Ask IPS: Advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology
Question: After twenty-five years of marriage I found out last week that my spouse has been cheating on me for years. I simply don’t know what to do. I can’t sleep, I’m always angry, and I feel numb all the time. What’s happening to me? Is it possible to rebuild our marriage?
William McKenna, MS; Clinical Psychology Extern at Catholic Charities:
I wish I could tell you that what you are going through is rare in America today. However, research and experience indicates that you are far from alone. All too often spouses either come alone or together to seek counsel and talk about the emotional fallout from their spouse’s affair. This is never an easy situation to navigate, and it is no wonder you are having difficulty understanding how to approach the topic.
The wound of infidelity can be called an attachment injury. While attachment injuries can simply happen when you perceive that your spouse is emotionally unavailable to you, attachment injuries stemming from affairs (both emotional and physical) tend to affect us more for two reasons. First, an affair upends everything thought you knew about marriage and commitment, or at least during the last twenty-five years that you have been married. Such a challenge to a fundamental belief leaves us feeling like we are falling in outer space.
Second, an affair is a deep violation of both natural and Divine law. Whenever we sin in such a grave manner, those who we offend tend to react in a manner that captures the gravity of our disordered actions. In all, you can understand your symptoms with the following statement: you are suffering from trauma that is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a deeply disordered action by your spouse. While your suffering and experience presents a tough hurdle to overcome, it is possible to heal from an affair and save the marriage.
You will need to find the support to begin the path of healing and reconciling the relationship. There will have to be a commitment to overcome the past hurts. Seeking counseling is a step of commitment. This will most likely be both difficult and helpful all at once. There may be days that you do not want to come back to continue because it can be quite painful. I urge you to stick it out. You will ultimately find healing, in part, through your courage to continue.
Additionally—not a popular thought, but vital for success in these cases—you need to be willing (at the right time) to explore with your spouse how you both got your marriage to this point. The blame game will get you nowhere, but taking personal responsibility for the current state of your marriage will bring about true freedom, and true healing. For those who question this final point, I hark back to a quote President John F. Kennedy used after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion: “Victory has a a hundred fathers, and failure is an orphan.” No one likes admitting their part in failure, but it is the only way we can really grow.
In all, understand that your hurt is really normal and understandable, but also understand that you and your spouse are a team, and you will either succeed in marriage together or come up short together. As always, be assured of my prayers for you both.
William McKenna, MS, is a clinical extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services.