About 15 years ago, I was interviewing for a contract position at a tech company. The hiring manager wanted an informal interview, so he and I went and had lunch at the company cafeteria. He didn’t have a filter and the conversation went like this:
“You know, trust is a really big issue for me and I need to really trust people on my team.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” I responded.
“The thing I hate most is when people cheat on their partners even if they aren’t married.”
“It is just terrible,” I responded.
“You know, when I was in the military, I was engaged to this beautiful woman who I thought I could trust. One time I got home two days early and I wanted it to be a surprise. I bought her flowers and gifts and let myself into our house. But you know what I saw? She was in our bed f***ing another guy.”
“What did you do about that?” I asked.
“Well, I threw the bastard out of the second-floor bedroom window—naked.”
“Was he hurt?”
“I don’t care if he was hurt but I am sure he had a fun time getting home without clothes.”
“What happened after that?”
“Well, I dumped her because there was no going back after that. And I married an Asian woman* because they have family values.”
Then he showed me a picture of his lovely wife, who was a medical doctor. He explained that he felt he could trust her with his life, literally, and that this was the most important thing for him – ever.
But, unlike others, he had the luxury of knowing he was with an unfaithful woman before he got married. He was obviously good at dodging bullets. (Pun intended.) The issue is, most people do not have that luxury since many affairs are either never found out or they are found out many years later.
Many guys can be as much as 20 or 30 years into marriage before they find out about their husband’s affair. Some men have had multiple affairs throughout their lives and a lot of these guys are the very men that no one would suspect to be cheaters.
I know a couple of men personally who absolutely do not seem like the type. Both of them dress conservatively, they are soft-spoken, and they don’t give up a vibe that would indicate what they do in their free time. Both of these men’s marriages ended due to their affairs and the thing these men had in common, besides not looking like ‘the type,’ was that they did not want their marriages to end.
On the other hand, there are female cheaters who are just as bad. There are women out there who carelessly cheat while at the same time neglecting their children and husbands. These women know full well that if the marriage ends, they win. That is, regardless of how it turns out, they will be taken care of financially.
I understand why this is such a hard pill for innocent men to swallow and one of the reasons that I believe that adultery laws should be brought back is so that good husbands are not stuck footing a huge bill for a wife who betrayed them. (And innocent wives should not be left in the cold financially either.)
As you saw in the quick facts graphic above, almost all men want to stay with their wives after they have had an affair. If these men truly wanted to leave their wives, they would have left long before an affair happened. So, if a couple gets a divorce, then the wife usually initiates it.
Of course, there are those very rare cases where a man leaves for his mistress, but over the long run, most men do stay with the other woman. Many women choose to stay and work it out and that’s okay. After all, it is very difficult to throw away 20, 30, or even 50 years of marriage.
Intrusive Thoughts: Friend or Foe?
Depending on how you see it, both a cheater and the betrayed spouse could each qualify as the biggest loser. A cheater is the biggest loser for what he/she has done, but the hurt spouse maintains the biggest loser because of his/her actions. Therefore, it is a challenge to stay even if a woman or man wishes to stay.
The number one obstacle toward affair recovery in the betrayed spouse has to do with the intrusive thoughts that they will experience. For the betrayed, triggers that induce profound pain are around every corner.
Rick Reynolds, LCSW, elegantly describes what happens when our brains and nervous systems become triggered by the trauma of an affair. Triggers hijack our brains and nervous systems and there is not much we can do about it. So, if a woman decides to stay, it’s best to reconcile the idea that triggers might always be present. Rick explains the anatomy of triggers and subsequent path that they take:
Long after a couple commits to work on the marriage, the fire breathing trauma dragon continues to raise its ugly head and scorch the progress a couple makes… The amygdala is in charge of our fight or flight mechanism; it functions much like the brain of a reptile. If you’ve ever owned a reptile you know they are incapable of a relationship. They are about two things: need and feed. The amygdala stores memories and images and constantly watches for anything that may pose a threat. The amygdala, which is constantly on guard, triggers the sympathetic nervous system (the emotional accelerator) and in 1/200 of a second adrenaline is released, your heart rate jumps to over 100, and you leap out of harm’s way. Dynamic in nature, the amygdala is constantly adapting to its present environment. Circumstances where there is fear, pain, shame, guilt, disrespect, insults, physical danger, and/or injury are just a few of the life experiences that can be marked by the amygdala as something to watch for in order to survive. Here’s where the severity of this process sets in: severe trauma overloads the pre-frontal cortex and effectively cuts the brake line to the parasympathetic nervous system, leaving us like a car with the accelerator stuck on the floorboard and no brakes. The severe trauma of infidelity more often than not produces this effect. Our amygdala, always on watch, will spot a reminder of the infidelity and trigger the sympathetic nervous system, setting off overwhelming emotional flooding.” (1)
So when you are triggered and subsequently anxious and blinded by anger that seems to come out of nowhere, you are not alone. A trigger for the trauma of the affair sets off fight-or-flight mechanisms and there is nothing our rational minds can do about it.
Most states have statutes that differentiate murder in the first degree from murder due to a crime of passion. Though killing someone is never right, there is a reason that this clarification in the law exists. When our reptile brain is triggered there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it.
When it’s triggered it really is like turning into a real life incredible hulk. But instead of throwing around criminals or bad guys, you start throwing cell phones and firing off scathing insults to the other person’s Facebook page. (Of course, the other person will use this to play the victim – poor, little, innocent soul!!.)
As you can imagine, this is a huge obstacle toward trying to make your marriage work and this is one of the trickiest parts of affair recovery. When it happens, the cheater will most likely blame you for over-reacting. Regardless, never lose sight of the fact that the cheater put you in this position by his/her actions.
Yes, it’s up to us to control how we act, but when the fight-or-flight reflex is triggered, there is not a whole lot of choice to be had. This is why it is common for a betrayed husband to beat up his wife’s male lover. It’s also why it’s common for us women to find ourselves in crying fits for what seems like no reason. (There is always a reason). We take the pain out on ourselves and men generally take the pain out on someone else.
But, don’t suppress the pain and don’t allow numbness to take over your life. Numbness can turn into anhedonia (though not always) and living in a state of anhedonia is no way to live. The color drains out of your life, things you used to love no longer bring you joy, and each day is painful to get through because there is no pleasure to be had even in small things like the sound of the rain or a good cup of coffee/tea.
Why Triggers Are Not Bad
Rick Reynolds, who cheated on his wife throughout their 30-year marriage, discusses numbness. Rick said,
I was talking to a friend the other day and she shared about how she had forced herself to be numb for so long, that her latent emotions (from being betrayed) and compressed trauma was finally beginning to come out. For the betrayed, it’s often times like this waterfall of emotion that you wonder how you can control it. It just keeps coming and coming. The triggers happen faster than you can predict and before you know it, you’re a wreck.” (2)
But, staying in a state of numbness actually benefits your cheating spouse. It allows your cheating spouse to forget what he did and to operate in a false state of believing everything is okay. It allows him to live in denial.
So, triggers and feeling the extreme and subsequent emotion after the trigger actually benefits you as the betrayed spouse, while unnerving and upsetting your cheating spouse. Rick explains why:
You see, when you’re emotional, you’re actually alive. You’re actually affected by our choices. You’re actually a victim due to what we’ve done and we don’t want to have to admit that. We don’t want to stop auto-pilot, as auto-pilot is our friend to keep us from ‘feeling’ or what many would refer to as being ‘present.’ We hate being present as the present quite honestly sucks and we don’t want to have to FEEL… Here’s where it gets ugly. You show emotion, trigger or flood and then we think to ourselves, “greattttt, here we go again.” We want to say horrible things like “get over it” or “really…again…we have to talk about this again today….?” We then bully the betrayed with statements like “you need to get over this. We can’t keep talking about this. We can’t keep having days like this.” We want you to stuff it down. If you’ll stuff it down, we too, can stuff it down and then we don’t have to talk about it. Yep, it’s ridiculous. We, the unfaithful, are typically bullies and control freaks. We want to control how you feel and when you feel, so we aren’t forced to have to feel as well, because if we have to feel, we’ll have to confront our own pain, and then we’re actually present.” (2)
It’s great to have the brutally honest perspective of a man who cheated on his wife. The interesting thing about Rick was that he was a Marriage and Family Therapist during his time cheating. But, the affair he had was with his wife’s very best friend—and the betrayal went ever further down the rabbit hole.
He and his wife were best friends with the wife’s friend and her husband. They often did many social things together as couples and so Rick was cheating both his wife and his male friend. Ouch.
When Rick told his wife and broke it off with her best friend, he also ended up telling the husband of the other woman, his friend. He knew that he had to go no contact with the other woman. Yet, the other woman fought hard to ensnare Rick and tried to get him to come back. He basically told her that if she contacted him again, he would tell her husband again, since she had promised her husband to rebuild their relationship. Rick and his wife’s story had a particular sting to it: if a woman cannot trust her very best friend, who can she trust?
But, this is beside the point. Rick exposes why a person should be able to feel the emotion that comes with the trigger, even if it makes his/her spouse extremely uncomfortable. When he/she is triggered it creates a sobering effect in the betrayer and the betrayer has to face the hard, cold truth.
The truth is that infidelity is ugly, infidelity is painful for everyone involved, and infidelity is destructive.
When being exposed to the fall out of their actions, the betrayer realizes the party is over and is sobered. For the betrayer, infidelity is no longer associated with clandestine fun, fantasy, and feeling alive; the morning after the sobering up is the hardest indeed. The cheater becomes aware that he/she created the mess and a cleaning company cannot simply be called to clean up the proverbial broken glasses and to make it all go away.
Such is the permanence of infidelity. Even if you talk about the elephant in the room, once admitted, the elephant will never leave. Guess what: allowing this process is imperative to healing.
The last thing you should do as the betrayed is to suppress the anger that follows when triggered. The betrayer must have his/her day of reckoning and survey the ruin that he/she has wrought on the marriage. If anything is to get better, he/she needs to feel the pain. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost and you can bet your beak that these hens have a score to settle.
Contrary to what we might believe, triggers and anger serve their purpose. So, it’s better to embrace the hens when they come home to roost and let those hens do their job and help with the process. Let those hens carry out their agenda!
Sometimes the unfaithful spouse may have no remorse and even appear to be having a grand, old time. They do not acknowledge your pain and you wondered who you married because the unfaithful is putting on a stone cold and emotionless front.
There are two main types of cheaters who show no remorse and no insight. The first type of cheater is someone who doesn’t want to open the emotional can of worms that will be opened if he or she really takes a look at the damage he or she did to innocent people. This person shuts themselves down and from the outside looking in appears to have no remorse and no insight.
This person is the individual Rick described earlier where he just cannot deal with your pain or even his. This is inconvenient for him (or her) to deal with the pain. These people want to sweep it under the rug and forget about the elephant altogether.
Then, there are the narcissists. Let’s clearly define what is means to be a narcissist before we jump in. This is very important because all cheaters will have one or more narcissistic traits and this is due to their selfishness. Non-narcissistic cheaters can feel remorse and have insight even if it seems like they don’t.
A (clinically diagnosed) narcissist will have some of the following traits**:
- Exaggerated self-image
- Impaired ability to experience empathy
- Impaired ability to experience intimacy
- Attention seeking
- Lack of remorse
- Believes he or she is the better than others and deserves special treatment
But, before you go down the checklist, there are several caveats. The first is that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder needs to be made by a licensed therapist. The second is that the therapist should be able to observe the suspected individual first-hand and not based on another’s account. Next, the traits of NPD need to be consistent across an individual’s life-span and cannot be better accounted for by physical trauma or any kind of situation (such as infidelity) that could cause someone to behave in narcissistic ways. (The full definition of NPD according to the DSM-5 can be found in the footnotes at the double asterix.)
Individuals having affairs behave in ways that can perfectly line up with that list and you can check, check, check all those off. However, there is a night and day difference between a true narcissist and someone behaving like a narcissist during and after their affair(s).
The single most important thing for long-term affair recovery and rebuilding your marriage could lie within this very distinction. You can, in the long term, rebuild your marriage successfully with someone who isn’t a narcissist. Most narcissists are men but, thankfully, most men are not narcissists.
I also wanted to discuss conditions that could prevent a loyal man from rebuilding a marriage with his cheating wife. These conditions and the traits associated with them are equally as damaging as narcissism, but they are not narcissism.
The “sister” disorders to narcissism that mostly occur in the female population are Histrionic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. I will provide the gist of Borderline Personality Disorder since HPD was removed from the latest DSM. Both disorders are almost the same except HPD is marked by the need for sexually-based attention and sexual validation. They are often provocative, within the wrong contexts, as well as manipulative. Otherwise, they share a very similar profile to Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD contains the following elements:
- Chronic feelings of emptiness
- Impaired ability to feel empathy
- Generally does not feel remorse
- Labile and unstable personality
- Imagined abandonment
- Extreme mood changes and emotions that are easily aroused
- Risk taking behavior with no thought for consequences
- Generally antagonistic toward imagined or real slights/insults
- Extreme neediness
- Either idealizes or devalues the person with whom they are intimately involved
Once again, I have the same caveats here as I did for narcissism. BPD can only be diagnosed in-person by a licensed therapist. These traits need to be pervasive throughout a person’s lifetime and these traits are so extreme that they damage all of the relationships of someone with BPD.
So, if a woman is grieving, or she has experienced trauma, or she has had an affair, her behaviors could line up with this list. As long as she has generally been someone who functions ‘normally’ she likely does not have BPD.
Making this differentiation can also mark the difference between being able to rebuild a marriage after a woman has cheated or letting a marriage go.
Another important thing to note is that when a wife finds out about her husband’s affair, she can also have a long period of time where her behavior lines up with these traits. That is 100% normal since it is a response to trauma. It does not mean the betrayed wife has BPD.
Back to my point…
Now I will come back to my point. When your spouse has cheated on you and you want to rebuild your marriage, seeming lack of remorse or lack of empathy may or may not be a personality disorder. A non-personality disordered individual may shut down and appear not to feel empathy or have remorse. They do this as a protective measure so that they do not have to feel the guilt and shame due to the affair they had. They do it because the betrayed spouse’s pain becomes all too real and they fear they would lose control. In the long run, these people can eventually feel empathy and remorse and rebuild their marriage.
But, if you have found out that your spouse qualifies for an actual diagnosis of NPD or BPD, then this is a totally different story. The lack of empathy and lack of insight is real and there is really nothing that can be done to make such a person have insight.
Most people with NPD and BPD do not see therapists because they believe everyone else but them is the problem. Even if one day they have enough insight to desire help, therapy is notoriously difficult for them and they generally quit after the second or third session. So ingrained is their own view of themselves as victims that nothing can break through.
Rebuilding your marriage with a spouse who has NPD and/or BPD
The all-important question becomes: can you rebuild the marriage with an actual narcissist or borderline individual?
I will answer it with a question: was it really ever a marriage to begin with?
Considering these folks have a notorious time with real, bonafide emotional intimacy, I am going to say “no.” But does that mean you should leave? That’s all up to you. Each situation is different and life is complicated.
Most who live with spouses who have personality disorders are locked in a type of codependence. Narcissists and borderlines need nice people who will try to understand them. This creates a type of codependence even though it is not active on either person’s part.
It also creates a pattern… Narcissist does something crummy, nice spouse tries to understand and to be more loving. Narcissist does something more crappy, nice spouse doubles her efforts and tries to be even more understanding and loving. This is what narcissists depend on—someone who will play the game.
They usually prey on really kind and trusting people because who else will tolerate them? So, if you are married to a narcissist, you do not have to leave such a marriage, if you do not want to leave. By this time, you have probably developed good coping and know exactly what you are dealing with.
As long as your eyes are wide open and you know not to expect anything, as long as you are able to tolerate the lack of intimacy, then you can stay with a narcissist. It’s all up to what you are willing to live with.
As I said before though, the great news is, most men are not narcissists and most women are not borderlines. There is a high chance you are not married to someone with a personality disorder—they are probably just in the affair fog.
Take Napoleon Hill’s advice from the graphic above and allow the heartbreak to put us in a better position or even reveal a larger purpose. I truly believe that trials are good things, even if painful.
The other day, my friend asked why, if we have a just God, bad things happen to good people. I believe in a God who is Love, as the New Testament says. Therefore, such a God is not going to intentionally send bad situations to good people. But, humans do have free will and when others decide to use their free will in bad ways, it can certainly impact the innocent. This is my opinion and I fully expect there to be other opinions. Mine is not right or wrong, it just is.
From a purely psychological standpoint (without religious dogma) we also know that challenges provide opportunities to grow and to make our lives healthier and better than before. Some allow challenges to eat them alive and become worse for the wear and it is understandable why some people get eaten alive. Having really terrible things happen is the ultimate demotivator. But, we can use those same challenges to lift us up.
In the current book that I am writing I talk about how large birds of prey handle windstorms and why this is important. So, when a hawk or eagle realizes he is going to be caught in a windstorm, he holds his wings steady and he uses the wind to lift his body up above the storm. Soon, he is flying in safer skies, realizing that the fierceness of the storm could have slammed him to the ground and possibly led to his death. However, he knew that he had a choice and could use those same winds of adversity to put him in a better place.
All of us have a choice no matter how terrible the situation. Why? Because no matter what happens, we too have a choice in how we will respond to terrible situations. Technically, we might be a victim of another’s folly, but we do not have to live our lives or view ourselves as victims. No matter what happens, we can choose the path of empowerment.
So, we have gotten it out of the way that your reaction to being betrayed will not be problematic. Those triggers can actually be helpful in establishing accountability in your spouse, establishing a new relationship, and in helping you live your personal truth. However, this seems like a scenario where trust can never be rebuilt and we often think trust is requirement of marriage.
As I have said before, you can be married while at the same time never again having the same level of trust in your relationship. For as long as I can remember, the message was often the opposite. I have read in many books that trust is generally necessary for marriage. Yes, trust is generally necessary in marriage, BUT this is the pre-infidelity marriage. One does not owe trust to a betrayer.
The betrayer must earn the trust back and it is his job to prove himself trustworthy. This is where we must be comfortable living with paradoxes like this. We do not have to have the same level of trust to rebuild a marriage. In fact, I believe that not having the same level of trust will force your spouse to value you more. He or she now has to earn you along with your trust. He or she knows deep down he/she is not deserving of your trust even if he/she constantly complains about your lack of trust.
When you make the cheater earn your trust, it’s one way to establish yourself as a person of value. Many people love being challenged and everyone wants a spouse of value.
As Dr. James Dobson advises, when a wife finds out about her husband’s infidelity the thing that she should do is ask him to leave. Dobson is a well-known Christian and has dedicated his life to his Focus on the Family organization. So, for him to say the opposite of what common sense might dictate is a big deal. But his point is that when a woman asks her husband to leave, she establishes herself as a woman of value. It is the quickest way to snap a man out of the affair fog because suddenly his mistress looks unattractive.
Even if you are not able to trust your spouse, it’s important that you have some kind of shift in thinking that allows you to have a little compassion for your spouse as a whole. Having compassion does not make their actions right or excuse them, but it does help you.
I like this comment from a woman who goes by the name of Amy about her husband’s affair and how she deals with intrusive thoughts. She was at the park with her child and was triggered because she knew the park was one of the places her husband had betrayed her. Amy also found out that her husband’s narcissistic façade was actually just that—a façade. Here is what she said and how she was able to have compassion:
I stopped and prayed for God to show me His perspective on it all. Almost instantaneously, in my thoughts, my husband was changed to a little boy. It made me think of my own son doing something like that and it made me so sad for him. What would cause somebody to do something like this? My husband grew up in a very strict, hyper-religious, and abusive home. Just like I have dealt with trauma in the manner I have, my husband ended up finding his release in his own way. When I saw him as a little boy doing this, I also felt compassion for him, the way I imagine God feels about us when we are doing something that is destructive and not good for anybody. I wanted to pick him up and hold him and tell him that he was loved. Then, I remembered my husband, on the day of disclosure breaking down and crying for the first time in front of me. He opened up and told me his narcissistic talk was just a façade. In reality, he didn’t feel like he deserved anybody’s love. He didn’t believe that anybody could love him, especially because of what he has done.” (3)
As I have said before, trauma finds a voice and it appears that Amy’s husband’s trauma found its voice in infidelity; rather infidelity was his chosen mode of acting out. Regardless, his actions are not excusable but it helped her re-frame what is otherwise a bleak situation.
In summary, your triggers are not the end of the world or to be feared—triggers help healing and help your spouse see your side of it. Trust is not a requirement of rebuilding your marriage. Narcissistic and borderline traits are not all that they seem and your spouse’s lack of empathy or remorse could be a phase.
What about you? Do you have any questions or comments?
1) *Assuming that one group of women is less prone to infidelity than another group does not sit well with me. If you want the actual data on infidelity and ethnicity, someone did a study. The top three countries with the most unfaithful women are: 1) Nigeria 2) Thailand, and 3) Great Britain. In other words, all racial groups are pretty much equal opportunity adulteresses. From: http://beforeitsnews.com/alternative/2015/09/top-10-countries-with-the-most-unfaithful-women-3220198.html
2) **This is the full definition from the DSM-V (revised 2011 version):
The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits. To diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
- Impairments in self-functioning (a or b): a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem. b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b): a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others. b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others; experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
- Antagonism, characterized by: a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others. b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
Reynolds, Rick, LCSW. Infidelity: The #1 Obstacle to Recovery. From https://www.affairrecovery.com/newsletter/founder/infidelity-betrayal-the-number-one-obstacle-to-recovery
Reynolds, Rick, LCSW. We Hate the Emotion of the Betrayed. From https://www.affairrecovery.com/survivors/samuel/we-hate-the-emotion-of-the-betrayed
Amy. Intrusive Thoughts. From https://www.affairrecovery.com/survivors/amy/intrusive-thoughts