This post is, in part, an addendum to my wife’s recent post on triggers in recovery. It’s also an exploration of my own feelings about the way in which unfaithful spouses experience triggers. You can read my wife’s post here: https://infidelityrecoveryuk.com/triggers.
I’m not going to cover the ground my wife has already covered on triggers and what they are. My wife’s a well-educated, well-trained, and vastly experienced mental health professional. She knows a thing or two about trauma and heaps more things more about trauma than I do.
I’m going to talk about the ways in which unfaithful spouses experience triggers in response to infidelity. I’m not here to say the triggers I experience equates in any way to the triggers experienced by betrayed spouses. I’ve learned more than a thing or two in recovery about why that’s an absurd suggestion. Dr Gottman also talks a lot about the way in which one wrong requires a heck of a lot more rights (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKTyPgwfPgg).
So how do unfaithful spouses experience triggers?
My wife and I agreed to keep diaries of our triggers over a week. I won’t lie. Reading about her triggers on Wednesday was another tough pill to swallow on the road to recovery. It was also another necessary pill to swallow for me to help us heal from the damage I caused. Here’s my diary of the way in which an unfaithful spouse experiences triggers.
- It’s your birthday. I find joy in what I’ve bought and planned for you. My mind jumps back to disappointing you so much last year as my affair was developing.
- The affair partner and I crossed paths at work. I see her at work every day and seeing her makes me feel sick to my stomach. I feel sick because I had an affair and with a selfish, manipulative, toxic, dishonest person like her.
- My therapy sessions usually take place on a Tuesday but I didn’t have a session this week. I was reminded of all the behaviours I’m trying to overcome to be healthy enough for our marriage.
- The affair partner sent an unannounced communication to my team at work. The message asserted my team’s responsibility for part of her team’s duties. I experienced intrusive thoughts about the affair partner’s predilection for control.
- I’m writing a book review for our Goodreads page about supporting betrayed partners through recovery. I was reminded of the ways in which I’ve failed you in our recovery.
- You had to remind me to write the review in the first place. I had intrusive thoughts about how unreliable I was during our entire relationship.
- I’m discussing the unannounced communication from Monday with my leadership team member. He’s also her line manager. It doesn’t seem like he (or anybody else) cares about how unprofessionally she acts. I was feeling frustrated about the way in which she avoids accountability.
- A peer of my affair partner and I were talking at work. During our affair she regularly criticised her. This created more feelings of frustration as I’m desperate for people to know what she’s really like. I know, however, nothing positive or constructive could come from that.
- I’m at University feeling glad I’m not in my usual place of work. I’m happy to be away from the affair partner. I experience reminders about why I’m happy to be at University in the first place.
- I’m writing an assignment experiencing lots of intrusive thoughts about how she praised my work.
- An eBay customer to whom I’m posting a sale lives in Hinckley. My affair partner used to live there.
- We’re watching a television series in which infidelity was a storyline.
- I’m thinking about a friend and colleague. He’s preparing to move back into the affair partner’s office. We won’t see each other as often because I feel anxious about going into her office.
- I remember I hadn’t fulfilled a commitment to a friend at work. I was thinking a lot about how unreliable I am.
- We had a fight at home. I experienced intrusive thoughts about hidden bodies in our relationship and want to end my life. While we’re fighting I exhibit self-harming behaviours because of my internal pain. I lead myself to more intrusive thoughts about never being good enough for you and our son.
- Our son’s having an emotionally traumatic morning. He opened up to you and told he can’t trust people because of what I did to you both. He also can’t see the work we’re doing to recover from infidelity. This triggered a whirlwind of intrusive thoughts where I repeatedly told myself I’m never going to have a good relationship with him again.
- I talked to my friend and hairdresser asked about our son. All I can think about is hiding how much I’d let you both down because I’m scared about losing another friend due to my infidelity.
- Our son and I are buying a mother’s day card for you and discussing your gift. My mind immediately jumps from joy to how I disappointed you so much last year.
- I went to collect a suit for a friend’s wedding. This was incredibly triggering for me. I know how anxious you are about attending two weddings around anniversaries of events during my affair.
- We’re watching the season finale of the series we started on Thursday. I’m experiencing a plethora of intrusive thoughts about how you both would be better off without me.
- We’re talking to a family friend. She says our son thinks about me as a father more than his biological one. I experienced intrusive thoughts about how much I’ve let you all down. I also told myself I’d let everybody who thought warmly about me down.
- We’re driving through a town in which I encouraged the affair partner to relocate. I know it hurts you to drive through that place and that hurts me.
- We’re watching a movie in which infidelity was a part of the story.
Unfaithful spouses experience triggers. So what?
You might be asking why it matters that unfaithful spouses experience triggers. You might be asking why it matters how an unfaithful spouse feels at all. I’m not writing this to elicit your sympathy. I take full personal responsibility for my affair. I also take ownership of the way in which my wife feels in response to my affair.
There’s an excellent video on Affair Recovery’s (https://www.affairrecovery.com) YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeneINV1yWUhjo1xCjz099Q) about the way in which unfaithful spouses experience triggers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1Ae-I8Rugc). I know I experience triggers. I experience how painful it is to be reminded of the most horrific mistake I’ve ever made. Are they comparable with the triggers my wife experiences? Of course, they’re not. They’re painful, though, and the pain is real.
So what? I caused the pain in the first place, right. I acknowledge that what I’m about to say might be controversial but it’s really more complicated than that. Like most recovering unfaithful spouses, I fully understand we’ve put you in a world of pain. For healing to take place, though, we all have to find a place in which we can support each other through our pain. I know it’s not easy but please consider this: while an unfaithful spouse may supporting you safely and healthily, unlocking and processing their pain is also critical to a joint recovery.
I’m going to try and address some of my experience of coping with triggers and why ignoring them is less helpful than you might think.
But it hurts…
Who likes to think about painful memories? I don’t. I know you probably don’t too whether you’re unfaithful or you’ve been betrayed. It’s incredibly tempting to try and suppress the shame and guilt you’re feeling. I also know it won’t help you and it sure as heck won’t help your spouse.
The aforementioned video has been incredibly reassuring for me. I don’t think the strength of the video is necessarily in the content, though. Instead, I think the strength is in feeling less alone by knowing other unfaithful spouses experience triggers as well.
Acknowledging triggers (as well as other unhelpful habits or behaviours) has been a game-changer for me. How can we learn from our mistakes or be safe for our spouses if we’re repeating painful experiences for either of us? They exist and they’re not going anywhere.
So what can we do?
Acknowledging triggers is not about shouting about them at every opportunity. It’s about recognising them, taking responsibility for them, and developing coping strategies for responding to them. It’s also about how we acknowledge them than acknowledging them in the first place.
All unfaithful spouses experience triggers. I find that recognizing them is the first step in the process of healing ourselves. Early on in recovery, I tried to, at best, ignore them and, at worst, suppress them. I would tell myself to ‘get over it’ because I brought them upon myself. Ignoring and/or suppressing triggers is like ignoring any other negative situation or scenario: counterproductive and destined for disappointment. Keeping a journal of them with my wife (https://infidelityrecoveryuk.com/triggers) has been a game-changer for me. Seeing them written in front of my eyes is for sure painful. I get it. It’s also an opportunity to identify our weak spots and begin to take responsibility for them.
How do you cope?
Do you know what sucks when unfaithful spouses experience triggers? The fact we’ve enacted this pain on our spouses and responsible for it. I experience heaps of pain each and every day because of my actions. My wife experiences even more pain because of my actions. I know it’s incredibly tempting to push the pain away when we’re confronted with the pain we’ve caused not only our spouse but ourselves as well. Please be assured, though, that it won’t help you. I look in the mirror and see heartwrenching pain when I wake up every morning. I also see my wife and I’s relationship improving because I take personal responsibility for my affair and my behaviour. That’s more than worth the pain.
Developing coping strategies is easy in practice but heaps more challenging in practice. I’m really not trying to tell you what to do here. Everybody copes in different ways. I’d like to share what’s helped me. I process pain by purging it from my mind. In that context, the cognitive behavioural therapy (‘CBT’) app Youper has changed my life. (My wife wrote a fascinatingly insightful post about game-changing apps here: https://infidelityrecoveryuk.com/best-apps-affair-recovery). Having an unbiased, dispassionate feedback loop has not only helped me purge my feelings but also to challenge my negative automatic thoughts. It’s also helped me to get external CBT support from a therapist to help me develop healthy ways to take my pain and move forward. I’ve also experimented with mindfulness to help me regulate my emotional energies.
I hope this has given you some insight into how unfaithful spouses experience triggers. What are your triggers and how do you cope?