Being cheated on can make you lose your self-control completely and utterly. In the aftermath of discovering both sexual betrayal and the enormous deception and reality manipulation that always accompanies it, most partners experience stronger emotions than they have ever felt.
These waves of fear, rage, panic, and anxiety are not small lap-the-shore waves, either. They are a middle-of-ocean, ship threatening storm of crashing, furling, and foaming chaos. Many partners are shocked at how big their anger is and how completely out of control they feel. They are stunned by their inability to manage the tempest in which they find themselves.
Because partners’ ability to trust their own perception of reality has been undermined by the gaslighting and they have no way of knowing if what their spouse is now telling them is real or another lie, they have no solid ground to stand on – not inside of themselves and not outside of themselves within the relationship. This lack of safety and stability and the ongoing sense of danger and threat that they are living with in the early aftermath of discovery is what creates the enormous, overwhelming, out of control emotions that they grapple with.
Let’s just all bow our heads for a moment and acknowledge that this is not pretty. When I was in this stage, I did not recognize myself. I had no idea I could be as angry as I was. I was unhinged with overwhelming confusion, grief, and fear, and these all came pouring out of me in ways that shocked and surprised me. Overnight, I turned into an emotional street brawler. I no longer had any thought about fighting fair with my sexually addicted partner. I was in a fight for my life and the normal rules of engagement went out the window.
I am not alone. In my work with partners over the past two decades I have literally heard it all. I have heard of raging fights, hitting, slapping, and punching the cheater, the police being called and partners spending the night in jail, precious objects being thrown and shattered, the cheater’s possessions being damaged or destroyed, revenge cheating, public shaming, shopping and financial revenge, revenge against the affair partner, careers sabotaged, children dragged into the middle, family relationships ruined, etc., etc., ad infinitum as the list is truly endless.
Every partner I’ve ever worked with has had at least one story (and most have many stories) of completely losing it in ways that, afterward, cause consternation, embarrassment, and often shame.
It does not feel good to be out of control. It can be deeply disturbing for partners to witness their own out of control behavior – behaviors they would never in their right minds condone in themselves or anyone else. Partners often feel enormous regret about being so out of control and promise themselves they are going to get a grip and never do that again, only to find themselves back in the red rage a few days later.
The shame that partners feel about these behaviors can keep them from talking about their actions in therapy or small groups. And I notice that when these behaviors are spoken about, they are often spoken about from a place of either self-righteousness or blame.
Self-righteousness and blame are the energies that drive offending from the victim position. Offending from the victim position occurs when you have been truly victimized (for example, by being cheated on and lied to), and you then believe that gives you the right to become an offender. When partners talk about their out of control behaviors, they often speak as though they have every right to do anything they want to the cheater. The cheater cheated and therefore deserves whatever is dished out. In fact, as far as the partner is concerned, it is the cheater’s fault that the partner is behaving this way.
Partners couch their out-of-control behaviors in this type of thinking because they are trying to avoid the shame and confusion they feel about their actions and reactions. Whenever we are defending against shame, we will often pick something to defend with that has a nugget of truth wrapped inside of a slice of baloney.
Typically, the nugget of truth inside of the self-righteousness and blame is that the devastating emotions and sense of danger and threat that you are experiencing are truly too much for you and are overwhelming your coping capacities, leaving you vulnerable to acting out your despair and rage in ways you never thought you would. This is true, and it is why these episodes of exploding rage are so common for betrayed partners.
The baloney is the idea that someone else is responsible for your actions. You don’t let the cheater get away with blaming you for the cheating (at least I hope you don’t!) In the same way, you cannot blame the cheater for your behaviors.
Also, and this is the most important part, when you blame the cheater for your reactions, you give your power to the cheater. You basically place yourself in a position where you are powerless to help yourself, powerless to grow your coping capacities and learn to deal with what has happened in different, healthier ways. Instead, you leave yourself at the mercy of your cheating partner, believing that you are stuck where you are until the cheater changes or does something different.
What I dream of are safe spaces for partners to talk about these episodes of out of control rage and fear so the shame that being caught up in the torrent of overwhelm creates can be processed and released. Partners need to be able to tell on themselves and know that they will not be judged, and they will not be shamed. At the same time, partners can know that the therapist and group will not allow them to hide in self-righteousness and blame but will instead empower them to identify and process the emotions that keep sweeping them away so they can grow their emotional capacity and learn new coping skills.
I was on a coaching call a couple of weeks ago with the women who completed the Braving Hope™ program over the summer. (When you complete the program, you go into an alumni group called Braving Forward.) One of the women said that the biggest gift she received from her work in Braving Hope™ was the ability to reclaim her dignity. She said that she had lost her dignity when she lost her voice and her power. When she acted out her despair and rage, she lost more of her dignity each time. Through her work in the coaching program, she learned to use her voice effectively, set boundaries, ask for what she needs, and talk to her partner from a place of personal power. For her, these things allowed her to reclaim her dignity in both her relationship and with herself.
This is what I want for all of you. The ability to reclaim your dignity through growing your capacity to manage the big emotions that follow betrayal. To learn to speak with strength, clarity, and courage to your partner. To grow your resilience to the place where you know deep in your bones that you will be OK regardless of what your partner chooses, and to enter into the freedom that this gives you to set boundaries and to ask for what you truly need within the relationship.
The loss of dignity that betrayed partners experience as a result of reacting from trauma symptoms to the ongoing lack of safety in their relationship is no small matter. My hope is that by talking about it here, the stigma around this is relieved, that you feel more normal, and that your shame about things you may have done or said in those out of control moments is eased. I also hope that you now see clearly that you do not have to stay in this place of overwhelm. There is a path out of powerlessness into a strong sense of self, and there are new skills and coping capacities that allow you to reclaim your dignity as the precious individual you are.