While Canada does not keep official statistics on infidelity, many experts estimate that between one in four and one in five married people have experienced cheating. The affected people are our friends, relatives, co-workers, as well as ourselves. Coping With Infidelity is a four-part series that aims to remove the culture of silence and shame and start a conversation among readers about why cheating hurts so much and how to survive it. Our aim is to help others struggling with this to know that they’re not alone. The author has chosen to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of her children.
Part 1: Surviving the Emotional Roller Coaster
Six months ago, I found text messages between my husband and one of his co-workers. His admission that they had been having a sexual affair for several months instantly and violently reshuffled the plans I had for the day, the immediate future and possibly the rest of my life.
As of today we are still together and trying to rebuild and recreate our marriage.
The immediate aftermath was hell, and the subsequent slow burn has been exhausting. But the worst part wasn’t the loss of trust or even drowning in grief; it was the emotional roller coaster that made me feel mentally unstable almost every waking minute.
After I found out, I was angry all the time: angry that he cheated, angry that my life was turned upside down, angry that I trusted him and he broke my heart. I called in sick to work, I cancelled plans, I parented from bed, I lied to my children, I sobbed in the shower. I messaged the other woman and stalked her on social media. I contacted a private detective. None of this made me feel any better and channeling my energy into despair, not recovery, also made me angry.
There were several cars on my roller coaster, each one worse and more damaging than the next. The primary emotions we feel after betrayal are grief, anger, hurt and confusion. For most of us there’s also guilt, fear and sadness. My husband is the kind of man who holds my hand in public; who tells me he loves me multiple times a day; who calls becoming a father the greatest thing that ever happened to him. I thought he was happy, I thought we were happy.
His affair came right out of the blue and had a profound impact on how I see the world and how I see myself.
If he’d left me when I found out, my roller coaster would probably have been more like a slow-moving trip through an abandoned, underground mine. Instead, his remorse and commitment to winning me back meant that there were peaks between the lows, high times during which I was often not just hopeful and optimistic about our marriage, but ecstatic.
It was like being in the eye of a hurricane that would toss me in the air and shake me around before putting me down in a completely different place every 12, 24 or 48 hours. I would go from feeling cautiously optimistic in the morning, to cruising short-term apartment rental ads in the afternoon. By evening I couldn’t look at him and by bedtime I wanted sex, and plenty of it. And I was cold, freezing cold, all the time. Two hot baths a day barely numbed the constant chill.
If you really want to feel like you’re losing your mind consider feeling grateful that the affair happened, because it’s bringing you closer together, only to be sobbing on your bedroom floor three hours later because you can’t stop picturing him on top of her, or because the texts you found are still playing on a loop in your head several months later.
When I started researching infidelity and how to cope I was craving information, connection and support, but what I found was a culture of silence and shame.
Feeling like I was supposed to be humiliated, supposed to be ashamed left me even more confused and disoriented. I did nothing wrong, what do I have to be embarrassed about? Despite the few extra pounds I carry around my middle, and the ten-year old granny panties I haven’t yet purged from my underwear drawer, I (usually) don’t buy into the notion that what am I or am not is why he cheated. The mess he’s made of our family is on him and no one else. And yet part of what powers the roller coaster is a constant refrain of “what if.”
When something unexpected and catastrophic happens, it doesn’t matter how many times people try to discourage us from obsessing over the reasons, our brains demand an explanation. I thought he was happy. I thought we were happily married. I thought I could trust him. I thought he loved me.
Facing the raw, alternate reality revealed by an affair is like watching the colour wheel on your Macbook spin endlessly. There is some sort of overload or system failure preventing you from continuing. Nothing can move forward, nothing makes sense, everything is stuck and nothing is working. All the things our friends and therapists want us to believe (namely, that it wasn’t our fault) cannot reconcile with the facts. If it wasn’t my fault, then whose fault was it? If it wasn’t about me then who was it about? If he wasn’t unhappy then why did he do it? Confusion and frustration become our default states of mind because we cannot make sense of something so bizarre. “Why did this happen, how could this happen” were my mantras for months.
In the immediate aftermath, my husband told the other woman it was over. He told me their rendezvous were infrequent and he blamed long-standing depression, untreated anxiety and alcoholism for his state of mind during that time. He hasn’t had a drink since that day and is now under the care of a mental health professional. So I also get to feel guilty for not recognizing where he was at, and wondering if this could have all been avoided if I’d told him to get help for his drinking instead of being frustrated by it.
Despite the fact that my husband and his ex-lover work for the same company, he says he hasn’t crossed paths with her since the day I found out.
Side note: the only thing worse than your husband cheating is your husband cheating and continuing to work in the same place “she” does. This situation, on top of everything else, felt like trying to distinguish the raging inferno of our marriage using thimbles full of water.
We’d spend a decent weekend together, pouring all our attention into the kids, trying to figure out how to be normal again, then in the hours before he was due back in the office the roller coaster would begin its slow climb to the top of mount crazy. It would teeter there until he didn’t answer his phone or was late getting home at which point the 100-mile an hour, out of control descent would begin.
The emotional roller coaster has been the most difficult part of this ordeal for me. The betrayal I’ll get over eventually and the anger will subside. The fear of telling my kids we were splitting up or of being a single parent was paralyzing, but not being able to control my emotions or predict my moods was even worse.
Losing me was scarier than losing him.
Ultimately, the pain we feel over infidelity is rooted in loss. Once I understood that I wasn’t just grieving a betrayal but rather the loss of my sense of self and belief in the world as a secure, predictable place, it was easier for me to understand why my roller coaster was always out of control. Naming and better understanding my various emotions and triggers (thanks to the help of a great therapist) allowed me to slow it down. Eventually I was able to give myself a break, to stop blaming … everyone… and realize that given what had happened, feeling unsettled and unhinged 95% of the time was actually pretty normal and expected.
This was the biggest part of the healing for me. The biggest relief and the most sure sign that I was going to be okay was finally being able to get off that ride; to exit the car and walk down the ramp knowing I’d survived.
Regaining my sanity doesn’t mean it no longer hurts, and it doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods as a couple. Being betrayed this way has been like death by a thousand cuts: every insecurity I had, every voice in my head that screamed I wasn’t good enough, every movie loop that repeated the story of my inadequacies is breathing new life. Every bad thing I believed about myself is now front and centre in my brain screaming “I told you so” at the top of its lungs.
So in addition to rebuilding my marriage, I’m rebuilding myself.
Some good has come from this, most of it in the way I’ve come to know and believe in myself. It would have been nice to find this out via a yoga retreat or a great self-help book instead of being cheated on, but what can you do?
When life hands you a roller coaster you’ve just got to close your eyes and hold on tight.
Next up, part two of the series examines the stigma around adultery and why talking about it is still taboo.