You can't stop thinking about your spouse and the affair partner--what they did, places they met, what words were exchanged....oh and the visuals can be excruciatingly painful when you think about them. You question your relationship and also yourself for not seeing it coming. It overruns your waking moments!
Ruminating about the details of your spouse's affair is a normal reaction post-disclosure or discovery. Those obsessive thoughts about where, when, how, and why seem to dominate every waking moment--and even possibly your dreams. The foundation you built your relationship on is ripped out from underneath you and you are left feeling un-anchored--meaning, your sense of security and safety within the relationship is uprooted. Even if the relationship wasn't completely secure before, it certainly doesn't feel that way now! There is nothing familiar to anchor too. These leaves you hurt, sad, & afraid.
In a previous blog, "Help! My Spouse Just Disclosed an Affair!" we went over some immediate steps to take very soon post-disclosure. Professional help is strongly recommended--not many couples can navigate these foreign waters alone. But even with professional help, those devastating thoughts enter into our consciousness whether we want them to or not and take us by surprise sometimes. We can be eating lunch, partaking in routine tasks, or busy at work and BOOM! there it is--something triggers a thought of "what happened." The intense emotions and visual images that accompany these thoughts can be overwhelming.This can lead both spouses to get angry (with the spouse who betrayed the marriage) and defensive (with the spouse who did not have the affair). The more angry the spouse who is hurt approaches the spouse who had the affair, the more defensive the spouse who had the affair becomes. This cycle is common and may play itself out over and over leading to negative patterns that make it almost impossible to imagine restoration or repair.
What's one to do? Here are some helpful tips for both spouses to help with the ruminating thoughts. Not a comprehensive list but certainly a start in the repair and restoration process.
For the Injured Spouse:
1. Practice distraction by turning to positive things. Find things that help you "go positive" and distract you from the negative ruminating and obsessive thoughts. For some this may include reading the Bible, praying or meditating, and for others this may be engaging in physical activity or calling a friend who can encourage and uplift. Still for others, this may be getting out of the house or workplace or even engaging in a favorite hobby. They may not get rid of rumination completely but they can help for moments in time.
2. The art of relaxing. In our busy world, when emotional crisis occur, we have learned to "just keep moving forward." What about trying something different in those moments, when the obsessive thoughts overwhelm us, by practicing the art of relaxing? It's like developing a new muscle at first--we start with a lower weight activity like breathing: closing your eyes, taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth--over and over again while visualizing the breath going in and out slowly. When this becomes easier over time, we move to something more weighty like a body scan: imagining a scan starting from our head to our toes, slowly focusing on each part of our body that is tense and just noticing while breathing in and out. These are just a couple of relaxing exercise we can have in our back pocket when we get upset with the constant thoughts.
3. Have a plan. Sometimes we know the exact trigger that propels us into these ruminating thoughts and sometimes it seems just to happen out of nowhere. Either way, it's okay to remove yourself from your current situation (say a family gathering or your office or even at home) when you are upset and overwhelmed by the thoughts to a quick diversion. Always have a plan of how you will exit and what you will do. For example, at a family gathering sometimes someone might make an inadvertent comment that reminds you of what you and your spouse are going through, plan ahead before the event of what you and your spouse will do to exit. It is okay to say no to events that might overwhelm you--at some point during recovery you will be able to attend these when the shaky ground you are on right now feels more secure.
4. Call a trusted friend. In the last blog post "Help! My Spouse Just Disclosed an Affair!" we discussed creating a "sacred circle" of a few people who are for our marriage and can encourage us in those moments to breathe, reflect, and relax.
5. Get professional support. This is vital in helping organize the ruminating and obsessive thoughts as well as support in calming and soothing ourselves in those moments. Eventually, with the right therapeutic support (Emotionally Focused Therapy is a good model to help couples recover from infidelity), while your spouse who had the affair was a source of hurt, they can eventually be a source of healing.
6. Recognize your gains. When you are able to stop the cycle of obsessive thoughts and emotional chaos inside you for the moment, celebrate! The intensity with which you are experiencing these thoughts and the hurt and pain that accompanies betrayal in a relationship will not always feel this intense--in other words, as you practice taking care of yourself in those moments, it will become easier to manage and it won't feel so intense or out of control. You will get through this!
For the spouse who had the affair:
1. Listen. Clients experiencing betrayal tell me that the best thing you can do when your spouse is ruminating and having these obsessive thoughts is to listen without trying to fix the strong emotions associated with the thoughts. Be a safe place for your spouse to share they are having these thoughts. Soothe them with acknowledging how hard this is and how you hurt them.
2. Reduce your defensiveness. Try and reduce your defensiveness. Of course, when your spouse is coming at you with anger, you may feel attacked and a natural reaction is to get defensive. Try to keep the defensiveness to a minimum and instead replace it with taking responsibility for your actions and acknowledging the hurt and pain these actions caused your hurting spouse. Sharing your heart rather than your reactions will go miles in helping soothe your spouse in those moments AND help in reconnecting you in the present moment with them. I know you are hurting too and seeking professional support for you individually. as well as a couples counselor who specializes in affair work, can give you a place to vent.
Repair is possible and you CAN get through betrayal together. If you are in the San Diego area, I am specially trained to work with couples recovering from infidelity and would be happy to speak with you about support. Even if it's been a while since the affair, therapeutic support can help deepen the repair and recovery. I can be reached at