There is often learned helplessness as a result of infidelity.

learned helplessness as a result of infidelity

By Doug

As I mentioned in last Thursday’s post, I’m working through a personal development program called Optimal Living 101.  In one of the audios the speaker, Brian Johnson, mentioned some research findings that indicated that a typical person has approximately 60,000 thoughts a day – and 45,000 of those thoughts are negative.

Now, I’m not sure who did the research or how the heck they were able to come up with those numbers, but regardless I thought that those numbers were staggering.  They should also make each of us think a little bit about the thoughts that run through our brains which eventually dictate virtually everything we do.

Another concept that was introduced was that of “learned helplessness.”    Now this may be a familiar term for many of you, but it was a new term for me – though it turned out I was somewhat aware of the concept. Even so, I needed to learn a little more about it.

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What is Learned Helplessness?

Basically, learned helplessness is when a person begins to believe that they have no control over a situation, even when they do.  A common phrase uttered by a person who suffers from learned helplessness is: “What’s the point in trying?”

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered accidentally by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier.   (For a description of their experiment, click here.)

One thing which often spares people from feelings of depression or helplessness is a sense of control over their own circumstances. A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. Learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better.

Over time the person may begin to believe that no matter what they do, bad things will happen from time to time in a random fashion. Dysfunction arises when a person’s negative experiences are generalized to their broader situation or outlook.  The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.

It got me to thinking how in some cases there can be  learned helplessness as a result of infidelity.

An Example of Learned Helplessness as a Result of Infidelity

I was able to find the following excellent example from a website that perhaps many of you might relate to.

“Let’s say that a man with a spouse who has a personality disorder notices that on the last few occasions that he returned home from work punctually and complemented her appearance that she treated him very well, fussed over him and paid attention to his needs. He tells himself that coming home early “seems to be working”.

The next day he decides to surprise her by coming home an extra 2 hours early. Excited at his plan, he arrives home only to discover her with another man. His model for how his world works is devastated. He no longer has a sense of control over his wellbeing and personal security. He may tell himself “I’m so stupid!”

In reality his wife’s unfaithfulness had nothing to do with him. It was rooted in her need for attention and her low self-worth. An opportunity arose when a stranger showed an interest in her and she succumbed. Along with the thrill, she has been feeling some guilt over her behavior and fear of getting caught and has sub-consciously over-compensated by being extra nice to her husband when he comes home.

In this example, the husband’s behavior had no influence or control over the situation. However, in an attempt to rationalize what happened, he may begin to review all the things he has done to motivate his wife to hurt him so much. He is making the mistake of looking at himself to explain the random actions of his wife. He is learning to be helpless.”

You may want to watch this brief video that demonstrates learned helplessness in a classroom environment.


Tips For Overcoming Learned Helplessness

When thinking of what the opposite of helpless and learned helplessness is, words like self-reliant, confident, optimistic, in control, hardiness and hopefulness come to mind.

Overcoming learned helplessness involves believing that your actions will make a difference in whatever outcome you’re trying to achieve.  You need to shift your thinking and focus towards those things you can control with the belief that by doing so, it will make a difference.  I know, easier said than done, for sure.

For instance, if you feel that your negative outlook and attitude is causing your relationship to suffer, then you need to focus on and practice ways to become more optimistic.  You have to learn to be optimistic.

ZenTactics offers the following tips for overcoming learned helplessness:

Tip #1: Pick one area to focus on.

What area of your life would you like to change? If you feel like the change is going to be hard, give yourself every chance by focusing on that one change. Don’t try for other changes until you’re sure you’re making sustainable progress in your one area. Juggling too many balls can be stressful and make you ineffective.

Tip #2: Believe you can make a difference.

Michael Jordan worked hard to improve his basketball game. But how motivated would he have been if he didn’t believe anything he did would matter?

Tip #3: Stop criticizing yourself.

Mistakes happen to the best of us. Don’t blame yourself when things go wrong. Making a mistake doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It just means you’re human. Brush it off and resolve to do better next time.

Tip #4: Start complimenting yourself.

How often do you take time out of your day to compliment yourself? If you did something nice for someone, it’s because you’re a good person and you should compliment yourself for it. Psychological research has shown that giving ourselves credit for things that go right lifts our attitude to more optimistic heights.

Tip #5: Give yourself a better environment.

If you’re surrounded by people who are constantly tearing you down, you’re not going to feel very optimistic. So if you have to change jobs to get away from negative co-workers or set some limits with certain family members, by all means, do it. A healthy environment contributes to an optimistic mindset.

Tip #6: Focus on the things you can control.

There’s a psychological concept called “locus of control.” People with a high internal locus of control believe the outcome of events is due to their own actions. People with a high external locus of control believe that circumstances beyond their control determine events. Guess which group is happier? If you guessed the people with the internal locus, you’re right. So always ask yourself, “what can I do to make this situation better?” Focus on what you can do to make a difference.

Tip #7: Reward yourself for little changes along the way.

Reinforcing the little things you do along the way to the big change makes changing not only more fun, but also keeps you focused. As you think about the next step, you can also think about how you’re going to reward yourself. So indulge in your favorite hobby, go out with friends, or do whatever it is that you find rewarding and relaxing.

We’ve spoken to many people who have had a spouse that cheated and they’ve spent a lot of time, energy and focus on trying to change their spouse’s behavior. Most of these people eventually came to the conclusion that it is virtually impossible to do so, and as a result they felt powerless, hopeless and helpless.  Instead, they need to forget about trying to change the other person’s behaviors and focus on their own.  This is what they have control over and is most important for their own wellbeing.

Have you experienced a sense of learned helplessness as a result of infidelity?  Please leave your comments on this topic below.


    12 replies to "Is There Learned Helplessness as a Result of Infidelity?"

    • Anita

      In the above example where the wife cheated on her husband, the husband had nothing to do with his
      wife’s infidelity.
      Grieving the loss of the innocents of the marraige will
      take time and forgiviness, on the husband’s part.
      However there is a more important issue that needs to be
      addressed, and that is the cheating spouses
      low self esteem, and her need to have attention.
      The cheating spouse needs to grow in this area, and
      understand that another person can not give them self
      value, that comes from God. Using a affair partner to try
      and fix the unhappiness within does not work, nor does
      putting the expection on your spouse to make you happy
      does not work either. Only God can fill those voids from within. Also the cheating spouse needs to learn that more to life instead of instant gratifaction.
      The cheating spouse need to learn skills to help them
      develop patience and understanding when their spouses
      are busy, and for them to grow and learn to be helpful, instead of being impatient, and going out to seek another
      to fill that empty void that THEY allowed within themselves.
      Also intsead of an affair partner that they find things to do that bring them happiness, instead of them waiting for their
      spouse to fill that within them.
      The focus needs to be on the cheats spouse in helping them to grow.
      The betrayed spouse will recover, and they need to forgive.
      However the betrayed spouse is not helpless, they have
      the option of staying or leaving. Hopfully by staying, the
      cheating spouse will learn how to develop these skills
      so they won’t return a broken way of dealing with their issues.
      Is there a helplessness in the betrayed spouse, “no there
      isn’t” they have the option to stay or leave.
      Is there a helplessness in the cheating spouse “Yes”, however they need to take the steps to grow and to learn
      the importance of a relationship and not to run to someone
      else to receive instant gratifacation.

    • Anita

      When infidelity happens, the betrayed spouse needs to heal from the betrayel and forgive.
      If the betrays spouse leaves, its over, and they continue foward with their own life.
      However if they stay, they need to put that sorrow aside and
      forgive their cheating spouse, HOWEVER, the work that
      needs to be done isn’t on the betrayed spouse’s sorrow, instead the work needs to be done on the cheating spouse
      so they won’t return to a broken way of living, by helping the cheating spouse, the marriage has a better
      chance to survive, if the cheating spouse can learn to grow, and recieve the education to improve their skills in learning how to be relationship, and to communicate their
      needs and also have an understanding that their
      spouse also has needs, and to be active in staying
      patient and faithful to their spouse.
      The betrayed will heal from their sorrow, but the cheating spouse need to address their issues within.
      Help the cheating spouse and you won’t have a betrayed
      The betrayed will heal, but will the cheating spouse be
      responsible to get they’re their own healing? So there
      won’t be a betrayed spouse, or any future betrayels.

    • Anita

      The betrayed spouse needs to remember that they have a choice to stay or leave and if they stay its not about their
      sorrow, instead its knowing that they can trust that their cheating spouse is getting the help needed, so they can return to that relationship with the knowledge that the cheated spouse had gotten the help needed so infidelity
      never happens again.

      • exercisegrace

        This is resonating in an uncomfortable way! Six months from d-day, I am very full of sorrow. I know my husband is getting the help he needs. He is doing both MC and IC. This makes me very happy, and refusal of either was a deal breaker for me. However, I still struggle with lingering sadness. I still very much grieve the loss of what our marriage was. I am not sure exactly what building trust looks like, other than it will take a lot of time, and proven behavior. It’s a long road to earning this back. Your input here on this site is very valuable to me!!

        • Anita

          I understand your sorrow, and I know its painful. However
          you need to take back your control, and live again. Don’t let his affair steal a part of your life away. Do the things that
          make you happy and it helps to take your mind off of this.
          You need that for yourself, by doing things for you it will take you further away from the past, and will give you your life back again.
          What he and his affair partner did was anything but right,
          however this is something that they will have come to terms with. I know it hurt you, but forgiving them, will
          help you, forgiveness is for you, it removes the poison
          from you. Also when you don’t forgive its like YOU swallowing the poison, expecting it to hurt them.
          That why its important to forgive and get on with your life again, so this doesn’t keep you in a state of sorrow.
          Also with your husband, he needs MC and IC, to help him,
          and by him knowing its a deal breaker if he doesn’t.
          However its time for you to live again and enjoy your life,
          as far as trust, time will tell, but you have to live, and go
          forward. God gave you a life to live and you need to enjoy
          your life, and not be in sorrow over someone elses foolishness.

          • Anita

            I only speak from my own experince, and what I have learned as a result of it.
            I know your only a few months from D-day, and I felt no
            different then you at that time either.
            When my exhusband and I got married, we married because of a pregnancy, we both were very young.
            Neither one of us had the chance to go out in to the world and experience it before getting married. Also my exhusband really never dated other gals before we married. Overtime this would come back to haunt us,
            he always felt that he had missed out on his youth. Mix
            that in with everyday life pressures and a low moment in his life, and along came his coworker and there was an attraction and the affair began. Long story short we divorced. He continued his relationship with his affair
            partner for about a year after our divorce and they split up.
            He remarried now to another lady he met later.
            What I learned from all this was that, sometimes relationships work and sometimes they don’t, but you can
            still have a good life even after a relationship ends.
            I forgave my exhusband and I realized we married for the
            wrong reasons and we were just kids ourselves. This experience is part of my life, but it doesn’t define my life.
            Exercisegrace, my heart goes out to you, and someday
            you will get past this.

            • Anita

              I know this isn’t the happy endiing that you were looking for,
              however for me it is a happy ending. To be married to someone who really wasn’t into the marriage to begin with
              can be worse then going our separate ways and finding a life our own that makes us happy.
              My exhusband’s last affair wasn’t his first infidelity, but his
              last affair was my wakeup call in realizing that he really wasn’t in love with me, but rather stayed with me because of a comfort zone. It was then I found the
              strenght to be able to let the relationship go, and I moved
              after signing the divorce papers. I knew if I stayed we would end up cycling again. However I left because I was
              really to leave, in my mind I was so exhausted and tired it all and all
              I wanted was out. I found new energy to restart a new life
              because in my mind I was finished with my exe. I still had to grieve the loss of our marriage, however I knew that once
              I did I would be over him. That’s when my new life began
              and I made that journey and found there it life after a divorce, and I found my happiness.

            • exercisegrace

              Anita, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a wonderful response to me. It is the friends I have made on this journey that have honestly carried me at times. I can’t imagine walking this awful path without people in the blogosphere lighting the way!
              We are in MC and both in IC. It is helping, although it is a slow and painful process. I think right now the cycle we need to break is my need to talk about it, and his need to leave it behind. When I mention it, he feels the guilt and shame which makes him defensive and then that in turn makes me feel like he is minimizing and away we go! Most of my reading right now is on forgiveness. I know it is something i need to do for myself. There are many things I am coming to realize that I need to do for myself. I have put myself dead last for too long. Healing begins with me! I think I have been waiting for it to begin with him, expecting him to heal (because I DO realize he is very remorseful and carries much self-loathing) and then turn around and somehow heal me! I know what we have is worth saving, worth working on. It is just so very hard. I am thankful for people like you, who pour themselves out and guide the rest of us on this path.

    • Gizfield

      Incredible as it may seem, I have thought for a while that in the “affair” love triangle the person that has the real power is the Betrayed spouse. The cheaters think they are in control, but unless they leave to be together the dynamic only changes when the betrayed spouse changes it. For example, they whine and moan that they would be together”except”….. Whatever they want to blame their lack of commitment to each other on. It is the easiest thing in the world to promise someone that you dont plan to do anyway!!! It is really easy to tell all your secrets to someone you have no obligations to. your little “soulmate” cause they know they can walk away, no harm, no foul at any time, at no cost. I have made good on my promise to my husband that if I caught him in contact with his tramp again that we are DONE. I have finally decided to exercise my control over this situation. Best thing I have done in three years.

      • Anita

        Good for you, when the betrayed spouse puts their foot down and lets the cheating spouse know that if they mess up again, that their gone.
        The betrayed spouse does have control over their lives.
        No one has to ever put up with a cheating spouse, and
        if they give the cheating spouse a 2nd chance, the cheating spouse needs to fix their internal issues, so they
        do not fall back into their old patterns again.
        Marriage recovery from an affair isn’t so much about the
        betrayed spouse healing, because they will with or without the cheating spouse, the recovering really needs to be
        focused on the cheating spouse getting their act together
        and for them educating themselves. Sadly it seems the
        betrayed spouses do most of the posting here verses the
        cheating spouses who are the ones who needs the help the most. Its the cheating spouse who creates the betrayed spouse, so it would be nice to see more cheating spouses post here. I know some do, and I give them

        • exercisegrace

          Great comments about the betrayed spouse having control. In our situation the OW was a colleague and they worked out of our home. As time went on, I began to become more and more suspicious and see things that made me uncomfortable. Of course it was all denied, explained away, and I believed him! I spent longer than I care to contemplate worried sick each day, wondering if it was going to be the day he left me, despite his protestations that nothing was going on. NOW, I am finally at a point where I said to him and our counselor the other day…..YOU should have been the one to worry. YOU should have wondered if I was going to get fed up with it all and leave. AND YOU KNOW WHAT? That THOUGHT NEVER crossed my mind in all that time. I had the power and didn’t even know it. I was too cowed by the lies, and the accusations that I was trying to ruin his business, and wreck us financially with my crazy, paranoid suspicions. Never, ever again. I told him if there is ONE thing i learned for certain in all this… intuition is DEAD ON. I will always trust my gut and never doubt it again. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice…eat my dust I’m gone.

      • exercisegrace

        Gizfield, loved the above comment about the cheaters whining and moaning. We betrayed spouses become the common enemy. The buffoon they make fun of, and criticize. We can’t ever get it “right” because “they” make the rules in “their” little fantasy land. A land where no screaming children exist, there are no bills to pay, no dishes to wash (because they eat out at nice restaurants) no in-law/family issues to deal with. I could go on and on. It is simply not real. We suspect and question and push. We are evil and controlling and don’t love them. It becomes a vicious cycle until someone jumps off the ride. Again, great comment.

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