Help me get over my affair, please?
August 8, 2010 3:36 PM   Subscribe

So I cheated on my husband, but before things went too far (i.e., beyond kissing), I confessed and ended the affair. My husband has forgiven me. My friends are sympathetic. All in all, I got off easy. The problem: I can't stop thinking about the other guy. How do I get over him?

I've removed him from my social networking sites, deleted his number from my phone, etc. He himself has made it fairly clear that he doesn't want to be the object of my crazy obsession any longer (he initiated the relationship, but clearly had no idea how enthusiastically I would reciprocate).

But I can't stop writing poetry about him, crying every time I hear a song that reminds me of him, etc. Every day, at least once, I have to sit on my hands to keep from contacting him.

I'm meditating, seeing a therapist, etc. - doing all of the things I should to help heal myself and my marriage. I just want to know how long this searing emotional pain is going to last. Because it kind of sucks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a big fan of gratitude lists in these kinds of situations...list ten things you're grateful for in your current life every day. It keeps the focus on what you have instead of the fictitious headspace of what could have been, and it gets easier and more thrilling to do over time. Plus, you then have a great reference list to refer to in hard times. From what you've said about your friends and husband's reception of the news of your affair, I have a feeling you'll find you have a lot to be thankful for.
posted by mynameisluka at 3:43 PM on August 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

*treading very, very, very carefully*

If anyone knew the secret to how to instantaneously get over a breakup, that person would be the RICHEST PERSON ALIVE.

But it simply doesn't work that way -- I'm sure that you've been through other breakups before, where you felt like total shit and missed them for weeks and weeks. Well, this is a breakup. And there's no way to get over it instantly, except to go through it. I have a hunch, though, that the usual "breakup feelings" you'd be getting if you were single are being complicated by the fact that you've also got "but it's not your average breakup because" feelings going on as well.

Which is why it's very, very good that you're seeing a therapist, why you've removed him from your phone and Facebook and etc., etc. You are DOING the right things. It's just that the right things are going to take time, just like they'd also take time if you were going through a breakup if you were single.

I'm afraid we can't tell you how long it's going to last, is the upshot -- but I can tell you that you're doing all the right things now. The only thing I'm not clear is whether you're just doing therapy yourself, or whether you're also doing couples' therapy with your husband; you may want to have a session or two with him (maybe your husband can join you on one or two of your regular sessions). That may not be a bad idea as well, to help you both sort through the fallout you're both going through (because, I'm pretty sure he's got some fallout going on as well, even though he's forgiven you). But if you ultimately decide not to jointly go to therapy, definitely sticking with it yourself is on the right track.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:44 PM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

An extramarital obsession is usually a form of fantasy - the object fulfills all your unmet needs and possesses all the qualities your partner does not have (in your eyes, at this moment). Usually there is a certain amount of projection, of giving your external focus qualities they do not necessarily have - where there is doubt, they get the benefit.
Try to place this person more in the realm of imagination; understand that the qualities you have placed on him probably belong more to fiction than to reality, and try to divorce this fictional crush from the real person.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 3:54 PM on August 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think that it just takes time to train your mind away from thinking about him. You invested an awful lot of "psychic energy" into that relationship, and it doesn't just go away when you decide for it to.*

Try not writing any more poetry about him; turn the radio off or change the station when stuff that makes you think of him comes on. Distract yourself from thoughts of him. Think about something else instead, something that you want to put more of your personal time and energy into.

I'm not suggesting that you don't need to grieve, or that you have to act like none of this happened. But I am saying that every time you wallow in those sad, unrequited love feelings, you're strengthening them. If you find them unpleasant and want them to go away, you have to stop feeding them. You can't make it stop completely, it will take time, but this is how you do it faster.

If you're anything like me, as awful and painful and terrible as this emotional pain is, it's also something part of you wants to hold on to. Like a painful spot in your mouth that you can't quit pressing with your tongue because it hurts, but kind of in a good way. It's okay. It's normal-- or, well, I think it's expected. But it won't be good in the long run.

I'm glad you're in therapy, and I'm glad that your husband and friends are kind, loving, and supportive. I wish you well.

* I don't mean that it's actually psychic energy that you're pouring into these thoughts; I think all of this is explicable in a mechanistic neurology. But I think it's helpful to *think* about it this way.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 3:58 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're thinking about pouring concrete into a well. That's wrong. You're thinking about "cheating" because you think that your version of sexy is different from your husband's. Talk about "sexy" with him and redefine it. Your thoughts are wrong. You're blaming yourself for stupid things you're doing; you need to understand why you're doing them before you ascribe them as approrpiate activities.
posted by carlh at 4:13 PM on August 8, 2010

Relationships are built on intimacy, common purpose and loving concern. I'd guess that a good start on repairing those would be to answer every pang of regret over love lost by thinking hard on how much worse the pain you've caused your husband must feel.
posted by felix betachat at 4:14 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I posted this in another thread recently but what the hell. What has gotten me through a lot of bad days and sad times is the saying 'fetch wood, carry water'*. Which means: you have a bathroom to clean, a job to do, friends who need to be kept in touch with. You have to clip your toenails, clean the kitchen, get some exercise, take a walk with your husband. You have errands to do, and you need to get the oil changed.

The idea is: remember that there's work to do, and so you bow your head and do your humble work, and you'll feel better about yourself and the world and your place in it.

*I've gone through periods where I've kept that in my pocket on a folded-up Post It.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:15 PM on August 8, 2010 [39 favorites]

Time is the only thing that'll really take care of this, but I'm guessing you know that. The trouble is getting through the time until time has done its job, if that makes any sense.

Having a project is good. It's a good thing to take up a 'hobby,' although it's generally better if it's more self-involving than a hobby – more serious, and more important to you. For me, it has sometimes meant taking up a musical instrument, but that's because I'm somewhat obsessional with instruments, so I don't know if it'd work for other people. Stendhal suggests in his treatise on love that the best cures usually involve just the right amount of potential fatality to engage your will for survival without actually killing you; he recommends joining up with a military force of some kind, preferably the Navy, since you were less likely to get killed there (but just as likely, at least in the 1800s, to face strange, dangerous things). That's clearly not an option for you, but: skydiving? Buy a motorcycle? Learn rock climbing? Start running marathons? Dangerous and exciting things can be good during these periods. And even if you can't think of something dangerous to do, just a general life change that involves a large, important (to you) project – going back to school, changing careers, learning a language, travelling – can be a good way to get to where you want to go.
posted by koeselitz at 4:33 PM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Are you exploring in therapy the underlying causes why you became so infatuated in the first place?

Someone I know went through something similar a few years ago, although in her case it was a full-blown affair and even led to a brief marital separation. She returned to her spouse and got some professional help - in fact, she was diagnosed with a prolonged low-key depression that had probably been going on for a long time before things finally went into a tailspin. Working on the issues at the root of her need to throw herself into something so all-consuming (as well as medication, SSRI's in my understanding) helped her forward tremendously, and their marriage is nowadays strong.

As to the pain of limerence - it sucks, but try not to actively feed it. I'd apply some techniques you're probably practicing in meditation already. Face the feeling, sit with it but don't engage. No poetry (as wrong as this feels to say), no unsent letters. Avoid triggering music. Try to quiet down the mental narrative. And when it's bad, just let the waves of emotion wash over you. They will subside... And return. And subside again. And gradually they'll get smaller and less frequent.

Also, it seems like you're already taking several useful steps, but what about trying to fill the emptiness with something else? Something you enjoy? Something you used to love doing but haven't had time for in years, or always wanted to try but never had the guts for? Any activity that requires all your focus will at least provide you with those moments of relief when you simply can't think (or obsess) about anything else.
posted by sively at 4:49 PM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

What did this represent to you, this connection? What was it feeding inside you? Because to have a "searing emotional pain", a "crazy obsession" over something that didn't even go that far - that seems out of proportion. Clearly this affair meant something a lot more than what it simply was, itself - I can only guess with so little information: the feeling of being actively desired, the excitement of passion, reliving a teenage crush/rejection? Were you (perhaps unconsciously) trying to provoke a big drama so issues with your marriage could surface - drama that was dampened when everyone forgave you, leaving you with no outlet? Of course I personally can have no idea here, but some thinking about what it really means (on your own and/or working with your therapist) should yield plenty to look at.

I have found that if you try to get past this sort of thing without really trying to examine the deeper impulses going on, it's risky - because this kind of emotional turmoil is a danger signal letting you know this is something important. If you repress it or ignore it, it'll only crop up again in other ways until you pay attention to it. It will probably hurt and it will probably be uncomfortable, but try to make yourself look at it as coolly as you can whenever it bubbles up. Focus this emotional energy into figuring yourself out, that's what it's there for.

Burning this off physically is a good distraction as well. Take a run. Exercise. Lift weights. Clean the house. Do something like wash all your windows, or vacuum your car. Take a dance class, or go out dancing. Take a long driving trip. Something mindless that gets you tired. When I'm angry, or jittery with emotion, I clean - it's more productive than wallowing, and I find it actually helps with processing whatever I'm stewing over until I calm down, to be physically occupied so the loop in my head is not the loudest thing drowning out everything else.
posted by flex at 4:49 PM on August 8, 2010 [6 favorites]

Look up "limerance". It's totally normal, if miserable. Indulge yourself as long as you're doing relatively healthy things for a limited time (maybe listening to sad music for 20 minutes is okay; obviously calling him is not). Your therapist might be able to help you deal with this as more of a damage-control thing than something you can will yourself out of.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:58 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can't control your feelings; you can control your thoughts. Really. Keep sitting on your hands. Do not write poetry. If you must, give yourself 15 minutes a day to think about this guy, then stop. Read a book. Watch a movie. Play a video game. Do other things to fill your head.

It's going to take time, but getting over someone really is as simple as avoiding them in every way and waiting. When you're in this obsessive state, you're also creating that obsessive state. You have the power to stop, and you're choosing not to do it by continuing to obsess. This guy, he needs to be as forbidden to you as murder. He is entirely off limits.

Also, it's really jerky to still be mooning over this guy while you're married to someone else. Cheating isn't just actions, it's thoughts and feelings. Right now, you are not giving yourself to your marriage as much as someone who just cheated ought to be. And you really do have that choice.
posted by hought20 at 6:47 PM on August 8, 2010

I realize you may not be able to answer...but...did you just want the fantasy fling, or were you really not in love with your husband and went back out of guilt?

I've seen both sides of this, which is why I ask.
posted by Thistledown at 8:11 PM on August 8, 2010

I just want to know how long this searing emotional pain is going to last. Because it kind of sucks.

If you stay busy getting yourself over it like it sounds you are doing, and don't allow your mind to slide back into thinking, fantasizing, reminiscing, my bet would be that you feel 75% better in six months, and just about all the way over it in a year.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2010

I was in that same basic situation. Holy crap do I feel for you.

I don't consider myself all that attractive physically, and I'd NEVER pursued anyone outside of marriage. But for whatever reason I've had a handful of occasions where very attractive women made it clear that my being married was no object. Despite the fact that my marriage basically sucks, I'd always just laughed it off -- I'm a very active guy, and I just get my fulfillment out of life elsewhere.

Then I reconnected and fell completely in love with someone who I still consider just about the most amazing person I've ever met. I cut off all communication six months ago -- I just couldn't take the loss of control -- and I still think about her ALL THE TIME. I've spent time with people with severe addiction problems -- my wife, for one -- and oh my God, it is just like that.

So on the one hand, it has been absolutely brutal. On the other, I'm actually kind of grateful for the experience. It really redefined passionate love for me. In some fairly profound ways I am very much a different person than I was less than a year ago, and I have different expectations out of life.

So although you may consider your experience a terrible mistake, maybe there are a few positives you could take from it.

- AJ

PS A poster above referred to "Limerence." This part of the definition really resonated with me: "Limerance can be difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it, and it is thus often dismissed by nonlimerents as ridiculous fantasy or a construct of romantic fiction." Obviously I can only speak to my own personal experience, but this describes it to a T. I certainly never understood how hard a person can fall for someone until it happened to me. I really have a much different perspective now on human nature.
posted by Alaska Jack at 12:33 AM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

You might want to take a look at what this person represented to you. Clearly, there's something you're longing for - what is that? How to get that in your present relationship?

It's not the person so much as what s/he represents, in my "been there, done that" opinion. Once you find that out, you'll be a lot closer to moving on.
posted by Mysticalchick at 6:06 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

If anyone knew the secret to how to instantaneously get over a breakup, that person would be the RICHEST PERSON ALIVE.

This is why I can't understand why scientists and drug manufacturers don't seem to be really working on this. Heartbreak causes such untold misery, hopelessness, dysfunction and depression. Maybe that's the problem...the vast majority of it IS untold.

Re: " much worse the pain you've caused your husband must feel..." maybe his pain is worse than the op's, and maybe it isn't. There's no reason to assume it's so much worse.
posted by serena15221 at 7:16 AM on August 9, 2010

I like the idea of gratitude lists, because this is a problem of choices, not feelings. Focus on the positive things about the marriage you have chosen over this guy. Every choice has opportunity costs and you need to focus on what you chose, not all the choices you didn't get to have.

You made a mistake, getting so close to another man that some pretty strong neurochemical mechanisms kicked in and now you're just going to have to, um, detox, i guess. Kick in your superego and start acting in positive ways in spite of how you feel. Start with working on your chosen life.

You can't make feelings go away. You can do what you can to stop holding onto them. I write them down or meditate on them, but that's all the power I have. The good news is that you are the boss of you so your feelings don't have to push you around.

Best of luck to you. You made the right choice and your marriage will come out stronger.
posted by cross_impact at 8:54 AM on August 9, 2010

My advice would be to focus on getting out of your current relationship/marriage what it is that you think that you want to get from this other person. Sometimes I think the biggest challenge of relationships is to learn to "love the one you're with."

Learn to regard your husband the way that you used to. Maybe imagine having to compete with another woman (e.g. what if he had a flirtatious and attractive female coworker) for his affections? A little jealousy can go a long way towards rekindling the fire.

Remember, this other guy is only an idea. How much do you really know about him? All relationships have flaws, and any relationship you would have or could have pursued with him would be no exception.
posted by mintchip at 10:29 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I say you sleep with him and get it out of your system and tell nobody.
posted by tarvuz at 12:15 PM on August 9, 2010

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