Your partner cheated on you. Now what?

Your significant other, with whom you are in a very committed, very monogamous relationship — or thought you were, anyway — just told you they are having an affair.

Or maybe they didn’t exactly tell you. Maybe you’d suspected that something was going on for a while, then you finally discovered irrefutable evidence, so you confronted them, and they reluctantly admitted you were right.

And… your world has effectively been turned upside down. You thought everything was fine. You were happy and content and excited about your relationship and your life. You had no idea that anything was wrong.

Their betrayal wasn’t just painful, it was an existential shock. Your whole life, and your sense of who you are was built around your relationship. You didn’t think anything like this was ever going to happen to you. And you’ve been overwhelmed with a grand assortment of intensely uncomfortable feelings. Horror. Anger. Deep, crushing sadness. Fear. Anxiety.

The whole thing hurts a LOT, and it all seems so UNFAIR. You didn’t do anything wrong! Why couldn’t your partner have been happy with the way things were? It was good enough for you! The fact that, apparently, it wasn’t good enough for them seems like an indictment of your cherished way of life, and everything you thought was true and sturdy and good in this world. You feel like life as you know it — knew it — is effectively over.

You just want to just press a button and make things go back to normal. Back to the way they were before. Or, back to the way you thought they were before.

The bad news is, that button doesn’t exist. There may be changes ahead, possibly in your relationship, possibly in your family life, possibly in many areas of your internal and external landscapes. Possibly pretty significant changes. And you’re probably going to feel pretty darn uncomfortable for at least a little while longer.

The good news is, things will get better. And there’s a lot you can do to allow things to get better, instead of getting in the way of that process. Here’s how you do it.

STEP ONE: Hold off on taking drastic actions

So often, when humans find themselves in painful circumstances, they respond by taking immediate action. They try to DO SOMETHING — anything, really — to try and rid themselves of their excruciatingly uncomfortable feelings.

Perhaps you’ve already tried this.

You may have already thrown all of your cheating partner’s clothes out the window, or threatened to flush their entire collection of tropical fish down the toilet. You may have already done a lot of screaming and yelling and threatening and stomping around. Maybe you already told them to leave the state, or the country, or the solar system. Maybe you already drunk-dialed their parents and told them how horrible their child is. Maybe you, um, went on a little bit of a tell-all social media posting spree.

Whatever you did, it’s all in the past now. Allow yourself to forgive yourself. Life gets messy sometimes, and that’s okay.

But here’s the deal: action alone cannot resolve our discomfort. When we’re feeling hurt and angry and sad and scared, we have to let ourselves feel those feelings before we can attempt to solve the problem. Rushing to action usually leads us to do things that don’t serve our highest good in the long run.

So do whatever you can to relieve yourself of the need to make decisions about major stuff, and try to take as little additional action as possible. Sure, if your partner’s cheating was dramatic and jarring and you’ve got a big dramatic situation on your hands, you may need to find a way to get some time to yourself RIGHT AWAY. If you and your partner are caretakers of children or other humans or pets, you may need to make the appropriate arrangements to ensure their needs are met while you separate your living arrangements for a while.

Holding off on taking action may seem pretty difficult. You may want, very badly, to act out in ways that let everyone around you know exactly how much pain you’re in. It may be SO tempting to dramatically kick your partner out of your shared living quarters; it may sound like a great idea to find your cheating spouse’s paramour’s car and slash their tires. It may be tempting to file for divorce immediately or find ways to publicly shame your partner. Or maybe you just want to hop on the next flight to Ulaanbaatar and never come back.

These kinds of impulses are understandable! But instead of actually doing any of those things, dedicate yourself to giving yourself time and space to fully experience and digest your feelings.

STEP TWO: Let yourself feel your feelings

Most of us are not in the habit of allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable feelings. In fact, most of us are in the habit of resisting or avoiding our uncomfortable feelings at all costs. This is completely understandable, of course — most of us never get any kind of an emotional education, and we think that feeling an intensely uncomfortable emotion is a sign that something is wrong. So when we feel anger or rage or jealousy or disgust or fear or sadness, we tend to want to make the feeling go away as quickly as possible.

And there are plenty of ways to do that — we can pour ourselves a drink or have a smoke or hit the internet or dump our feelings onto someone else or turn on the television or throw ourselves into our work, or…. whatever. Our society provides us with an endless variety of ways to avoid our feelings, and many of them are not only socially acceptable, but socially encouraged.

But here’s the deal: Uncomfortable emotions are not inherently bad! The richness of the human experience includes a broad spectrum of emotions, and not all of them are fun or pleasant. There isn’t anything wrong with feeling angry or sad or scared, or any of the myriad other emotions we usually deem “negative.” A feeling is just a set of sensations in your body, to which we assign a one-word name. And if you let yourself lean into the experience of feeling a feeling, it will usually pass in about 90 seconds. That’s it! So if you can hang in there, be present with the physical experience of an emotion, and breathe for about a minute and a half, your uncomfortable feeling will have arisen, peaked, then dissipated.

And in its wake, you’ll be a little more free.

When we allow ourselves to experience our emotions with acceptance, we’re better able to digest life’s challenging experiences more efficiently. When difficult things happen, it’s normal to feel all sorts of intense and uncomfortable feelings for a while. It’s when we resist those feelings that we tend to get stuck in emotional patterns that keep us trapped in dysfunctional states of being. Ever heard the saying “what you resist, persists” or “feelings buried alive never die”? Those sayings exist for a reason.

So let yourself feel all the feelings. This may mean giving yourself dedicated time and space to do some screaming and crying. Emotions are physical experiences, after all — so listen to what your body needs as the emotions run their course. Maybe this is a moment in your life when you need to take up running or kickboxing. Maybe this is a moment in your life when you need a whole lot more rest. Do as much as you can to give yourself the permission, time, and space to feel what you feel, and to take care of yourself in the process.

Letting yourself feel your feelings will get easier with practice. With time and dedication, even the most uncomfortable feelings will feel a lot more tolerable, and moreover, you’ll build confidence that you have the capacity to weather any feeling that comes up. If this sounds like a superpower, that’s because it is.

STEP THREE: Get your stories in check

You’ve probably developed a whole narrative about your partner’s cheating and betrayal. Maybe you’ve told the story of What Happened to everyone you know with self-righteous anger. Maybe you’ve told the story so many times you’ve perfected a whole set of dramatic flourishes that accent the telling of the tale. By now, perhaps, you know just how to tell the epic saga to elicit the most sympathetic responses, and the agreement of your listener that your partner is indeed an awful jerk, and you are completely justified in wanting to murder them or clean out their bank account or hex them with evil magic.

Or maybe you’re so upset about the situation that you haven’t told anyone about what’s going on — but you do keep thinking about it, in the privacy of your own mind, at all hours of the day, replaying the same thoughts over and over again on an endless cycle of auto-repeat.

If you’re doing anything like this, rest assured, there’s nothing wrong with you. Humans are meaning-making creatures, after all, and we really like to create stories of our lives that feel coherent and true to us.

The only problem is that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about our lives aren’t actually all that helpful. Sometimes we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and our experiences that make us unhappy and keep us unhappy. No matter what our circumstances are, we always have a choice about what we think about them. We always have the opportunity to narrate the story of our lives in any way we want.

But sometimes we don’t know we have that power, or don’t know how powerful that power actually is. Your narration of the events of your life is not just an act of commentary, it’s an act of creation. Your thoughts create your feelings, and your feelings inform your capacity for action, and your actions generate results… i.e., the circumstances of your life as you know it.

So here’s the opportunity: get really clear on the story you’re currently telling about your situation. And then ask yourself how telling this version of the story of your circumstances makes you feel. Does it make you feel hopeless? Like a helpless victim of someone else’s bad behavior? Does it make you feel like your life is a mess and it’s never going to get better?

If your current story about your circumstances is making you feel bad, that’s a good indication that you need to change your narrative.

It may seem as if your story about your situation is nothing more and nothing less than an accurate reflection of the relevant circumstances and events, but that’s almost never the case. Our desire for meaning leads us to view everything we see through our particular lens. And this means the version of your story you think is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth isn’t that at all. It’s just one way of looking at what is probably a fairly complex situation which is made up of many facts and many truths.

So how can you start to reframe your story of your situation in a way that helps you feel better– even if only marginally better, at first?

Try asking yourself questions like, “If someone I respected tremendously were in a situation like mine, how would they handle it?” or “If the universe is kind, what part of this situation is good for me?” or “How would the most evolved, centered, magnanimous version of myself move forward here?” or maybe, “What am I learning from this situation that I really needed to learn?”

Bit by bit, you can tell a story of your own resilience. All you have to do is start by telling yourself a slightly different version of your current story that emphasizes, just a little bit more, your capacity for evolution and emotional healing — or whatever ideal state(s) you want to achieve.

STEP FOUR: take responsibility for (only) your own business

Even after taking some time to feel your feelings and get a handle on your thoughts, you may remain — to put it mildly — rather displeased with your partner’s actions.

Completely understandable, if you are. Your partner’s actions may have created an emotionally and logistically complicated situation for which you were wholly unprepared, and now find yourself totally consumed by. This may seem — even after you’ve softened your story about how awful and unfair the whole situation is — mightily inconvenient. You aren’t sure what’s going to happen with your living arrangements. You aren’t sure what’s going to happen with your pets, or your children, or your finances. You aren’t sure whether your partner wants to try and work things out. You aren’t sure if you want to try to work things out with them.

What on earth are you supposed to do about all of this?

Take care of your own business, and don’t even attempt to do anything else. That’s it.

Life coaches such as myself like to talk about three kinds of business. There’s Your Business, Their Business, and God’s Business. (If you don’t like the idea of god, no problem — just consider this category the business of the universe, or the cosmos… or substitute Buddha or Santa Claus or the Great Pumpkin or some other appropriate figure for “god.”)

We only have the power and the responsibility to do our own business. Nobody can do our business for us, and we can’t do anybody else’s business for them. And then there’s some business that only god or the universe (or whatever/whomever) can take care of. When we use our power to do what we need to do, we can be very powerful creatures indeed. The problem, though, is we often fritter this power away by worrying about business that isn’t ours to concern ourselves with, and we don’t have any ability to influence, anyway.

You are the master of your own internal domain. When you assume the power to dictate what goes on in this realm, all external matters become easier to deal with. And when you abdicate power over your own internal state of affairs, it can easily seem like the challenges out there in the external world are formidable, even impossible, foes.

So make it your priority to use your time and energy dealing with your own business. In great part, that means giving yourself the opportunity to feel and digest your feelings. It means taking responsibility for your stories, and taking responsibility for framing your life experiences — even the difficult ones — in ways that are in the service of your highest good.

However your partner handles their business (or neglects to handle their business), whatever ends up happening with your relationship, you can use this incident as a catalyst for your own transformation and growth. You can turn this into an opportunity to become a better friend to yourself, and a better steward of your own life. And what a gift that is — even if comes from circumstances you probably wouldn’t have chosen for yourself.

Relationship coach, specializing in helping people who are having affairs decide what they want to do. No judgements. www.mariemurphyphd.com

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