After extensively researching the matter, I concluded that the number of stages of coping with infidelity is up to interpretation.
No matter how many stages there are, the common thread seems to be: distress upon discovery, coming to terms with what has happened, important decisions, and then acceptance along with possible reconnection.
This reminds me of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
As a general rule, these “working-through-grief” stages will likely be very similar to what you go through. After all, infidelity sets off a grieving process.
Many micro-traumas happen – not just the potential death of the primary relationship.
I have combined some aspects of Kubler-Ross’s stages with common threads I have come across.
Take note that there is no particular order in terms of how you process the betrayal. Everyone is unique in their ability to deal with such painful experiences.
Generally, however, there seems to be a “universal” flow from distress & denial to understanding & acceptance.
Whether you have just discovered the betrayal or are nearing the “end of the journey”, see if any of the following pertain to you.
Note: Ellen Evans is a professional Psychotherapist with 10+ years of experience in counseling.
1. Shock and Denial
When you begin coping with infidelity, this will usually be the first stage.
Right when you first find out about the affair.
Shock followed by denial can be at the forefront of your mind – quite literally – as it can shield you from the loss and pain of being betrayed.
You may find it hard to accept the deed has happened at all. “This can’t be happening” is likely to be on repeat.
If this occurs, accept the denial as a natural state and then try to be as honest about the situation as possible so that the denial is not prolonged.
The quicker you can move on and address the painful truth, the better.
2. Charged Emotions and Crisis Point
This stage is when strong emotions like rage, deep sadness, or depression can flare. You may also feel as angry at yourself as you do towards your partner. Self-blame can occur.
You may also have more extreme thoughts, such as seeing yourself as the victim or feeling that life is unfair or that life is collapsing.
In this vulnerable condition, your confidence may be thoroughly rocked.
Be sure to seek some support via close friends or a professional therapist to not overreact or let yourself get dragged down into deeper depression or anxiety.
Work on whatever triggers may have surfaced with the betrayal.
These triggers will help you look at and process past wounds.
Give yourself the time and space needed to come to terms with the initial shock of the situation, comfort your heart, and assess the next steps.
By this stage, you will likely recognize that the above stages have been just that – stages in the process of coping with your partner’s infidelity.
The raw crisis point has now passed, at least enough for you to look at the bigger context of the affair and whatever problems you have had in your partnership that could have initiated it.
Please note that I am not saying you have been the problem. Or that all relationship problems lead to adultery. Instead, cheating is a strong indicator that the primary partnership contains cracks.
And a partner can choose to be unfaithful as a way of escaping – or dealing – with those cracks.
At this understanding stage, you will likely gain more insight into how and why the affair occurred. As your reactive emotions subside, you can move to a more stable place of response.
This is where empathy and forgiveness can arise, depending on the context of where you and your partner are at, as well as the damaged relationship.
Forgiveness and empathy may be more challenging to achieve if you suffer from attachment issues or if your partner is having a hard time owning up to their actions and not communicating well.
Post-traumatic stress can manifest on the back of betrayal and is it not to be handled lightly. One’s sense of safety can be severely threatened – safety that may have been the “glue” in a once happy partnership.
So, it is highly recommended for both partners to enter a communicative and reflective space for proper healing to occur. Seeing a couple’s counselor can be beneficial to create this holding and meditative space.
It can provide the opportunity to understand the motives behind the betrayal and highlight what each partner needs to own up to and work on.
4. Decisions And Acceptance
As both partners come to terms emotionally with the infidelity, clearer decisions can be made about staying together or letting go and moving on separately.
If the decision is to say together, then new agreements need to be clear and handled with respect and commitment.
Acceptance is a big part of the decision-making process. Perhaps you need to accept the fact that you simply can’t trust your partner and need to let them go.
Maybe you can accept the betrayal entirely and are willing to enter a new relationship (with the same partner) effectively.
In that case, therapy can play an important role by possibly helping you two reconnect and be whole again, you can learn more about it here.
Although each stage of coping with infidelity is difficult and usually takes a tremendous amount of emotional and mental effort, you will overcome each one over time.
Every relationship is different, so give yourself as much space as you need to go through the necessary stages.
And don’t be disheartened if it feels like you need to go back a step before going forwards. There is no rule book to follow in terms of dealing with pain and recovery.
The road of infidelity is a trying one to journey upon, yet couples can heal and move forward.
Sometimes, couples can even be stronger after this journey.
Recommended: Can Therapy Help You Get Over Cheating?