I really love the work of Steven Stosny and I think that much of what he says can be helpful to people in committed relationships as well as those who have been hurt by infidelity.  This post will address his ideas for emotional healing from painful memories.

While getting the quote for yesterday’s discussion, I got sidetracked and started reading a few of his other posts on the Psychology Today site.  I came across the following article that deals with the importance and function of painful memories.  However, we need to be aware that our automatic defense system can create false alarms and ultimately undermine the healing process.


Emotional Healing and the Automatic Defense System

painful memories
Painful memories of past hurt are necessary for health and wellbeing. However, our automatic defense system can trick us and undermine the healing process.

Memories of past hurt are necessary for health and wellbeing. They keep us safe in the present and future, by activating an automatic defense system.

It’s easier to see the function of painful memories and the automatic defense system in physical pain. Having burned your finger on a stove makes you more careful when you feel the heat; stepping on a nail last week makes you look before you leap today.

Though more complicated, the function of emotionally painful memories is the same as the physically painful. Recalling betrayal is likely to make you more cautious about whom you trust; remembering the pain of past failures will usually motivate more learning, effort, and attention in future enterprise.

The mammalian brain is remarkable in its ability to perform risk-benefit analyses. It is able to balance memory of pain with the potential reward of a given behavior in the present, as long as the focus is on the present. Unlike other animals, humans often subvert this process by ruminating about the past as if the function of memory and imagination were independent of the present. This leads to vain attempts to solve the problems of the past instead of those we face in the present and future and paves the way for making the same mistakes over and over.

Repairing Hurtful Relationships

The automatic defense system works most efficiently on infrequent hurts with specific memory triggers. When it comes to emotional pain in ongoing relationships, the memory triggers are vast, general, and imprecise. Intimate relationships carry continual reminders of past hurts with generalized memory triggers like tone of voice, body language, or facial expressions.

For example, bumping your knee on a chair or banging your finger while hanging a picture can produce the same tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions as past outbursts of threatening anger, rejection, punishing withdrawal of affection, or abuse. A sullen look after a hard day at work or a typical response to the home team losing a key game can look like the stonewalling and emotional isolation of the past. A distracted or preoccupied demeanor from a spouse who has strayed can trigger the pain of infidelity. In short, the automatic defense system is prone to false alarms and can easily prevent healing and cause more hurt.

Just Leaving Won’t be Enough to Heal

If you continue to be hurt in your relationship and are sure that the automatic defense system is not precipitating the hurt, the clear message of your pain is to remove yourself from its source.

Unfortunately, leaving a hurtful relationship will not be enough to disarm the automatic defense system. As a matter of fact, it is likely to become more sensitive as its activation-cues grow less frequent. The amazing adaptability of the human psyche produces one of the cruel ironies about overcoming past hurt. The more frequent and intense the hurt was, the greater your tolerance of it – that’s how the bad becomes bearable. As hurtful incidents decline in frequency and intensity, you actually become more sensitive to them, meaning that far less stimulus hurts far more. You begin to react to the faintest possibility of hurt as if it were highly probable.

Here’s a typical example. You have no doubt lived through painful experience at some time in your life and coped with it remarkably well. Yet almost as soon as it passed you probably mumbled something like, “I could never go through that again!” You became more vigilant for – and intolerant of – anything that remotely resembled the hurtful experience. A tragic example of this phenomenon occurs in suicide. Clinicians have long known that the most dangerous time in a person’s severe depression is when it begins to lift. The newly energized and hopeful victim feels unable to endure the possibility of relapse and is likely to take drastic action at the first significant, albeit temporary, downturn in mood.

Emotional Healing Means Reconditioning

Whether you choose to stay in an improving relationship or to leave it, your automatic defense system will likely undermine your relationships in the future – including those with children – unless it is reconditioned.

Research shows that imagination and memory are opposite sides of the same coin, almost impossible to distinguish with any certainty and highly dependent on current physical and emotional states. Healing is never tied to the past; it is a matter of willful focus in the present.

Emotional healing occurs when the brain associates painful memories with restorative images. Repeating the association over and over conditions the painful memories to stimulate the restorative images automatically, in lieu of the automatic defense system.

Typical grief over loss of a loved one is an example of how this process occurs naturally for most people. Memories of the deceased are acutely painful in the beginning of the grief process; they keep you focused on loss and inhibit premature reinvestment of value in others. Over time, you begin to focus on positive experiences with the deceased – what you’ve gained rather than what you’ve lost – and it becomes pleasurable to think about the loved one. Restorative images of love, meaning, purpose, and appreciation have reconditioned your focus from loss to value-orientation. At that point you are free to invest value more fully in other people and in other areas of your life. (You can read the original post here.)


What about the painful memories of infidelity?

One of the most important takeaways from this article for me was when Stosny says:  “Emotional healing occurs when the brain associates painful memories with restorative images.”

It’s understandable how a person can do this somewhat more easily with respect to a loss of a loved one for instance, as Stosny describes above.  How many of us have  felt the intense pain of losing a loved one, but then several months later the pain has been replaced by loving, happy memories?

It is so much more difficult in my opinion when we’re talking about the painful memories associated with infidelity.  Most of us tend to associate these memories with nothing but more pain, emotional turmoil and feelings of betrayal.  It’s damn tough to find any restorative images!

I think that it just takes time to be able to produce these helpful images.  As time passes and though still painful, the intensity of the pain and hurt from the affair starts to subside and it becomes easier to go beyond that pain to focus on things that are more positive and therefore more restorative.  It also helps tremendously to have a spouse who has done as much as possible to help you heal along the way.

In our situation, I’ve been able to look beyond the affair to an extent and see that we now have a relationship that is so much better than before.  That in no way implies that the affair was a good thing and that it isn’t still painful, but it does shine a more positive light on its outcome. 

There’s no way in hell that I could have put such a positive spin on things without a sufficient period of time passing and after putting in the hard work required to recover.  Affair recovery is a very long process and it takes a long while for the negative images to dissipate and for new, better memories to take their place.

What do you think?  Have you had any success at associating the painful memories of infidelity with something more positive and restorative?

Steven Stosny’s Books: 

“Love Without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One”

“How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It”

“You Don’t Have to Take it Anymore”


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    23 replies to "Emotional Healing from Painful Memories"

    • Natalia

      Linda: I agree when you say: “It is so much more difficult in my opinion when we’re talking about the painful memories associated with infidelity. Most of us tend to associate these memories with nothing but more pain, emotional turmoil and feelings of betrayal.” And this was me for a long time. Even today I feel it sometimes. But I’ve come a long way and have emerged as a strong woman. However, I will never go through an EA again! My relationship with my H today is 100% better than it was 2 1/2 years ago. I guess something had to give to make it possible. The only good thing that I attribute to his EAs if the fact that I was brave enough to put a stop to his nonsense, fight for our marriage and make him WANT to come back to me. So every time I think or happen to read about someone’s EA I sigh with relief that that period of my life is over and the future looks promising. But there are a few things that bother me. As good as it is today, there is one thing I miss from the “old marriage”: the loss of unconditional trust. I really hope one day to overcome this. It’s not fun to love your husband but not fully trust him. Actually when I think about it, it hurts and feels like trigger. But then, what else can I do? That feeling is always going to be there. In order to get over it, I concentrate on the good things my husband has accomplished and how everything is discussed and nothing is held back. Just thinking about this makes me feel better. Thanks for the post.

    • Amanda

      My healing came from God, and realizing I was a whole
      person, wheather I was married or single. By being psychologically autonomous, I am able to stand on my own two feet. I recognize the importance of relationships however the same time I keep my own identity from being swallowed up or destroyed by another person.
      My world did not end when I divorced, I continue to live without self-destructing.
      Forgiving is so important, and realizing that you can have a life with or without a mate is so important.
      With that being said, how do you heal when someone cheated on you, forgive them, and accept what happened,
      and move forward, its the same as divorce you need time
      healing and forgiveness.
      As long as we continue to be in a relationship with others
      there will come a time when we will also get hurt by that
      person, when we forgive it frees us to move forward.
      Sometime marriages survive infidelity and sometimes
      they don’t, what ever the case maybe, being psychologically autonomous allows you to stand on your own two feet.
      We have to choose to let the past go and not relive it over
      and over, when a past memory comes up deal with that
      memory and tell yourself that was then this is now, and let it go. Overtime with forgiveness the good memories will
      be there, and hold on to those memories and let the bad ones go. Life is to short to live in the past, and its the here and now that counts.

    • ChangedForever

      Amazingly, i spent about an hour with my H last night, what was our 2yr DDay ‘antiversary’ as Doug taught me to refer to it, talking about just this subject. We (really I) talked about how my dealing with the painful memories is still the open wound. I’m trying to get my H to help me vs attending one on one counseling without him (which i tried…) but, after reading this post and comments , realizing life is so precious and i need to be really focused on what i and we need, it really is my H that needs to do some work here…and not just being more attentive and ‘pal-ling around’ together-which he told me he likes…(which is exactly what got him into trouble with his last affair partner,) its trying to find out how HE could’ve done all this damage before and after i found out. How, all those YEARS of EAs and the inevitable EA/PA which brought the house down around us, could have happened while i went about what i thought was, my life, its trials & tribulations with my children…and my H.
      I, unfortunately, have really had no success (that has lasted,) with replacing painful memories…but i have hope to be able to…one day. Or at least to have them (those stabbing memories) lessen. But replacing the pain of what we went thru with positives? VERY hard to imagine that, right now…
      What i long for short term (as well as long term…) Just one day of my life whereby i don’t have to have a trigger cross my path or a thought of the affair…what unfortunately i’ve distanced myself from is the former me, BEFORE discovery. I was so good at seeing the positive, finding it for others and preaching the need for it. Now, doing that for others ? I feel like a hypocrite. I cannot practice what i preach (yet…)

    • Amanda

      You mentioned that you have ” distanced yourself from is the former me, BEFORE the discovery.
      ChangedForever, do not let what he did steal from the person you once were, if you were postive person and helped others by preaching the need for it, continue to
      be that positive person you once were. Do not let his
      affair steal away anything from you. His choice to have an
      affair was his own downfall, his bad choice, his own destrution to himself. As an individual you have no control
      over the choices he makes, but you need to hold on to who you are as a individual. Hold on to your own identity and do not let it get swallowed up or destroyed by another person. Be the person you once were, and hold on to that.
      In his own weakness he allowed himself to fall into an affair, do not let his weakness bring you down.
      Forgive him, but remain strong, and know that God made you perfectly you, don’t throw that away over someone
      elses downfall.

      • Amanda

        Since we have no control over someones elses behavior,
        all we can do is to control our own, and not allow someone elses bad behavior to control you. By being yourself and allowing yourself to be the person God created you to be, you will be content with who you are.
        If your spouse has an affair and blames you, for their own
        lack of self control, you need to stay strong and don’t not let their foolish behavior get to you. If that means they leave so be it, let them go. No one should be in a relationship
        where you fear if you say or do something that the other person will either cheat again or leave because your afraid of being yourself. In order for a relationship to work after
        a betrayel the betrayed spouse needs to be themselves
        and let down their defenses so they can live again, if
        the cheating spouse doesn’t appreciate them, theres
        always the door.
        I know for myself, I had to leave my own marriage when
        I realized I didn’t want to dance to the beat of his drum.
        Instead I could be content walking to the beat of my
        own drum. It was better for me to let him go and find
        my own life, at least I am free from being cheated on ever again from him. I forgave him, so I have full control over
        my life again. I also am happy because the past of this is over and I can continue to be myself and let God change me from Glory to Glory.

    • exercisegrace

      In the early years of our marriage, we lived in Florida. There, we had to learn certain things. How to recognize local poisonous snakes, how to treat a jellyfish sting, and what to do if you got caught in a riptide. That last one was counter-intuitive. The people that got caught up in this strong current and drowned were the ones that struggled against it. They fought, tired and went under. They should have floated with it, even though it meant initially being carried a little further out into the ocean. They needed to wrench their gaze away from the shore, even though that obviously was still the ultimate goal. Float far enough, and you get past the big waves that are causing the riptide. Only then can you summon the strength to make it back to shore.

      And so it is with affair recovery or at least it is for me. I did not deserve what happened to me. I did not cause it. I do not carry the weight of responsibility for it. It was not and is not a good thing, even though my faith tells me that God CAN and WILL bring beauty from the ashes. I have tried to think “happy” thoughts or think about something else or whatever. For me, it simply does not work. I am coming to the conclusion that this pretty much sucks and it always will to some degree. The best I can do is stare it in the face, accept what happened, understand what I can do to keep it from happening again, make sure my husband knows what to do to keep it from happening again (and what the consequences will be if it DOES). Like the riptide, it is useless to fight it. My emotions are like giant waves that wash over me. If I ride it out, the anger ebbs, and calmer emotions return. Each successive wave is just a tiny bit smaller. In time, I think I will be safely back on the shore. But it will take courage and a lot of hard swimming.

    • Amanda

      I had to be defined as a woman, by the way my exhusband treated me, I would be in sad shape, and pathetic. By me not allowing him to control who I was by his actions, I was able to keep my own identity, and not get lost in his irrational behavior, when someone else doesn’t have their own life in order, and we try to mesh with them, we can get
      lost in a tangled mess, when a relationship should be 2 healthy people coming together bringing the best to each other and it becomes a strenght, instead relationship when infidelity is used as a means to as away to control their spouse. Something is very off balance when your spouse brings another person into the marriage, as a way to take control. As a former betrayed spouse myself
      I had to leave that relationship behind because I refused
      let myself remain with a spouse who didn’t repect me, or
      our marriage.

      • Rachel


        You sound so healthy. I feel like I get to a good place and then I take 10 steps backwards.
        There were good times in our marriage and my mind goes to them often and I miss them. I miss him. Why? He was so mean and disrespectful to me and our marriage. This week his cousin of 61 years old took his own life. Reasons because he was unhappy and stressed. It seems that they all have a chemical imbalance. I just feel if he could get help with medication he wouldn’t feel like he does and none of this would have happened between us. Why am I still hoping? Our marriage is over! He doesn’t want our marriage or me. I’m back to having a hard time accepting this?

        • Amanda

          The truth is that there are happy times within a marriage, so hold on to those memories. Just because a couple splits up it doesn’t mean that everything in that relationship
          was bad.
          Rachel, for the first few months after my divorce, I sometimes would take a nap because my job was a very
          early morning job, as I would stir myself awake, I would have the thought of what if this was all just a very bad dream and when I open my eyes everthing will be
          as it once was, of course when I opened my eyes,
          the reality of it all kicked in.
          It takes time, the first year is the hardest, however by the
          end of the first year you will begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
          You will experience many emotions during this time, for the first few months I would feel pain for a day or two, then
          anger would set in, I felt good on my anger days, then it would go back to pain, then bargining set in, where I would pray and try to make a deal with God, that if he restored my exhusband and I together again, I promised this and that to God, of course that didn’t happen, but it was part of the grief process. Of course your sad as your going through of this, your grief will get less and less, and one day you will
          be ready to move ahead with your own life, you will actually get sick of greiving, you will know when this happens.
          I also got a couple small books on healing from divorce, and the different stages, it helped me, because I was able to see my own progression in my healing, and I started to look foward to each new stage as I read about them.
          About a year after my divorce, I felt like a whole new person, and my happiness and joy returned. Then I had to work on forgiving that took longer, because as something
          surfaced I had to work through it and forgive it, then a few
          days would go by and something else that I held inside
          would surface and I would repeat this over and over many many times, letting each thing go. Sometimes several
          months would go by and something else would surface again, forgiving was a process for me, and I feel like I have total forgiveness now.
          Rachel, I believe we all grieve in our own time and way, also you may heal a little faster or it could be slower, it depends on the person, and other factors.

          • Rachel

            Thank you so much for your reply. Can you share the names of the books that were helpful to you?
            I have been in touch with my sons guidance counselor weekly because he is having a very difficult time with the divorce and his father moving out of town. She said the same thing that we grieve in our own time, something that my son doesn’t understand . His father has moved on and never grieved. Of course my son is only 16 and doesn’t understand.
            I had a dream last night that my husband woke up and we were back together. I was calm, happy, and worried. Then I woke up and new it was a dream because even if he was wrong, he would never admit it.
            Thank you again, Amanda. I enjoy reading your posts.

            • Amanda

              I wish I could remember the names of those books and the authors, I gave those books away a couple of years
              ago to someone else who divorced and that person has relocated to a different area since than. I am sure there
              are local bookstores that would have those same type of books, or even on line.
              I was fortunate my children were older when we divorced, they also were very protective of me, but I told them that
              even though it didn’t work out between their dad and I, that
              they should still remain close to their dad also.
              There still is a bond between my exhusband’s family
              and mine, also my exhusband and I get along. We agreed that for our children and grandchildren we all would benefit
              by everyone getting along, and it works.
              Rachel, the pain of all this will ease with time, and everyone’s life will eventually settle down and when that
              does so will your stress level.

            • Rachel


              That’s ok, if you should ever remember the names just blog them for I think I’ll be on this site forever.
              I’m not sure if i mentioned that my H’s cousin took his own life this week. Sixty one years of age and every thing to live for. Such a sweet wonderful wife, a great paying job and also retirement just around the corner. It shocks me that another member of the family can think so little of his wife. She found him and he knew that she would . Out of 9 cousins only one is still married. They all range in ages from 40 to late 50’s . I find this so strange. Why are they all so difficult to please?
              My jealousy is the issue that I have for not moving on. I still love this man and the thoughts of him being with other women just kills me. I don’t know what I’ll do when I see him with someone else. If I could let go of him like he’s let go of me , my battle would be over. I could move on and be stress free, but I don’t have an answer how to do this.

            • Amanda

              What works for some people getting over someone may not work for others. I can only speak my own experience,
              after I signed my divorce papers, I moved to a different state, of course I don’t suggest doing that, I only did it because it gave me better opportunities.
              By me living in a different state, I was never around my exhusband therefore it gave me the chance to heal and get over him.
              I don’t know how long it would take to get over someone
              when you see that person around on a regular bases,
              I assume it would take a little longer then if you weren’t.

    • chiffchaff

      It is very hard to replace painful memories with happy ones but it’s true that you have to do this to heal and recapture a focus on the present and not the past. I don’t want our current life to be dominated by what my then selfish H decided to do to us for a bit of short term physical pleasure.

      It’s important to do different and new stuff together as these form the basis of the new memories. As many couples trying to save their marriages together have mentioned in postings they seem to naturally start doing more fun stuff even while the emotional turmoil is still churning. I know that this was part of my first response to try and address some of the problems that my H’s PA/EA revealed with our marriage.
      Only last night I was driving home from work feeling happy about some aspect of the day and remembering a good time we’d recently had, then the immensity of what my H did fell into those thoughts but only stayed for a few minutes. Seems right that when you’re feeling like you’re getting carried away with happy feelings your brain chips in and reminds you that this is the same man who could do horrible things too. A dose of reality. the problem for us BSs is that following Dday we have far too much reality to deal with all at once.

      • exercisegrace

        I am glad I am not the only one that this happens to on a regular basis. I HATE that. I can be at our kids’ soccer game, talking and laughing with a friend, and then wham. I am drop kicked back into the reality of what happened. I am sure that it is some basic survival instinct, but it is exhausting to live this way.

    • ChangedForever

      Amanda, thanks for all your support and positive comments. And ExerciseGrace, wow, that analogy about fighting or not fighting the riptide…was amazing. I forwarded your post to my H who is a newly (40 years/) retired Beach Patrol Captain…he will relate. Loved that.
      Thx all for your posts, comments and support this week, an 8 day ‘week’ of painful memories…but now, i am no longer fighting the tide. Come to think of it, i haven’t been for quite sometime….the ‘distancing’ results in many things….

    • KelBelly

      I am beginning to think that I will never come out the other side of this. Every day I am over run with all the things my husband said and did for this other woman who he said was just a game to him but sat and watched me struggle and do everything I could to just make him happy and love me.

      How can I get past him telling her that we were only roomates and that he was only here until his son graduated. How do you see beyond your husband telling another woman that he wants to be her night in shining armour and will be there when she needed him while the whole time you would give anything to hear those words. How do you get passed your husband telling another woman that he loved her.

      I am so tired of hearing that it was all just part of a game. I am tired of hearing that I didnt mean any of it. I am tired of hearing I was angry with you! I am tired of getting the look and the tone when I try talking about. I am no closer today to understanding any of it than I was on DDay. How does someone who is suppose to love you with all their heart do something so damaging?

      Is he just staying here until our son graduates? Is he just appeasing me until he can get out? Did he truly love this other woman in some way. What did she say to get him to open up and be happy? How do I ever trust that he is telling the truth? I question everything he tells me! I want to feel it in my heart again when he sais he loves me.

      How do I make him see that what he saw as a game was very real and very hurtful. 7 1/2 months and I am still struggling with trying to hold on to the happiness we once had and praying that we will be again but wanting to run away everyday.

    • KelBelly

      How do I cancel my membership?

      • Doug

        I took care of it for you. Best of luck to you!

    • kelbelly

      Boy have I come a long way since My last post in this section. I need a little help with a decision I have made. Tomorrow is my H’s birthday and the day that I found the message that led to DDay the next day.

      I have been having issues with wanting to celebrate my H’s birthday so I have chosen to go horse back riding tomorrow. I have given him a present and he went fishing with his friends today so I do not feel guilty about my decision as far as he is concerned but our son is really upset that I am not staying home to celebrate. I have always made a big deal out of my H’s b-day so I can see where this is hard for him.
      How would you all deal with this issue? I am so afraid that if I stay. it will be a bad day and I don’t want that.

      • Linda

        Kelbelly, this is a tough one. I know how difficult Dday anniversaries can be especially when the coincide with a birthday or holiday. Does your son know the situation? Children need normalcy and traditions, it makes them feel safe. He is probably upset because he is afraid that if you don’t celebrate your husband’s birthday that things are not going well and you do not love each other anymore. Maybe for his sake more than your husbands you show some kind gesture or celebration. I know it will be very difficult and there will be triggers all day but it is also a chance to move on and do something new for his birthday. Something that may not produce so many triggers. Just pretend it is a day out or a special dinner not your husband’s birthday or the day he really screwed up. Good luck, Linda

      • forcryin'outloud

        KB, ironically 4th of July is d-day as well as the vacation (2 yrs prior) my h took to see the OW. i H-A-T-E fireworks now so I get where you are coming from. I agree 100% with Linda. What if you make new memories…ask them to come riding with you or do something all of you enjoy. I know for quite some time my child looked relieved when he saw my h and I affectionate to one another. Taking the high road sucks but as we BS know that’s what separates us from the OW. Best of luck!!!

    • KelBelly

      Thank you for writing Linda and forcryin’outloud. I have decided to take my H and son to breakfast and then they are going to go with me to get some things I need for my new saddle. After getting home, I am going to have hubby help me get everything set up for my horse and then I have been told by my son that I can go on my horse ride 🙂

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