When we lose our partner through a breakup due to infidelity, grief follows, as an inevitable part of loss. Whether you have lost your spouse or your affair partner, whether you were the unfaithful partner or one of the victims, your loss will be experienced through grief. Grief is not an isolated emotion, but rather a process. Like all processes, there are stages to grief. The stages may vary in duration. Sometimes we pass through a stage only to revisit it later. And some people experience more than one stage at a time.
There are benefits to be gained from denial, when it is experienced as a stage, in a process, and not a resting place. Denial is a protective reaction, keeping us safe from the initial pain of the end of a relationship. It provides shelter from the unthinkable while we gather our resources in preparation to face the inevitable emotions that will follow. In some cases, denial has already been underway, often for months or even years, when the breakup finally occurs. Eventually denial gives way to the pain and loss of the breakup. Pain may be experienced emotionally or physically, and frequently individuals experience both. When acknowledged, pain can act as a signal to take care of ourselves, to nurture ourselves toward recovery. When denial is prolonged, and the individual refuses to acknowledge the end of the relationship, the pain that follows may be even greater, as was the commitment to deny the truth.
There are also benefits to the stage of anger in the grieving process. Like denial, anger can shield us from pain, channeling our emotions toward the wrong we were dealt rather than the loss we have experienced. And, anger can fuel the energy required to make necessary changes. However, there is nothing gained when one remains stuck in anger instead of making strides toward moving through the stages and experiencing the inevitable pain of loss. Also, prolonged anger can cause serious health problems.
Bargaining is a useful stage when the parties choose to try to save the relationship. However, bargaining can also be used as a form of stalling the breakup, and the inevitable pain. Getting stuck in bargaining can result in dishonest relationships. “Let’s stay friends,” might, for one of the partners, really mean, “Let’s work on it and pretend it’s all okay again," or "I want to keep you in my life without real commitment."
As sad as it may be, sadness is a necessary stage in grieving. To be able to heal and then move on, one must accept the discomfort of sadness. Scott Peck addressed this eloquently in his book, The Road Less Travelled.
“It is precisely because the unconscious in its wisdom knows that “the way things used to be” is no longer tenable or constructive that the process of growing and giving up is begun on an unconscious level and depression is experienced.” (Peck, 1978, pp. 70-71)
Of course, staying stuck in sadness leads to clinical depression, interfering with all facets of life. Employment may be lost, family members may suffer, sleep or appetite, and overall health may be impaired.
Journaling, behavioral activation, and talk-therapy have been demonstrated to help alleviate prolonged sadness, and avoid depression.
It is said that with pain comes healing. Eventually, acceptance of what has happened will find the grieving soul. No matter which phase you find yourself in, embrace the process as a journey toward better times.