Marriage Retreat for Affair Recovery…. The Chemical Soup
You have just discovered your partner’s affair. Adrenaline and related stress hormones flood your sympathetic nervous system. Anxiety and agitation sweep you in waves. Sleep is difficult, and any sense of calm seems impossible. The first challenge of affair recovery for the resolute spouse is to regulate the nervous system and restore proper cognitive functioning. The chemical imbalance in your nervous system may, for a time, completely overwhelm your capacity for collaborative routine activities.
At some point, the stress on your nervous system may become so intense that different physiological changes might kick in. Endogenous opioids will deaden your perception, and circumscribes your capacity to feel stress on your nervous system. Your sense of agency will narrow into a numbed out detachment.
Noted authority on affair recovery Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD. in her important book “After the Affair” describes nine losses which are variants of the same theme… the loss of self:
An affair has the impact of a neurological firestorm.
The very notion of security and connection is violated. But Spring also notices that there are many sex gendered differences in how men and women make meaning of being unfaithful to their partner, or their partner being unfaithful to them:
The Neuro Science of Affair Disclosure
It’s sort of therapeutic gospel to assume that discovering that your partner is having an affair is a traumatic experience. I prefer to think of that more as a useful lie. Within a paradigm of trauma, we see three distinct behaviors from the hurt partner; hyper-vigilance, triggering and flashbacks, and what Shirley Glass (2003) describes as “an obsessive need to hear the story.”
Helping a couple to heal from infidelity requires working with them to resolve the great irony of affair recovery. The perpetrator must become the healer. This is why I call it a useful lie.
Neuro-science tells us that for about a year after revelation, the hurt partner may experience profound mood changes, declines in physical health, and cognitive impairments.
Post-traumatic reactions tend to fall into three categories. hyper-arousal, intrusion, and constriction.
Triggering is a form of intrusion. I have a client who insists that her husband sell his car, because she knows that she is sitting in the same seat as her husband’s affair partner. Hurt partners also obsess while the involved partner tends to suppress, and research tells us this is a fact of the role, it is not a gender driven behavior. However is is also a useful lie that women do tend to obsess, and men tend to suppress.
Five Things To Do for the Hurt Partner to Manage Your Brain
(1) Keep a Journal
Perhaps the best advice for hurt spouses comes from trauma studies. It is important to keep a journal of your deepest feelings and thoughts. Shirley Glass (2004) it didn’t matter whether you used a computer or a pen and paper. Recent studies suggest that going retro with a pencil, and/or color markers will be more helpful. Play with your voice when you write. Write in different perspectives. let minority “selves” weigh in and have a voice as well. Embrace contradiction. Survivors of traumatic stress who keep a journal have a higher T cell count and better overall physical health.
(2) Write Letters
…. but not email.
Hand written letters invite you to slow down and express yourself carefully and with precision. I tell my clients that after the disclosure of an affair, conversations are like hockey games. Affair recovery is more like golf. We respect the lay of the emotional landscape. Write questions in your letters. Let the vigilant part of you do its job.
(3) Schedule Worry Time
The paradox is that you will need to allow yourself time to worry, but you can’t let worry and grief contaminate every waking moment. You probably have other people relying on you. Give yourself anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour to obsess and worry. When intrusive thoughts come up at other times, instead of denying them, you can tell them to come back Saturday at 3 pm, as that is the scheduled worry time. It sounds silly, but the brain is a resilient creature of habit. Instill new habits of coping to help you get through the tough first year.
(4) Can you Change the Channel?
Glass suggests another intervention that works with how your brain operates. When unwanted thoughts come, imagine your brain is a TV set. Imagine changing the channel to another program. You can install another “channel” for example, one which involves a compelling future. This is why I am so fond of Elliot Connie’s work in evidence-based Solution Focused Couples Therapy.
(5) Thought Dispersal through the Vagus Nerve
Often a physical cue, tapping, a rubber band, pressing fingernails into the palm of your hand etc. can be used to physically interrupt and intrusive thought. The neuroscience of marital affairs can encourage thought patterns in the early stages of discovery that are insistent and intrusive.
As the hurt partner, you need extreme self-care to navigate your emotions and the physiological impacts as well. If you manage well, your triggers will fade to twinges. Your mood will settle. Your paranoia and hypersensitivity will settle, with therapeutic help, into a stance toward your partner that will reflect your preference for security and accountability.
But ultimately the discovery of an attachment to another person is tough on a relationship. It can have the effect of a powerful trauma. The stress on the brain may induce hopelessness, paralysis, and a sense of profound self-loathing.
Weekend Intensives can help you confront your doubts and fears, and learn from the affair. It can help you find a life with more hope, the willingness to take action, and be opened in a way that perhaps might be new to you. You will both learn how to talk about what happened, what it will take to restore trust, intimacy and connection.
The essential idea behind affair recovery is that the old relationship is dead. Marginalized, split off parts of ourselves are invited back, and a new hard-won bond emerges in the couple which has learned from the affair, and has resolved into transparency, openness, and a deeper appreciation of what happened and why.
Terry Real is fond of pointing out that interactions can be a good day for us, a bad day for our partner, and a good or bad day for the relationship. Affair recovery is like that. The question is what do we recover into? The answer starts with meaning. Couples who construct a narrative of understanding and meaning can achieve a deeper and more abiding connection for having gone through the fire together.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the meaning of the affair in the life of your marriage is an essential intimate disclosure. Couples can come into Affair Recovery determined to work together to recover, with one or both partners mostly checked out, or somewhere else entirely. But it is the couples who see a way to becoming transparent and frank that achieve a deeper intimacy in their next relationship. And that’s what it is…..their next relationship.
“The BIG BIG Book” is how you tell us what is real for you. We ask about the factors that shaped you, and the decisions you’ve made. Clients tell us that in looking back, they firmly believe that their therapy began with the Big Big Book, because it induces a sense of curiosity about the themes that play out in our lives, and how we experience these themes over time.
Attachment style is one of the ideas we measure in the Big Big book. Whether you are securely, anxiously, or avoidantly attached can provide sheet music to the emotions that might overwhelm you at this time. We ask clients to read the questions in the Big Big Book carefully, but after a second, the first impulse for an answer is typically the best one. Don’t overthink the Big Big Book.
Assessment is also going ask you to think about the people outside of your relationship. Like children. Parents. Siblings.
How are they already affected, or how could they be affected by choices that you are on the threshold of making right now?
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.