That's not to say any of us get off easy. Infidelity is excruciating. It is to say, however, that some of us are devastated. And others of us are absolutely crippled by it.
My own working theory is that, for those of us who brought certain wounds into our marriage, infidelity re-opens those wounds. And we all know that re-opened wounds take longer to heal.
In my case, having grown up with alcoholic parents in an emotionally unsafe home, marriage (specifically my husband) became my safe place. I believed that I'd created a safe zone in a highly unsafe world. I let my guard down. Whew.
I wasn't safe at all, I found out. The guy I thought had my back was cheating behind my back. And all those feelings I thought had been exorcised – my anxiety, my shame, my fear of abandonment, my deep deep hurt from all those broken promises – came back with a vengeance. I couldn't trust anyone, I deduced. But underneath it all was that childhood conviction that I wasn't worth loving. I wasn't enough.
Turns out my working theory is supported by some pretty smart people. Shirley Glass, who can be credited with writing the definitive guide to affairs, Not Just Friends, has this to say about it:
Individuals who did not develop basic trust during childhood are especially vulnerable to deception by a loved one. Infidelity brings back all of those childhood wounds for a person who was lied to or whose parents made promises they didn't keep. Those who were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused in previous relationships may be retraumatized when someone they have counted on betrays their trust and dependency. Judith Herman writes, "Trauma forces the survivor to relive all her earlier struggles.... Traumatic life events, like other misfortunes, are especially merciless to those who are already troubled."Wow. And yeah.
We might have thought those wounds were healed but if we're so destroyed by infidelity that we immediately go the "we're not worthy" mindset, then we had just done a really good job of dressing those wounds up as healed.
Thanks to infidelity, they're once again exposed to us. And though they might have been healing, we might have been on our way to that magical place called "healed", infidelity rips them wide open and we're left, again, with evidence of our injury.
I had been in therapy. I thought I'd slain those particular dragons. Turns out, I'd kept the dragons at bay but there were very much alive. And at the first sign of a crack in my own armor, they were back, with their dragon eyes of judgement, and their dragon fire of shame and disgust.
The dragons, of course, are my own worst critics. The dragons, of course, are me.
My conversations with myself were more like indictments about everything I was doing wrong, from the careless remark I made at a cocktail party to the dust behind my refrigerator.
But I didn't recognize my own pain. I thought I'd healed.
I thought healed looked like a perfect marriage and well-behaved children and lots of friends and a busy social life. Add in a successful writing career to show the world how accomplished I was. Turns out "healed" looked an awful lot like perfection. And perfection, I've come to learn, looks an awful lot like a pretty band-aid over a festering wound of shame.
Perfection covered a need to prove to the world that "see, I am worthy! I am smart. I am pretty. I am successful." Thing is, if I'd actually believed those things, I wouldn't have needed to prove it to anyone.
There are gifts in betrayal, if we're willing to look for them. For me, the retrauma of infidelity revealed just how shaky my sense of worth was – a worth based on achievement. Consequently, learning how to be kind to myself, which was nothing I'd ever allowed myself before, has transformed me.
I now know that healed is compassion and kindness and lack of judgement. Healed is about giving myself permission to be who I am, flaws and all. More than that, it's about giving everyone else permission too. It's knowing that I'll never be fully healed and that's okay because none of us are.
It's about forgiveness. Of those who've hurt me. But mostly, it's about forgiveness of myself.
Which is pretty much the same thing.