Anxiety After an Affair: Very Common and Very Challenging
Anxiety after an affair is a major obstacle for couples to work though, and, while common, can be a substantial challenge in the healing process.
What we’ve found in working with couples is that:
- The amount of time for the anxiety to lessen varies greatly with the individual who was hurt by the cheating
- The partner who went outside of the relationship may become frustrated because he or she is working hard to alleviate the partner’s fears, but can feel helpless as the anxiety continues
- The healing process is most effective when both partners understand the challenge and are able to work as a team to address the anxiety.
In this post, we’ll aim to deepen your understanding of why anxiety after an affair is so challenging. We’ll then explore some ways in which partners can collaborate to ease the nervousness that has become so prevalent.
Not Unusual at All
Infidelity is a traumatic event in a relationship. Our biggest fear in relationships is losing our partner. This fear is the root cause of the anxiety and can result in varying types of actions as the hurt partner strives to be certain the connection is secure.
These typically stem from an intense need to know the partner is now faithful, and may include:
- Strong desires to verify partner’s activities; “Why were you late?”, “You didn’t answer your phone or return my text for so long!”
- A need to check the partner’s phone and email for any signs of improper outside contact
- Behaviors seen by the partner as controlling: “Who are you going to lunch with at work?”, “When will you be home?”
Healing is hampered, often, because these fear-driven behaviors by the hurt partner are not understood by the offending partner. The behaviors feel demanding, overly controlling and totally distrustful. The offending partner may feel, “Will you ever trust me again?”
Stay with us here; we’ll help you understand the fear and what lies beneath.
At the same time, when cheating is discovered, the hurt partner experiences a range of emotions that can include:
- Shame that he or she is inadequate to meet partner’s needs
- Intense waves of feelings from sadness to anger to withdrawal
- Insecurity about the relationship, often for the first time in the couple’s history together
Anxiety of the hurt partner can thus feel as if this worry and fear is taking over the relationship. And, at times, these fears actually do become a dominant force between the couple.
Anxiety After an Affair: A Deeper Understanding
When any difficult or traumatic event occurs, our brain is wired to now be on the alert. We are suddenly more likely to be fearful about any sign of disconnection in the relationship. A person may now react quickly and automatically to any possible trigger related to the trauma.
At times, the hurt partner herself or himself can’t figure out why the anxiety persists and continues to cause such highly escalated emotions. The hurt partner may be trying to recover from the affair, yet still has strong urges to search for any signs of “danger” to the relationship.
“Her emotions go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds,” a partner might remark. “I try to reassure her, but my attempts never seem to go very far.”
“He just doesn’t understand that I can’t just ‘move on’ and let go of all this anxiety,” is a common reply.
The anxiety on the part of the hurt partner can impede recovery because arguments often result from one partner feeling controlled and constantly questioned. The hurt partner then may feel their partner is defensive and insincere — and those responses can trigger a fear that there is something being hidden.
It’s important to realize that the hurt partner’s anxiety is a natural and very human response to a hurtful event.
We’re Hard-Wired for Strong Connections
Anxiety after an affair is so common because of the strong emotional connection that occurs when couples fall in love. We are drawn to our partner both physically and emotionally and a strong, powerful bond is created.
This human bond developed in early, primitive times to keep us safe from predators. We banded together in groups to be more secure. We then became bonded as well to one special individual.
Any disruption, or threat, to that bond can become embedded in the emotional center of our brain. Hence, those intense feelings of anxiety after an affair is discovered.
Because we humans learn to love deeply, we hurt deeply, too.
We most often find that both partners are struggling to cope with the hurt partner’s anxiety after an affair. After all, anxiety is unpleasant and often misunderstood.
Therefore, it can be helpful to understand more about the nature of anxiety so you can collaborate together in coping, rather than becoming more upset when the anxious feelings occur.
It’s helpful to know:
- Anxiety varies greatly with the individual. How each person experiences anxiety can have a range of intensity, from mild to very extreme.
- Anxiety can include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, problems with concentration, stomach discomfort, chest pain, fatigue and a general feeling of restlessness and being on edge
- Anxiety is often accompanied by unwanted, repetitive thoughts and compulsive behaviors — such as persistent questioning, a strong need to check the partner’s phone and email and a great need for ongoing reassurance
- For some, anxiety feels like a sudden panic.
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, fear and apprehension of a possible future event. Accepting and understanding this “natural response” can be quite challenging, however.
Coping with Anxiety
There are several self-care ways to assist in coping with anxiety. These can include:
- Eating healthy, avoiding excess sugar, caffeine and alcohol, which can trigger anxiety in some people
- Learn breathing exercises to help your body gain a sense of safety and security (which, in turn, helps the brain learn to relax). You can find several ideas on the internet, and there are a number of phone apps to assist you in learning to breathe for relaxation as well.
- Exercise is very helpful for many to reduce anxiety
- Working to get enough sleep, even though this may be more difficult after the affair discovery
In some cases, counseling and/or medication may be an important component of coping with anxiety after an affair if the hurt partner’s anxiety is disruptive to daily well-being and health and if the anxiety continues with intensity.
Coping with the hurt partner’s anxiety can be — and this may indeed seem contradictory — an important way of healing and a key component of affair recovery. You can learn to stand together in helping the anxious partner work through periods of anxiety.
Here are some ideas:
- Work together to accept the anxiety as a common occurrence after infidelity. Rather than “fighting” the anxiety (which creates even more tension!), acknowledge that anxiety will occur. Or, as therapists often say, “Name it to tame it.” You can both say, “Yes, it’s that anxiety again. We know it will happen.”
- If you’re the hurt partner, try to discover what will help reassure you. Can you request that your partner provide what you need? Is it a calming discussion, acceptance of your pain, reassurance of commitment to the relationship?
- If you’re the offending partner, avoid being defensive. This is critically important, as you’ll see in our related articles. Its helpful to learn to accept your partner’s feelings as genuine and that he or she is struggling to stay calm. You may not fully understand your partner’s emotions or anxiety; however, they are real and true for him or her.
The majority of couples seek to recover from infidelity. However, not all can heal without help. Counselors trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy have a proven roadmap for helping couples heal after a hurtful event. Seeking professional help may be the best path for this difficult phase of your life together.
More Helpful Posts
Because recovery from infidelity is such an important and challenging area, we’ve devoted several articles to this subject. You can read more about affair recovery