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.
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.