in themselves – like reacting to reactions of reactions.

Making amends, forgiveness and help-seeking

Safety for the betrayed also includes a commitment by the straying partner to receive ethical and professional help; to seek appropriate social supports so that the person whose trust they violated does not also carry the burden of helping the offender understand:

      • how they did it
      • what set of values permitted it
      • what they want now
      • how to set goals for repair and rehabilitation
      • how to self-monitor changes in affair permissive behaviour (e.g. flirting, loose boundaries, acting out anger or depression) and
      • how to make amends

A forgiveness process that explores the unforgivable may include naming and claiming the injury and blaming the offender

A premature forgiveness usually glosses over naming and claiming, and under performs a necessary, informal, psychological prosecution of multiple wrongdoings. That is the function of blame.

      • To forgive someone, you must blame someone
      • Blaming means that you conclude that someone is accountable for causing something to happen, and
      • that what happened was wrong
      • Blaming answers the questions Who? and Why? ‘Who hurt me and why did they do it?’

The straying partner may be well advised to initiate a self imposed, appropriate and meaningful loss of privileges like a punishment. A voluntary loss of something or some activity highly valued by the strayer can start to balance the scales. I’m not talking about giving up your bridge night or stopping Friday nights with the boys for a couple of months. Nor of self harm such as amputation.

Something of equal value to that which is betrayed is hard to find, but there are losses that can approach it and some that can exceed it. We don’t need to go back to the middle ages for suitable punishment. Today’s losses are just as meaningful.

One of my clients mistakenly believed they could just continue as before in their extreme sports commitments, travelling overseas twice a year (when the affairs occurred). Another, that they could continue overnight business trips to the town where the third party lived. Another, that they could keep climbing the career ladder spending late nights at work. Another, that they could keep silent as they had done before.

It is a mistake for the unfaithful to intend to minimize the damage in the rest of their life, maintain their freedom to play whilst the partner they betray lives with the consequences of treachery for years to come.

You may be amazed how many strayers don’t get that. Some remain unwilling to sacrifice their freedom of choice in order to repair the damage, a choice they stole from their partner in order to cheat on them.

Some betrayers truly chose their lover but had not chosen their partner in quite that way in the first place. As a result of the affair they have not come to a place of choosing the partner and un-choosing the lover (now or as a future possibility). The core of this kind of problem was there before the wandering eyes found clandestine fruit.

This primary choice (or lack of it) is critical to behaviour change, since without the choice there is little hope of commitment to a partner in name only.

However, this is not always so.

Example 2

One of my clients Ben, came with Mary, the extra-marital affair partner he had married after divorcing his first wife who he had cheated on with Mary. He said this second wife, ‘represented the first choice I had ever made for myself. All the other big choices in my life had been made for me by the family from a very young age’ – all the way up the family agribusiness in the Northern Rivers.

The problem in this second marriage was that Mary did not know what he wanted except to please her and make her happy. He had little skill in asking for or even knowing what he wanted in a close relationship. Innovative and clear at work, restricted and fog fearful at home. He put the family business ahead of his own needs (or what little of those needs he allowed himself to feel and acknowledge).

He had recent painful evidence of how this slavery to the business had destroyed the peace of his grandfather’s last years but he would not put his own health first for fear of the extended family consequences. He knew this choice was life threatening but he was frozen.

Between a rock and a hard place, he was shutting out the love of his life – his first independent choice. His first wife he married in a way to please his family. Mary he married to please himself. After 8 years together Mary did not know what to do with him, and Ben had no way out of this dilemma – damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

It is never a simple choice between slavery and freedom, but between slavery and the unknown. The unknown terrified Ben. Everything had been planned for him from boarding school in Grafton to the innovative Dookie Agricultural college (where his great grandfather, grandfather and father went as boys) to progressively taking over management of the business.

I thought about this family pattern in the context of my father’s generation before WWII. My Dad was told what career he was to have – one that best fitted the family business. He hated the job until the day he retired, all the while longing to be a stock broker. A hobby at which he was brilliant. Ben grew up in the 1980’s but was just as disadvantaged in his career path as my Dad had been 50 years earlier.

I asked Ben if he would consider rebelling against his family of origin as he had done in breaking the rules and going with Mary – if that was what it took to save this marriage? I was almost asking would he put his marriage before his family and the business.

That question lost me a client – it was unthinkable for him.

Ben had chosen Mary but had not ‘un-chosen’ his family’s choices for him.

In a way his family was the other woman in his life. Mary had begun to realise that his dilemma was present in his first marriage. He had escaped from it without examining the influence of his family of origin, by linking up with Mary. She now feared that he was affair ready, and might begin to look for another escape route. The more he said all he wanted to do was make her happy the more she feared he would fail at that and look elsewhere. He had to be happy in himself first.

Looking back on their story now, I hadn’t recognise that an underlying and more long standing problem was Ben’s depression. I got caught up in their desperation to re-open their hearts to each other, put the past behind them and make choices in the present that would support their marriage and honour the farm commitments.

In retrospect I think the problem began the day his grandparents and parents found a boy eager to please who would take on the burden of the family farm. He never chose that path for himself and thus had given up whatever his own inner path may have been. To question that now in his late 30’s was unbearable for him.


Collateral damage to self-control and self-image

It’s worth repeating: the betrayed can experience acute symptoms of post traumatic stress and these interfere with self-control. These disabling experiences are of hyper vigilance; hyper arousal; uncalled for and intrusive images or thoughts of their partner’s infidelity. Often triggered by small reminders at the periphery of awareness. The betrayed may also develop or worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Depression can be described as fragility, brittleness, lack of resilience, a failure to heal, with a loss of any emotion but guilt, of any desire but to stop.

Everyday use of the term depressed is synonymous with lethargy, deep melancholy or profound sadness rather than with the clinical condition that destroys neurons, leaving tiny pock marks across the brain.

Both PTSD and depression can outlast the end of the endings of an intimate betrayal. Both poke holes in the brain destroying nerve cells and leading to functional damage and both can be treated.

Treatment is an area not without controversy and contradiction.

The strayer may also have early or later life upheavals, which serial affairs or ‘casual sex’ may have been used to relieve, medicate or to get away from. Serial affairs can medicate through release of endorphins triggered by the rhythm of agony and ecstasy, bathing the brain in a morphine like drug (endogenous morphine). The effect of childhood neglect is often underestimated in later life repetitions of extra-marital affairs.

The experience of rejection itself interferes with a person’s self control and self image. People who have been rejected become impulsive and self destructive. Rejection drops a person’s IQ by about 25%, reduces their ability to reason and increases aggression.

Crazy thoughts about body image or performance, which may have been an issue in the past resurface and aren’t soothed by the usual reasoned self-validation.

The betrayed are not themselves

They are beside themselves, out of their minds with grief and do not respond to reason nor bounce back in the usual way. It is as if there is another, smaller self. One embodied in the traumatic memory that lives beside them, triggered by actual or symbolic, external or internal events relating to the illicit affair.

The primary drive of this other self is fear and the primary motive is not to wound (though it may appear that way) but to re-establish safety in their own body and life space.

The non-negotiability of this persistent injured self can be shocking to both.

If there has been previous trauma then this challenging process is likely to be entrenched as well.

Crisis and change

Discovery of infidelity is an uncalled for crisis.

No one deserves it or asks for it, yet it is an opportunity for change and growth.

A lot of dead wood is pruned in the couple’s relationship world and this can re-invigorate growth in unanticipated ways. Friends and family who are quick to judge are soon cut out of the process. But at what a cost! You both may feel like the loss and pain will never end and the prosecution never conclude its case. But this too will pass and you will grow and hopefully with your primary relationship and with a wiser choice of family and friends.

Some things, however, are unlikely ever to be the same again.

In fact some things cannot be the same again. For example, remaining numb or emotionally closed to your self or your partner. Giving up responsibility for your life. None are sustainable options.

Finding nothing of value or sacred in your life is either life terminating or a racket for denying accountability.

Even in the darkest days those who survive and thrive have found some good within themselves and the world that pulled them out of the abyss and into the future.

Uncovering a clandestine affair and each week new facts of the extent of betrayal are revealed, is like being stripped, shaven, thrown out of your house and home and onto the street where no rules apply, nothing to cling to and nothing has meaning. The straying partner may also feel some of this and yet, as the wrong doer, think they have no right to express it.

Discovery or suspicion of extra-pair intercourse is the relationship implosion that on the upside, brings renewal and growth but on the downside leads to uncontrolled flight or fight reactions, depression, verbal abuse, domestic violence, divorce and in Australia and Canada, triple murder/suicides.

Sometimes it leads to or coincides with and continues an empty marriage without effective help where one or both partners are out of reach. Some give up because it is too hard to solve the backlog of issues that contributed to the affair and yet stay on in the marriage out of fear of leaving. This is particular so when the infidel has depended on their partner to look after them.

Sadly that is often the guy who has depended on his wife as some kind of psychic nurse over many years and yet has betrayed her.


Secrets are a choice after the event as well.

Trust is built one connection and demolished one disconnection at a time. Every moment together is a chance to open up to the secret inner world, the other life or to close out your partner again.

After 40 years of working with this issue I have concluded that except in jurisdictions where fornication is a criminal offense or honour killings follow discovery or suspicion of infidelity, the best response to noticing a fleeting inappropriate connection with another (a moment that might approach, begin or renew an affair) is to fess up to your partner as soon as possible.

Own up early to a frisson of attraction or a fantasy of re-engaging before it heads underground where it could curl up into a special friendship or a re-ignited affair.

That requires a willingness and an openness in the primary relationship, the lack of which may be part of the excuse for the affair – the ‘my partner doesn’t understand me’, ‘you’re the only one I can talk to’ lines.

It also requires inner awareness of building the performance steps to do the wrong thing.

This is a psycho-physiological response set, which may be experienced as anticipation or loneliness or desperation or stressed out or resentful or of loss of control or of vibrant lust. Then begins the self-talk that climbs the wall of fear, guilt and healthy shame that stops most people from jumping over into infidelity.

Alcohol helps; being alone in a hotel helps; being unhappy and blaming your partner helps.

But still one has to build the series of steps up to a point where the resistance is down and choice is out the window enough to con yourself into thinking ‘I didn’t have a choice’ or ‘it just happened’ or ‘it was so out of character’ or ‘it doesn’t matter’ and finally the enemy is on the phone or through the door.

Affairs don’t just happen

They begin in our body with our senses and our mind, which since the humanism of the Middle Ages we have believed is entirely in our control. I guess we could go back to witchcraft or spirit possession as an explanation. ‘She/he/you made me do it.’ ‘I couldn’t help myself’.

People with a compulsion to act out sexually or romantically tend not to notice those physiological and cognitive building blocks. They may also have a history of dissociation, of addictive behaviour or of running away from problems. They can say, ‘I don’t know why I did it’. That is truly the level of their self-understanding. They can’t explain it to themselves in any greater detail than they can to their partner.

Some have covered that absent self-awareness ingeniously for years, much like the owner of a large business can hide illiteracy from his employees by appearing to read the paper.

There is much self awareness, expression of emotional intelligence and personal growth beneath the rubber of that apparent lack of awareness.

I usually recommend a 10 day Vipassana silent mediation retreat as the starting point for developing body/mind awareness. Alone with yourself and 20 or so other people sitting in their own stuff and no-one to impose their idea of who you are or what you feel, dogma free. I never got to recommend that to Ben above, but it would have been my next step after suggesting that he question his origins.

Of course some ‘I don’t knows’ are just another brain dead cover up.

Extracting clues in the dark

It’s like trying to find a black cat in a dark room.

Most betrayed partners do not consciously notice shifts in their partner’s endorphin levels or the presence of a third party’s pheromones behind the recent shower, change of clothes or soiled undies.

Some do and they mostly have something like a sixth sense; excellent smell or an acute, gut wrenching knowledge of being deceived.

Others sense the presence of nuances signalling something amiss or that doesn’t fit.

They may sense their partner is absent in a new way, unavailable in a different way or more present and in the moment or more distant and far away.

Some betrayed partners know what is going on and turn a blind eye. This may be strategic – believing that by saying nothing they won’t provoke a terminal crisis (for which they might cop the blame) and the affair will die a natural death. Some affairs do die with nothing ever said.

Many betrayed partners can go back to the exact moment they first knew something was awry – a sense that something or someone had entered the back door of their home but couldn’t put a finger on where exactly that back door was.

Like the naming of it was just out of reach as if in a dream, as if they were demented.

Months and sometimes years later with physical proof of their partner’s straying, those dominoes fall into place, reconstructing the rhythm of their partner’s affair with ease. Then they are doubly scorned, angry and bitterly disappointed for having doubted themselves and believing their partner’s protestations for so long.

And these folk may already be driven mad by the process of discovery before they have the proof by having gone through that hideous and humiliating process of

      • searching
      • smelling
      • following
      • listening
      • spying
      • doubting and,
      • investigating everything

To find some clue that explains what they know at one level but at another level doubt themselves and wonder if they are going crazy.

The numerous ways in which extra marital relationships have been discovered by my clients remind me of the rarity of a perfect crime. A secret liaison takes discipline and practice to secure before, during and after. It requires the complicity of others in keeping the secret. Some involve extended family and children in the cover up.

Most people slip up sometime. Every transaction leaves a trail.

The forbidden pushes for air, as if some part of us wants to get caught and be relieved of the burden of a deadly secret. We are only as sick as our secrets and most of us want to be well.

Sometimes it’s the scorned third party or their outraged partner and even their children who blow the whistle.

Once it was a dog, a territorial Ridgeback who distrusted strangers but seeing his master’s lover coming the other way, strained at the leash to say hello and when they were alongside, wanted to play. Everyone laughed, uncomfortably, but the lover’s husband later couldn’t leave it alone and the questioning began. ‘He couldn’t have been a perfect stranger, his dog knew you, he knew you.’

Catastrophic extraction has the poorest prognosis for recovery and growth

Having to extract the facts from a protective, unwilling and guilty offender in the first place is a revolting part of the process.

Just tell me the truth or kill me, screamed one of my clients.

Others, unable to come to a resolution of the issues with their straying partner, have told me they would rather die than divorce. Rarely, some of these go on to ‘coincidentally’ develop a terminal illness.

Whilst most, sensing the risk to life itself and with incredible determination, fear and tenderness would let go and live on.

Postcard to the straying partner

Once the secret has gone underground and you, the strayer have been confronted, the worst approach is to deny it or put the needs of the third party ahead of your partner and your primary relationship or to side with or defend the third party.

Then, when the evidence is incontrovertible the zombie thing to do is to minimize it or to claim that you’re the victim or to go on the attack when found out.

DARVO – deny, attack, reverse victim and offender – is more common as the reaction of sex offenders being caught. You might as well throw another grenade into your partner’s lap and run for cover.

If the relationship is to survive both of you have to sit in the mess you have made in your backyard, attempt to unravel it and not run away from that process out of fear of what you might uncover.

Withdrawing into silence; disconnecting emotionally; threatening the end of the relationship if your partner continues to respond to your withholding the facts by their doubting you, or even threatening suicide or murder if the betrayed doesn’t leave it alone, all are just more of the same callous wounding of trust and dignity.

Since your credibility, trust-worthiness and integrity are already shot to pieces (having been caught and probably destroyed your partner’s belief in you and the values you stood for, and maybe you have lost all respect for yourself as well) the next biggest error is to further undermine your standing by progressive leaks of pivotal bits of information often and in direct proportion to the pressure or escalating threats applied by your partner or the third party or both.

Each new disclosure or discovery of previously withheld information takes the process back to the beginning again.

It is death of a thousand cuts.

You have a choice – come clean and get ‘killed’ for it or slowly murder your partner.

Pro-active disclosure is usually the best direction even knowing that once having told the whole story, your partner won’t feel better, may feel more hurt and angry, behave with less self-control and not stop agonized doubting, questioning, excavating and obsessing with what each of you thought had been resolved yesterday.

That is the expected response of someone who has had their foundations demolished, betrayed by their partner’s treacherous disregard for the consequences of a failed gamble with deceit.

Sometimes it is the lack of that window of disclosure into their world, into who they are that allows a window to open to a third party and the walls to close out the primary relationship.

Even after years in this work I can still be almost heartbroken when I hear the aloneness of both the faithful and unfaithful people in some long term relationships, and how life – rich glorious juicy life – right under their noses, just passes over the top of their defence against living and feeling.

In that sense we are the poorest of the poor surrounded by profligate waste.

Sex and romance addiction

Example 3

Q. Dear Mr. Fox. I have spent countless hours this past month looking for guidance. I am seeing a therapist but I still am lost. I am begging you for some insight. I came across your web site and found it the most meaningful use of my time. I am lost right now. I have been married for twenty years and have two teenage kids. I recently found out on our anniversary, that my husband has been having multiple affairs. This is now the third time in our history. The first was when I was pregnant with our first child. We of course went to therapy and looking back it seems I was the one to do all the work. Fast forward to the present. My husband has been seeing an old girlfriend for 2 years. They apparently meet in parking lots for mutual masturbation. He also has multiple on line relationships, the most disturbing is video sex with a teenage girl in another country. I found all this out by logging into his various secret email accounts.

Here is my dilemma. He is back in therapy and says he knows all of this is stemming from a childhood sexual trauma. This is not new info for me. He told me about this the second round of infidelity a decade ago and it was the one thing that turned the tables and prevented me from leaving him then. He says he wants to do the work this time and that he loves me etc.. Am I a fool if I for one second believe him? I have had health related issues already because of the stress he has put me through. I am so lost right now. Have you ever seen couples with chronic infidelity? Is my husband looking for a sympathy card again to save his hide? If he wants to stay married, is it because the kids and the money that I have? I think he has narcissistic tendencies but he says his therapist disagrees. He is going to the same therapist he went to the first two times, which may not make sense. What kind of a man in his 50’s would have live video showing his genitals to a teenage girl who is the same age as one of our kids? Please please… some thoughts . I am begging. MJ

A. Dear MJ. Apart from the possibility that he is committing a sex offence (i.e. the teenager is below the age of consent) from what you have written he may be better described as exhibiting a sexual addiction.

IF the above is true then one would require a genuine and lasting commitment to own that is what it is; a genuine lasting desire to stop addictive sexual behaviour; to join Sex Addicts Anonymous or similar organisation, and attend regular meetings whilst also seeking a sponsor there; and to employ an individual and group psychotherapy specifically targeted at addiction. Anything less than that and you may just be falling for another episode of addictive remorse, one that predicts relapse.

IF that is true then you are are best described as a co-addict

R. Dear Peter. It is very kind of you to take the time to answer and to give suggestions. I did spend some time on the web sites and the description of sexual addiction seems uncannily accurate. I took the on-line co-addict questionnaire and scored somewhere in the middle. I obviously have a lot to go over with the therapist I am seeing. But being able to read the info you guided me to has calmed me down somewhat and I want you to know that. Thank you again. MJ


Once confronted with undeniable and independently corroborated facts of infidelity some folk lack the capacity for genuine contrition and empathy; are primarily self-centred and narcissistic, have so little trust in the world or themselves that they are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the people they have wounded. They likely possess a character disorder in which everything that goes wrong in their life is somebody else’s fault and who find lying is more natural than truth telling.

Another style of narcissism is the charming Jekyl and Hyde type, who confesses all with totally believable lying.

I sit in the room with them and their partners, and find myself believing everything they say about how much they hurt their partner in all the ways they have admitted to. And yet swears on all that is holy that they did not have sex with that person (‘Not ever! Why would I lie about that when I have fessed up to everything else?’). This is usually a person, a habit or a place that seems to have been around for a very long time. It’s a weird and unsettling feeling to know in my body I’m being lied to and yet find my head is believing them. It takes quite a few sessions to get to the bottom of it, if ever.

Another narcissist type, guilty of infidelity, may also be a serial bully at home – pursuing their partner with unfounded suspicion, abusive vigilance of their lives and accusations of infidelity.

Some of them are the special people who advance to become the captains of industry, control freaks in government and politics where their ability to finesse accountability is in high demand.

Payback time

Some part of you, the betrayed, may want to hurt your straying partner as much as they have hurt you.

To take away all their security, dignity, sense of belonging, of purpose and of self-worth.

You may want to strip them bare until they have as little left to believe in as you now find yourself.

Wishing to inflict a tsunami on your straying partner is best spoken but not acted upon. That path leads to becoming an offender yourself, and betraying your own values.

A pay back affair though it may be tempting, is also a self denigrating plan.

However, if your values are supported by a religious ‘eye for an eye’, you may find yourself immediately relaxing into self-righteousness because you have sanctioned violence for just about any unrighteousness – take a look at the world of religious fanatics for a moment. Any retribution is possible in an extremist’s world view.

Going on the attack like a wounded predator or trying harder to make your straying partner happy are not the most useful responses in the face of a life changing event of this magnitude.

It is okay (for both) to feel shame, anger, to grieve, to feel sick with disappointment with themselves, with their partner and with all those who collaborated in the code of secrecy around the affair.

It is okay to feel – it’s what we do with those feelings that matters.

It is better for the heart’s recovery to be clear, strong and willingly vulnerable than it is to harden your heart, tighten the pericardium into a steel plate across the chest and hurt back those who have injured you.

You will survive this. It will pass.

It is essential that you set limits of time and place to reach your partner, to search for more clues or to try harder to make them happy, if you must. These are like appointments to plead, to grieve, to scream and wail, to accuse, to please. Then take appointed time out to rest, reflect and rebuild your traumatized personal and spiritual resources and your support network, as you now see fit.

Toxic shame

A few who have been betrayed tell me they deserved it.

This may arise from believing they are bad or believing it’s life paying them back for betrayal they inflicted on others – such as by having poached their partner from a previous ‘stable’ relationship in the first place.

The straying partner too can come to believe they are bad once they have witnessed the devastation wrought in their partner’s life – believing only a bad person could hurt someone they love and who loves them.

It is unsafe to navigate the treacherous waters of betrayal with toxic shame as your guide.

Toxic shame is a belief that you are bad, defective or damaged to the core. That you should never have been born or that the world would be better off without you. Maintaining that belief only continues the damaging self-concept that may have driven the infidelity underground.

Sail with the good wind no matter how much garbage is thrown at you or you throw at yourself. No matter how bad you think you have been by violating your partner’s trust or how much you think you may have contributed to your partner’s betrayal by not keeping them happy, you are a good person who has done bad things.

You may have done some terrible, careless stupid things but you are a good person at heart.

One helpful attitude might be: ‘I love myself unconditionally and I don’t like what I have done or omitted to do.’

This is the difference between a human being and a human doing.

This is a big leap in self-validation if you have come from a critical family or from feeling unwanted as a child or from a competitive marriage where no matter what you did you were never good enough and if you are your own worst critic and/or hate your life.