We have all been there. You’re in a relationship—struggling or happy—and find out that the one you loved and trusted with all your heart has betrayed you by “giving it up” to someone else. If you’re one of the lucky few, we know you’ve heard of it and how nasty it feels.
It can take several years before the betrayed spouse is ready to even consider forgiveness, even if the partner who cheated begs for it. The cheating partner may immediately feel remorse and repeat “I’m sorry” over and over again, but that apology may not get past the betrayed partner’s outer layer of hurt.
Listed below are the 5 stages of grief outlined by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book On Death and Dying. While these stages of grief and loss were originally introduced to help people understand human reactions to death, these stages are equally applicable to other forms of loss, like that of infidelity in relationships.
The 5 Stages of Grief After Infidelity
After the initial shock of discovery or revelation, the partner may effectively go numb. This will lead to them appearing as if they are relatively not bothered by what they discovered. Some may even refuse to believe that their partner has cheated on them. Others may speak optimistically about their hopes of reconciliation, of seeking professional help to make their relationship work, or of forgiveness and understanding for what has happened.
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In some cases the denial is much more flagrant. The injured party may simply shrug and assume that there is nothing that they can do. They’d say that the only thing to do is move on and let it go. They may also talk tough about how the relationship is over and generally try to appear like they are ready to move on.
The bargaining stage entails a lot of 20/20 hindsight coupled with self-blame. “If I only I had done this or seen that . . .” “How could I not see this coming? Where did I go wrong? What did I do wrong?” “If only . . .” “I should have . . .” “They should have . . .” All these statements are an expression of a universal desire to change undesirable circumstances after the fact. However, as stated above, we cannot do this.
So you start to wonder why this is happening to you and what you could have done differently. The first thing you must remember is to not blame yourself. If someone cheats on you, it is not your fault. The truth is that there was probably little you could have done. Once a cheater has rationalized their wrongdoing, there is really no stopping them. You could have done everything right and still ended up in the same situation. It has everything to do with the cheater’s low self-esteem, lack of maturity, or even emotional or mental distress left over from past relationships.
Once all the tears have been cried, the burning rage of the betrayal erupts. Generally, we associate grieving with sadness, but as we have seen thus far, it is actually more complex than that. We either direct the anger at the offending partner, the third party, or even at ourselves.
The anger stage of grieving gives the traumatized partner the strength to face the changes if a separation results. This may include becoming a single parent or a single breadwinner. The underlying message of the brain is “You are in danger and your defenses must be mobilized.”
Anger can last a long time, and it can return later in the grieving process.
Kubler-Ross originally called this stage depression. We prefer the term mourning as there is a critical difference between these two terms in psychology.
After searching through endless “what ifs” and trying to come up with solutions in the bargaining stage and after lashing out at yourself or at the cheater during the anger stage, you finally just give up. Like other stages of grief, there are multiple forms of the mourning stage. There are those who distance themselves so they can focus on their pain. Others project their pain outward by obsessing or retaliating against their spouse.
When someone is in this stage of grief, reassurance will have very little effect. Telling someone that one day they will be able to trust again when they are in the throes of betrayal is like telling someone who is freezing to death that it’s not really that cold. You will notice that you are not necessarily grieving the loss of the person or even the relationship but the loss of an ideal.
Acceptance is the final stage of grief, where you finally are able to come to terms with the situation at hand. It normally takes a very long time to reach acceptance. In fact, not everyone is able to make it past the other stages of grief. However, coming to a place of acceptance with infidelity does not in any way indicate that you condone the behavior, that it doesn’t hurt you, or that it doesn’t affect you. It certainly doesn’t mean that you are happy about it and tolerant of it. It only means that you have stopped trying to avoid the truth and are working on putting it into perspective.
Do not confuse acceptance with the idea that a victim of infidelity no longer resents the loss. It simply means that they are completely aware of the loss, that there is no more denial, no more blame, no more “what ifs,” and no more hopelessness. If anything, this is where you start taking control of your life, learning from the experience, and moving on.
Good luck on your journey to healing!
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