Along with pain and humiliation, infidelity also creates an enormous amount of anger. Whether you hope to save the relationship or not, such anger must be expressed. If it is not, it will simply poison you.
The problem with infidelity is that no matter how rational you try to be, the rage and pain are primitive and beyond reason. People desperate to preserve their relationship, or afraid of losing their home and upsetting their children, may try to control themselves and deal with things in a calm and rational way. And yet time and again emotions get the best of them. Indeed, any professional mediator or marriage guidance counsellor will tell you never to underestimate the power and intensity of such emotion.
For example, imagine a middle-aged man whose wife has had an affair with a neighbor. OK, he thinks to himself, let's try and be reasonable about this. Maybe I had been neglecting her. I shouldn't have worked such long hours. I should have been more affectionate and supportive when our child was born. It must have been frustrating for someone so intelligent as my wife to give up her career and spend her days changing diapers and watching Disney cartoons. A man paid her compliments, and she had a moment of weakness. But then, at the end of all this careful reasoning, horrible images flood his mind. He imagines the woman he loves in the arms of another man and jealous rage overwhelms him.
Infidelity shatters your world. And it mocks the very idea of stable family life and committed relationships. And that means fear, which can quickly be transformed into anger. This fear and rage can also be experienced vicariously, by the way. In other words, friends of the wronged party may be deeply disturbed by what has happened, not because they are sorry for their friend but because it is an unwelcome reminder of just how fragile their own settled happiness may be.
Most people carry a great deal of fear – especially the fear of a lonely old age. A committed relationship, with the house in the suburbs, children playing in the back garden, and family get-togethers on Sunday afternoons, is the antidote to this fear. Infidelity threatens not just this relationship but the very idea that lifelong commitment is possible. You can see this particularly in Victorian Britain, where the middle class had come to be seen as the backbone of civilization. Those who strayed outside this ideal, especially women, were savagely punished, partly by the law but mainly through social ostracism. Make an example of them and you will discourage others.
Then of course there is the sense of shame, humiliation, and rejection. People who regularly deal with violence and conflict, such as prison guards, police officers, and nightclub doormen, soon learn how important it is never to humiliate someone. When people feel they are being ridiculed in some way, they often lose control. And this is true even in relationships. Friends say things like, "I don't know why she's so upset. He was an idiot, and everyone knows it. She's better off without him." But what such people don't understand is that their friend isn't angry because she misses her oafish, beer-swilling boyfriend; she is angry because he has humiliated her.
Infidelity can also dredge up long-buried pain and trauma. Someone who was unloved by their parents, for example, or bullied at school, has been rejected all over again. And now here they are, reduced once more to that frightened, vulnerable, unwanted child – just when they thought they'd grown strong and learnt to cope.
When someone's partner not only cheats on them but actually leaves them for someone else, there is always the chance that he or she may have moved on to a better life. Few things make people so angry as the sight of their ex-partner happier, richer, and more fulfilled with their new lover than they ever were with them. Not only has he or she inflicted all this pain on you, but they are the one who seems to have gained most from the break-up!
Though it can be tough, nothing will help you more than understanding why your partner did what they did. And be careful to look beyond the obvious. People cheat for all sorts of reasons, often dating back to before they met you. Indeed, their betrayal may have nothing to do with you at all – or even the person they cheated with. Remember, lust is not always the main motive.
A hypothetical example may help. Imagine a man who grows up under the shadow of an intimidating father. His father frequently cheated on his mother and made little effort to hide the fact. But he was charming and popular and, as the boy grew, his father's friends assured him that he was lucky to have such an amazing guy for a dad. The son, though by nature quiet and sensitive, grows up assuming that this is the behavior of a "real man" and that he is inadequate. When he later cheats on his wife, it has nothing to do with a loss of interest or affection for her, and even less with physical desire for the other woman. In fact, he is simply trying to prove himself to the ghost of his father.
It may also help to try and understand what motivated the individual your partner cheated with. When trying to come to terms with an affair, your imagination is your worst enemy. People often withdraw into themselves, shutting the curtains and spending their days drinking and crying. Under such conditions, the mind turns against them, and they begin to self-torture, feeding their anger with horrible, upsetting images. For example, a man will picture his wife and her lover in bed together, laughing at how gullible and weak he is. Or a woman will picture her husband's mistress joking with friends about how fat and frumpy she is, and how easy it was to seduce him.
People with low self-esteem are particularly good at this kind of self-torture (the psychological equivalent of a teenager who slashes her wrists). Of course, such fantasies may be true – maybe this person really is a serial cheat who delights in wrecking relationships and has nothing but contempt for the partners of those they seduce. But they are just as likely to be fragile, needy, and damaged. Maybe they were desperate for company and affection and feel terribly guilty. Or maybe they were escaping the memory of some recent trauma, like a marriage breakdown or the death of a child. This doesn't mean you must befriend or forgive them, but if you could understand, and put a human face to the monster who has wrecked your life, it may reduce your anger and pain.
First, it is important to recognize that anger is natural. You have a right to feel this way, and you have a right to express it. Indeed, it must be expressed – and it will be, one way or another. If you do not direct it outwards, it will turn inwards, leading to depression and other psychological disturbances. Whether your partner wishes to repair the relationship or not, they at least owe you an explanation. No doubt you have many questions: where they met, how long it lasted, who else knew, whether the children ever met them, whether they ever felt ashamed, and so on. Ask them, and then release any anger you feel. Think of it as a psychological or emotional wound that must be cleansed. When someone falls and gashes their knee, it must be thoroughly washed before being stitched up. This may hurt of course, but fail to do so and the wound becomes infected and then poisons the whole body.
And do not allow your partner to decide when enough is enough. It isn't up to them. If, six months or a year later, you ask them something and they reply "can't we just drop it now and move on?" remind them that you will decide when it's time to move on, not them. Let your anger out. If it doesn't come out now, it will manifest as bitter and sarcastic comments, or passive-aggressive behavior. This will then make true reconciliation impossible. They need to know how much they have hurt you.
It is also important not to allow the anger to make you do something foolish. When people hurt us, we want revenge. And sometimes, this need for revenge motivates people to do self-destructive things, like quitting a job, having an affair themselves, or trying to hurt their partner through his or her parents or siblings. Worst of all, people sometimes use their children to hit back, describing to them what their mother or father has done, or even taking them to the new lover's apartment when they know their partner is there. This is utterly selfish and contemptible. Not only do you run the risk of hurting your children, and possibly scarring them for life, they may never forget or forgive this selfishness.
Another problem with anger is that people can lose all self-control and self-awareness. And when that happens they also risk losing their dignity. Be very careful not to allow this to happen. Nothing will make people lose respect and sympathy faster. It will also make it harder for you to move on. People can forgive those who hurt them, but they find it harder to forgive those who rob them of dignity and self-respect.
And what about the future? Obviously, you must decide whether the relationship can now be repaired. Some cannot forgive; others try their best, keep the relationship limping along for a few months, but then realize that all trust and love has died. You may find that you have to end things, even though neither of you wishes to do so.
If your relationship does survive, however, you must be prepared for flashbacks and outbursts of rage, possibly years later. Eventually, something will remind you, even if it is only a scene in a movie or TV show. Then of course there is the danger that you and your partner happen to bump into the person with whom he or she cheated. When this happens, it can take strength and determination not to slip back into old patterns of thought and behavior. Mindfulness could help. This will enable you to control your thoughts before they spiral off into self-destruction. It would also keep you grounded in the here and now.
Feeling angry over infidelity is normal. Do not allow others to convince you that you are overreacting. How you react is your business, not theirs. And the ultimate decision – whether or not you can forgive them – is also yours.