Relationship Q&A: The Aftershocks of an Affair
Q. Eighteen months ago, my husband had an affair. We are okay now. I finally feel that we'll survive. But why can't I stop thinking about this other woman and my husband together? I'm sick of her invading my thoughts, but I can't figure out what to do.
Sallie Foley, MSW, co-author of Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self (Guilford Press), answers:
A. Part of what you are experiencing is grief over being hurt. Most people don't intentionally set out to hurt their partners. But hurts do happen and an affair is a great hurt in a relationship. When people hurt, the hurt can linger for months to years. And later, many years after a hurt, if a memory gets triggered in just the right way, the hurt can come flooding back with a vividness that feels like a slug in the gut. It is also a cruel trick of human nature that our brains actually have an easier time remembering bad things rather than good things. Our brains were wired thousands of years ago to remember the bad so that we would avoid it, a form of survival instinct.
But that doesn't mean you can't do anything to lessen your pain. When you have those intruding thoughts, begin by saying to yourself, "What happened is over, but the grief goes on. I am grieving and that is normal." Thinking of "her" is your brain's way of "being on the lookout" for potential danger. You won't be caught with your guard down if you're constantly on alert! The trouble is, it's sapping your energy and making it harder for you to rebuild your life with your partner.
You need to actively change your brain's thinking pattern. The next time you wake up thinking about that other woman, say to yourself, "Stop!" and imagine a giant stop sign. Take three slow, deep breaths, and substitute a positive thought for the negative one. Then, tell yourself: "We're okay now. We're committed and we're getting better." Picture a recent happy time with your husband, when you both were sharing your love for each other. In this way, you can retrain your brain to focus on the positive.
Remember to openly work on your relationship with your husband. Tell yourself, and him, that you don't want to settle for the same kind of communication, sex, and intimacy that you had before the affair. You want to work on improving all three.
Finally, keep in mind that most relationships are not made of delicate spun glass. They don't shatter if jostled. Instead, a couple's relationship is more like a beautiful china plate that is valued but used every day. If you knock it hard enough, you can smash it. But if you treat it with consideration, it will last. Over the years, it might get chipped or nicked, but even cracks can often be repaired. And it remains a beautiful object, much loved by its owners.