After the Affair: from Despair to Discovery
Albert Einstein said: “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” If handled well, a crisis can shake up the status quo, so that new resources and new ways of being emerge. We see clearly how this is true in business. The pandemic crisis caused the suffering of some businesses, like brick-and-mortar retail, health clubs, convention hotels, and cruise ships. At the same time, it brought about the rise of other businesses: bicycle manufacturers, building and design companies, and everything online and delivery-related. More than 4.4 million new businesses were created in the U.S. during 2020 — the highest total of any year on record.
It’s harder to see crisis and opportunity that way in our personal lives, but the same can be true. Once there has been a severe relationship rupture, such as an affair, or other significant betrayals, the old status quo can no longer exist. We must grieve what was, and that can be a long and painful process. Initially, it is common to feel despair. An affair, or other betrayals, can shatter one’s sense of self, the image of our partner, and connection to the community. Experts say that after an affair is revealed, there is on average a 3-to-5-year recovery period. The once naive sense of security and trust can no longer exist. Trust must become a decision one makes. It takes time for trust to become a felt sense.
The Journey Begins
From the Imago theory perspective, the crisis occurs when there has been a rupture in connection. Despair results from a perceived inability to restore the connection or heal the rupture. As a client of mine said, “the fear is that I have lost the ability to love or be loved”. Repair requires finding the ability to reconnect with yourself and others, finding a place for the suffering, and developing realistic hope. The goal is to find confidence in one’s decision-making, based on a deeper understanding of what’s happened to the marriage and each person’s contributions to the problems. It helps to look at this goal as a journey of discovery. We can look at the journey as taking place in four different realms: the spiritual journey, the evolutionary journey, the social journey, and the psychological journey.
After a crisis, it’s common to feel isolated, abandoned, and alone. We must find our own unique way of reconnecting to humanity and the sense that in the universe, we are all connected to something greater, whether it’s religion, nature, or spiritual energy. Meditation, yoga, or writing down a simple gratitude each day for what this life offers to us, where each day is a new gift, helps to find peace and understanding that we are all connected on a greater level. One effect of the Covid pandemic was that across the world, we could all relate to the sense of isolation and loss. It helps to feel that sense of collective humanity, and our connection to nature. We are never truly alone.
A crisis signals danger to our brain and activates our unconscious coping mechanism. Cognitive functioning may shut down, and we go into fight or flight, where the sympathetic nervous system is in control. Alternatively, we may freeze and submit, where the parasympathetic nervous system takes over. After a crisis, we must find ways to quiet the old brain through breathing exercises, journaling, physical movement, music, drawing, or other ways to help relax, feel safe, and reconnect to cognitive function.
We have all received messages in the past which are the stories we live by, but not necessarily the truth, or in our best interest. The hardest journey is to uncover the hidden part of ourselves. If we haven’t been authentic and honest in our relationship and to ourselves, there is naturally a disconnect. An affair usually doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Two people are responsible for the state of the relationship before the rupture occurred. There must be a willingness to look at the need that was being expressed in the betrayal. What was the underlying cause and motivation?
This is the journey of discovery within. Once the loss of the past dream is processed, many people discover defensive patterns that have kept them trapped in repetitive and unproductive behaviors. We need to learn how to work through conflicts and disappointment in safe communication. Whatever was the “old way” is no longer going to fit. Even in the best childhood, there are needs that were not fully met. We developed adaptations that worked for us then, and many of them we still carry with us today, out of our awareness. We can discover patterns that came from our family of origin, heal old wounds, and develop realistic goals and expectations. We need to find a new narrative, that is true in the present.
This is a complicated journey. True growth isn’t easy. It means saying goodbye to how it’s been, and the past that we thought we wanted. It is a process of grieving, forgiveness (including forgiveness of self), and discovery that our personal knowledge of the world was imperfect and in need of expansion (forgivenesstoolbox.com).