The struggle to recover from infidelity is real. And, believe it or not, the struggle isn’t limited to the betrayed partner. It may look different for the cheating partner than for the betrayed partner, but it is real nonetheless. And the importance of self-awareness in this process can’t be over-emphasized, no matter which side of the betrayal you’re on.
Regardless of the destiny of your marriage after infidelity, how you survive the struggle will be determined, in large part, by your self-awareness. And that is true whether you are the spouse who was betrayed or the spouse who cheated.
Self-awareness is the foundation for accepting responsibility.
When it comes to the issue of “responsibility” in relation to infidelity, it’s natural, if not impulsive, to demonize the cheater and glorify the betrayed.
Responsibility, however, is broader than “Who’s at fault for the affair?”
No one would debate that responsibility for the choice to have an affair belongs with the spouse who cheated. After all, no one forced him or her to go the route of infidelity, no matter what problems may have existed in the marriage.
The importance of self-awareness in this context is that each partner has responsibility to and within the marriage, especially if it’s going to survive.
And only through the ability and willingness to introspect can each person be honest about his or her contribution to problems within the marriage.
On a more detailed level, self-awareness leads each person to accountability in the process of communication.
Am I speaking my truth? Am I staying in integrity or lashing out in anger? Am I paying attention to my body’s signals? Am I throwing out blame to blanket how awful (or guilty) I feel?
Am I listening with the intention to understand? Am I confident and strong enough to handle what I hear?
Am I doing my part to contribute to a healing dialogue? If not, what am I avoiding? Is there something I don’t want to examine within myself?
There is no self-responsibility without self-awareness. And that goes for everyone involved – in the marriage and in the affair.
Self-awareness helps the betrayed partner quiet the self-sabotaging voice of blame.
The importance of self-awareness for the betrayed spouse may not be as obvious as the importance of self-awareness for the cheater. It’s natural to want (and expect) the person who cheats to feel the lashings of perpetual remorse.
But the betrayed spouse can fall into the trap of self-blame, too. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t want to face it. How could I be so naive? I must not be good enough, pretty enough, successful enough. I didn’t do xyz, and this is what happens….
Self-awareness/mindfulness is a component of self-compassion. By recognizing the negative thinking as just that – negative thinking – the betrayed spouse can better control the self-sabotage.
If you are the spouse in this position, developing self-awareness will give you the ability to create a healthy dialogue with yourself. You may not believe all the “truths” you say to yourself (yet), but knowing they are true is what matters.
Self-awareness is essential for recognizing feelings and allowing them to come up.
Struggling with infidelity, regardless of your intended outcome, is a brutal process. Every aspect of your being becomes fair game for punishment – emotional, spiritual, even physical.
One of the most instinctive protections is to either deny your feelings or to let them run rampant with no monitoring or controlled expression.
Let’s face it – affairs are laden with emotions across the spectrum: anger, sadness, disappointment, passion, fear, exhilaration, hurt, self-doubt, shame, embarrassment, guilt.
There are feelings that lead to the choice to cheat, the choice to confess, the choice to fight for the marriage or leave it. And, without self-awareness, those feelings will “run the show” in any given moment.
They can also be so powerful that all you want to do is slam the door on them. Don’t examine them, just act them out or spew them out as off-leash vectives and blame.
But self-awareness inspires self-control and self-accountability. It allows each of you to own your feelings, your story, and your choices.
It allows the crippling, nauseating, numbing feelings to present themselves for inspection. And, while they all present with crucial information and insight, they don’t have to be given license to control you.
For the betrayed, this is essential to working through the understandable agony of having trust and dreams annihilated. It’s also essential to reaching a place of genuine forgiveness.
For the unfaithful, this is essential for making the link between feelings of unfulfillment and the choice to seek gratification elsewhere.
The resolve to look your feelings in the eye and listen to them is also an imperative step to self-forgiveness and healing from guilt.
Relational self-awareness allows the cheating partner to recognize the gravity of his/her actions and take action to understand them.
As tempting as it is to brand a cheater as non-rehabilitative, reality presents a very different truth.
That truth – that someone who has cheated in the past can, in fact, “convert” from the inclination to do so again – has conditions.
Relational self-awareness, in reference to one who has cheated, means the person takes responsibility for his or her actions and learns valuable lessons from them.
That same self-awareness will lead the unfaithful to seek answers and guidance in order to understand what “script” was actually justifying the affair.
Without self-awareness, history is likely to repeat itself. There also can be no empathy. And without empathy, there can be no healing.
Self-awareness is essential for allowing the grieving process.
Anytime a source of deep emotional connection is ended or dramatically changed, there will be grief. Sometimes it comes as high tide and sometimes more as an undercurrent. But it comes.
The importance of self-awareness in dealing with infidelity-related grief lies in its identification of the feelings specific to grief.
Without self-awareness, neither spouse is likely to recognize, let alone accept, the predictably unpredictable stages of grief when they hit. Denial, anger, guilt, bargaining – these are all powerful emotions en route to acceptance.
Who can argue with the anger of the betrayed spouse?
But what about the spouse who was unfaithful? Is s/he entitled to any anger?
What if anger was the underlying emotion that led to the affair, however unjustified the straying was?
What if the cheating partner truly loved the affair partner and is angry about having to give up that relationship? What if s/he feels responsibility for the affair partner and is paralyzed by the necessity to make another – and permanent – choice?
Even if the marriage survives, both partners will experience the full realm of grief, each in his/her own way.
There will be inevitable denial – perhaps that the affair was as damaging as it was.
There will be inevitable anger – at one another (and each at him/herself), for things one and for things not done. There will be anger over the loss of the purity of the marriage as it once was, anger over the loss of trust, and anger over the loss of dreams.
There may even be bargaining within the relationship in order to preserve it.
What matters is that both spouses are self-aware enough to recognize those emotions for exactly what they are.
The emotions are there to relay messages and inspire deeper reflection. They are not there to dictate impulsive decisions or unguarded behaviors.
Post-infidelity may seem like a hopelessly late-in-the-game time to think about self-awareness. But it’s never too late to develop it.
Self-awareness is the most direct way to improve your relationship because it begins and ends with the only person you can control…
I’m Dr. Karen Finn and I’m a life and divorce coach. Schedule a 30-minute private consultation for support in increasing your self-awareness so you can become more you even as you deal with difficult issues like infidelity.