Kenneth is totally devastated since the affair.
He’s so distraught that he can’t sleep, can’t eat. He’s lost twenty pounds and is still losing weight, and Ken has missed so many days of work that he is in danger of losing his job. Kenneth is depressed; he’s lethargic; he’s anxious… In short, he’s an emotional mess. It’s been almost a year since the affair that almost ended his marriage and he is still unable to find forgiveness in his heart for the betrayal that changed his world.
You might be surprised to learn that Kenneth is the one who cheated and had a two-month affair, not his wife Melissa. Since the affair, Ken is emotionally stuck and cannot forgive himself, while Melissa, though emotionally rocked and heartbroken by her husband’s infidelity, is much further along in her healing journey and her journey toward forgiveness.
Kenneth’s reaction to his own act of infidelity is probably more common than you’d imagine. Over the last two decades, I’ve worked with numerous couples where the affair partner’s emotional upheaval is as great (if not greater) than the victim of the affair’s. Understanding the possible reasons behind this dynamic can help couples affair-proof their marriage/relationship.
An Affair as a Form of Self-Betrayal
The reaction I’m describing goes beyond the guilt and remorse one might feel (and expect) after fully absorbing the level of emotional devastation caused by his/her actions—you can make the argument that guilt and remorse are appropriate under these circumstances. In these cases, the marriage or relationship was relatively solid, and there were no particularly unhealthy relationship patterns that one can point to that made one or both partners vulnerable to having an emotional or physical affair.
Let’s examine several infidelity dynamics that can lead to self-betrayal (a self-betrayal that occurs through betraying a loved one):
1) The Perpetual Nice Guy/Gal
In this dynamic, you become vulnerable to infidelity because of extensive self-denial – a self-denial designed to preserve your image as a good, loving person at the expense of your baser instincts and feelings. Any feelings or self-experiences that conflict with these self-ideals quickly get swept under the rug. In short, you remain self-estranged, cut off from feelings that continue to impact your perceptions and actions.
The danger for your relationship is that these accumulated, unrecognized emotions thwart authentic relatedness with your spouse/partner. The relational space becomes increasingly segregated due to the emotional strangulation that is occurring. As a result, the marriage/relationship starts to take on a superficial, caricatured feel while an undercurrent of pent-up anger and resentments pull you and your partner apart.
2) The Undeserving Individual
The field of psychoanalysis discovered very early on that guilt (often unconscious guilt rooted in childhood experiences) is an omnipresent phenomenon that can pull and shape our lives in profound ways. The long arm of guilt (as well as shame) can make us feel undeserving, less-than and hopelessly unequal when compared to our more deserving contemporaries. And the unconscious solution to deep-seated guilt is some form of self-punishment: A self-fulfilling prophecy that cycles back and forth between feeling undeserving and then experiencing some kind of “failure” that confirms one’s lack of worth.
And what better way to prove one’s unworthiness and feed guilt’s hunger for punishment than a failed marriage or relationship?
In this context, the guilt of the unconscious reprimands—acting as judge and jury that sentences you to the anguish of a failed relationship. But guilt’s ruling can only be realized through your own decisions and actions. And the greater the self-destructive act, the better (from guilt’s perspective). The experience of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” when things are going well may be an indication that unconscious guilt has awakened and is blocking you from fully accepting the gifts of love that your relationship offers.
Kenneth’s affair wasn’t a reaction to his wife or the workings of his marriage. It was a reaction to his deep-seated belief that he was unworthy of the love and kindness his wife had to offer. It was only when he brought the unconscious workings of guilt into the light of consciousness that he began to understand how his affair was an act of self-loathing, a self-betrayal rooted in feelings of guilt and unworthiness.
When reading about the various interpersonal dynamics that are often seen when affairs take place, the knee-jerk reaction might be to flat-out deny that you or your partner exhibit any of these tendencies, even subtly. However, honestly and openly looking at your relationship dynamics as well as your individual personality dynamics will go a long way toward nurturing and protecting your union, whereas the instinctive “Oh, that information couldn’t possibly apply to us” mentality risks burying vital, useful knowledge under the cement of denial.