Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy. I’m a relationship coach and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do. No shame, no blame, no judgements. A lot of the so-called advice that’s out there for people who are cheating on their partners is little more than thinly veiled judgement, but that is not what I provide. I believe you are entitled to guidance and support that respects the fullness of your humanity, and the complexity of your situation, no matter what you’re doing. When you are ready to schedule an introductory coaching session with me, you can do so through my website, mariemurphyphd.com. I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.
Today we are going to talk about the grief you may experience when a secret relationship comes to an end, and what you can do with that grief.
Before I start to get into this topic, I want to mention that there are a LOT of emotions that can accompany the end of an affair, and grief is just one of them. And of course, grief can accompany the end of any relationship, whether or not that relationship had an infidelity element to it, and whether or not that relationship was a secret. And I’ll say more about that at the very end of today’s episode. For today’s purposes, though, we’re going to look at why the grief that comes with the end of a secret relationship may seem uniquely difficult to deal with, and what you can do about that.
When an affair relationship comes to an end, many people are very upset about the end of a relationship, and want to keep their grief as private as possible. The idea, of course, is usually that if other people become aware of their grief, they’ll want to know what’s going on, and then you would have to tell them about your secret relationship, and you don’t want to do that. You may not want your spouse to know that you’ve been having an affair. If your affair relationship was with a co-worker, you may not want your co-workers to see that you’re upset. If your affair relationship was with someone within your social circle, you may not want to indicate to that group of people that anything is amiss, lest someone start to connect the dots and figure out what you’ve been up to.
Here’s the thing. If you want to keep your grief as private as possible, that’s fair enough. If you want to do your utmost to “keep up appearances” around other people and act like you’re fine even though you don’t feel fine at all, that’s fair enough.
But I want you to recognize that you do not HAVE to do this. Quite a few people tell me that they HAVE to hide what they’re going through, and literally CAN’T show any of what they’re feeling to other people in their lives. I want you to question those assumptions.
I think it’s totally legitimate to want to keep your grief about your affair as private as possible, and totally legitimate to want to keep up appearances as much as possible. But I do want to suggest that you do have choices in this department, and you do not HAVE to pretend you’re fine when you are not feeling fine.
Now, when I tell people that they could do this, they often say, “No I couldn’t! Then I would have to tell people what was wrong!” Well, here’s the thing. You’re right that if you walk around the house crying inconsolably for days in a row, the people around you might ask you what’s going on. That is certainly possible. But that doesn’t mean that you literally could not walk around the house crying inconsolably. You could. And if someone asks you what’s wrong, you get to choose what you say. You could tell them the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you could tell them some limited truths, or you could completely make something up. And if people who are close to you are perplexed by your behavior, or worried about you, you could choose to let them handle that, instead of making that into something you need to manage or worry about.
If you don’t want to do any of those things, that’s fine. But what I want you to recognize is that you do have options and choices. You might want to keep your grief as private as possible, but you don’t HAVE to. You are allowed to be a human who has emotions. Period. And you do not owe other people a complete and total explanation for your emotions. Period. Even if you don’t want to show others the full extent of your grief, I want to suggest that you consider giving yourself permission to not be okay sometimes, and giving yourself permission to not have to pretend that you’re okay when you aren’t okay.
All of that said, let me reiterate that I completely respect that you may want to keep your grief to yourself, and not even give anyone a hint that something might be amiss with you. Again, I think that is a totally legitimate choice to make as long as you recognize that it is a CHOICE to do that, not something that you HAVE to do. And this is really important to recognize because owning our choices is so much more empowering than believing we have to do certain things, and can’t do others.
So today, I’m going to offer you some ways of thinking about your private grief, and some practices that you can use when you’re in this kind of pain.
First and most importantly, if you want to keep your grief to yourself, you have to find a way to give yourself some private time and space to engage with your grief. I don’t really like saying “you have to,” because you don’t HAVE to do anything. But in this case I said “you have to” for a reason. If you do not give yourself some private time and space to deliberately feel your grief, there’s a very good chance that your grief is going to end up coming out in ways that you don’t really like. You may be able to manage your emotions and how you express them, but you cannot completely eliminate an emotion without allowing yourself to feel it first – and nor would you want to!
So I want to suggest that if you are feeling grief, or sadness, or loss, or anger, or bewilderment, or desolation, or any other intense emotions in relation to the end of your affair relationship, it is in your best interest to give yourself structured opportunities to actually feel those feelings in private.
Now, when I suggest this practice to some people, they say, “Oh, I work at home all day by myself, and all I do is think about my affair partner. I’m sad all day long. I grieve all the time. I’m totally feeling my feelings.” We’ll come back to that later.
What other people say is, “I don’t get any private time to myself, so there’s no way I can feel my feelings in private.” And to that I say, you better figure out how to create some private time for yourself. I could devote a whole podcast episode to this topic, but for now I’ll just say, find a way to create ten minutes of alone time in your car or your office or your bedroom. Or take a walk by yourself. Or get your friend to lend you their apartment for an hour. Or go rent a hotel room and spend the afternoon there by yourself. Or lock the bathroom door and cry in the shower. If you can’t get away from your kids, hire someone to take care of them. If you can’t get away from your job, tell everyone you work with you’re dead. If you’re resourceful enough to have an affair and keep it a secret, I guarantee you are resourceful enough to find private time and space to grieve your affair.
Even if that means you get ten minutes to yourself, twice a day, that’s better than nothing. But I bet you might be able to find more time than that, if you want it. However MUCH time you can set aside for you to do nothing other than feel your grief, set that time aside EVERY DAY, and make use of it. I am totally serious about this, people. If you are consumed by pain and grief and you don’t want to show that to others, you’ve got to be really dedicated to giving yourself time to feel all of that stuff by yourself. You’ve got to give yourself designated, protected time and space to feel your grief.
Now what exactly do you do with this protected time and space to feel your grief? There’s no one right answer, there’s no one-size-fits-all thing that works for everyone, but I’ll make a few suggestions.
If your affair has JUST ended and your emotions are all over the place, you may want to use your time alone to cry or scream or punch a pillow or make super crazy sobbing noises as you just wail your lungs out. You probably aren’t ready to try and do anything with your grief other than just allowing yourself to feel whatever comes up. So just allow yourself to feel whatever comes up. Don’t try to distract yourself, don’t try to make yourself feel better, just allow your grief to be there. Yes, you may have chosen to keep that grief under the surface for the other 90% of your waking hours, but this is your time to let all of that raw emotion happen. And then of course, give yourself some time to move out of your grief. If you’ve only got ten minutes, and you’re planning on doing some crying in those ten minutes, give yourself at least two minutes at the end to try and stop crying.
Now, I know there may be times when it really seems like you CAN’T stop crying, and that is fair enough. I’m not telling you that you SHOULD make yourself stop crying if you think you can’t, or you really don’t want to. That isn’t the point. The point is that there may be times when it can be really beneficial to give yourself a limited amount of time to feel some really raw feelings, and then step out of those feelings pretty quickly, and it is POSSIBLE to do this. And this practice can be tremendously helpful. When you tell yourself and show yourself that there is a protected time and space for you to feel your grief, you build trust with yourself by showing yourself that you can attend to your own emotional needs.
How long do you keep giving yourself protected time and space to feel your grief? As long as you need to. Don’t even worry about how long you’re going to do it, at first. Just focus on actually doing it, every damn day. So often when we’re in the midst of something difficult, we just want to know when it will be over! But sometimes we can’t know when something will be over. Sometimes the only thing we can do to begin to feel better is decide that we are willing to deal with things as they are, instead of resisting things as they are. Your job right now is not to try and figure out when your grief will subside. It’s to be willing to feel the feelings you are currently feeling.
Now, at a certain point, you will probably want to decide that you are going to work on digesting your grief. Once the initial pain has subsided somewhat, you’ve got a question to ask yourself, and that is this: do you want to get over your grief?
Some of you will not be at all surprised to hear that some people’s answer to this question is no. Not everyone’s answer is no, but some people do not want to let go of their grief, because that would seem like moving on from the relationship, and they don’t WANT to move on from the relationship itself, OR the pain associated with the end of the relationship. This is totally normal, totally common, and totally understandable. If this is the state you’re in, I want to suggest that you have every right to stay there for as long as you want to. Sometimes we don’t want to move on. Sometimes we want to stay right where we are. And there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that.
However, you may get to a point where you DO want to figure out how to move forward. You may not want to stay in the land of grief forever. At this point, you need to decide that you are willing to digest your grief, and decide that you aren’t going to indulge your grief.
There’s a difference between allowing yourself to feel a feeling, without trying to get rid of it, or make it go away, and indulging a feeling. To come back to what I mentioned earlier, when people say “I’m totally allowing myself to feel my grief. I work at home all day and I cry all day long and think about my affair partner all the time.” If this is what you’re doing, you may be indulging your feelings, rather than allowing to move through you.
When we allow a feeling, we just let it be there. Okay, I feel sad. Okay, I feel INTENSE grief. Wow. This is really quite something. Or maybe I feel loneliness. That’s a real crowd pleaser. We can acknowledge that we feel a feeling, and acknowledge that it may feel pretty intensely uncomfortable, AND we can also let it move through us without making it into a bigger deal than it already is. We can acknowledge the magnitude of our feelings, without adding a layer of melodrama. Yes, feeling grief may be really intense and challenging! But we can allow this to be part of our human experience without layering a whole bunch of additional meanings on top of our feelings. Also, allowing our feelings includes allowing our feelings to pass through us – meaning, we don’t just let them come, we also let them go. We allow ourselves to feel sad, and we also allow the sadness to pass through us.
On the other hand, indulging our feelings involves making our feelings into a very big deal. And feeding into a narrative about what our feelings MEAN. And telling ourselves how very difficult it is to feel the feelings that we’re feeling. Or perhaps feeling sorry for ourselves for feeling the feelings we’re feeling. Or we make our grief into this precious, special thing, that we may feed into or fondle.
Now, a lot of the time we indulge our feelings because it sort of feels good to do this. Sort of. On the one hand, we may be hurting, but on the other hand, we may be getting something out of the story we’re telling ourselves about our pain. We might not know what we who we would be, or what we would do if we allowed ourselves to move through our pain. And we may not like the idea of getting over our affair partner. We might kind of like having this secret painful thing that gives us a reason to feel sorry for ourselves.
And there’s nothing wrong with this! There’s nothing wrong with you if you’ve been kind of fondling your grief about the end of your affair relationship. Doing this does not mean you’re flawed, or you’re a fundamentally indulgent person, or anything like that. And if you want to, you can keep on indulging your feelings forever. If you like doing that, I’m sure not going to tell you to stop. But usually, when we’re hurting, what we eventually want is to feel better. And indulging our grief and sadness or maybe our confusion or our sense that we were wronged usually does not feel good forever.
Now let me be absolutely clear that some people DO indulge their pain forever. Some people don’t really want to move through their pain. They want to keep it, for all kinds of reasons. I know people like this, and I bet you know people like this too. And if you’ve listened to this podcast for a while it will not surprise you when I say that if you want to fondle your pain for the rest of your life, I think that’s fine – but if you’re going to do that, I encourage you to make that a conscious, deliberate choice.
How do we know if we’re indulging our feelings, you ask? I will tell you that sometimes you will just KNOW. When you’re tired of yourself, when you’re tired of your own shit, and your own melodrama, you know you’ve been indulging your feelings – and you may also be very ready to stop. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that we’ve been wallowing in our grief, not moving through it.
Now here comes some tough love. If you’ve been feeling bad for a while, if you’ve been feeling grief about the end of your affair relationship for a while now, and you want to feel better but you think that you can’t, that’s a pretty good indication that you are indulging your feelings. Whenever we think that we can’t feel better about something, we are a) not telling ourselves the truth, and b) we are choosing to have a pity party for ourselves.
Now remember! There may be times when you don’t WANT to feel better, and that’s okay. I would suggest that when grief is fresh, we do not need to want to feel better right away. There is no need to rush through grief. It’s rich, fertile territory, and all emotions have their value. But if you’ve been feeling grief for what you consider to be a long time, and you’re getting sick of it, it’s time to check your indulgence by getting clear on the story you are telling yourself about your relationship, and how it ended.
So often, when we’re stuck in grief for longer than we want to be, we’re telling ourselves that something we didn’t like should not have happened, or should not have happened the way it did.
For instance, if our affair relationship ended, we may be thinking something like, “Well if only my affair partner had had the courage to leave their spouse, then the two of us would be together now and then I would be happy.” We’re effectively telling ourselves, they should have chosen me. And at the most fundamental level, we’re telling ourselves that things shouldn’t have happened the way they did. We’re telling ourselves that the relationship shouldn’t have ended. And we’re telling ourselves, or at least implying to ourselves, that we can’t be happy without the relationship.
Now when we tell ourselves things like this, it may SEEM like we are just telling ourselves the facts. We may really believe that our affair partner ended their relationship with us because they did not have the courage to leave their spouse. We may really believe that if only they had been stronger, our great love would have had a chance to flourish. We may really think that something is fundamentally wrong if we can’t be with our affair partner in the capacity we wanted to be with them.
Here's the thing. None of those thoughts I just suggested you might be thinking are objective facts. They might seem like objective facts, but they aren’t. And although you may not be able to change the fact that a relationship you valued is over, you do have the option of taking responsibility for how you think about that circumstance.
There is a big, big, big, gimungous difference between telling yourself, “That thing shouldn’t have happened,” and telling yourself, “I really didn’t like that thing that happened.” Or, “I’m really fucking sad about that thing that happened.” If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you’ve heard me say this before, so say it with me if you know what I’m going to say next. Ready? Should feels like shit. I don’t know who gets credit for that bit of brilliance, but brilliant it is. When we think things should be different than the way they are, we are effectively arguing with reality. As Byron Katie says, when we argue with reality, we only lose 100% of the time – and to that I must add, when we argue with reality, we only feel terrible 100% of the time.
If your relationship is over, it’s over. That may be the reality. Telling yourself it should be otherwise is a losing proposition.
On the other hand, it is totally legitimate to dislike something! Arguing with reality may not get us anywhere, but acknowledging our own preferences is HELPFUL. If we allow ourselves to say something like, “That fucker broke up with me in a way that I consider hurtful, and I am angry and I am sad,” we acknowledge our own feelings, and we give ourselves the dignity of allowing our honest response to whatever happened. And yes, then we may feel hurt and angry, and that may feel uncomfortable – but we don’t keep ourselves stuck in the land of “shoulds.”
If we keep telling ourselves a story of what shouldn’t have happened, we are going to continue to create discomfort for ourselves. We will put our grief on auto-repeat, instead of allowing ourselves to experience it and move through it.
Three of the things I help my clients do is get ultra-clear about the stories they’re telling themselves about the end of their affair relationship, see the connection between their stories and their feelings, and then shift their stories so that they can shift their feelings. You have the power to tell yourself the story you WANT to tell yourself about the relationship coming to an end – but sometimes we resist doing this, or think we don’t know how to do this. That’s where I come in. I can help you do this – and a lot of the time, we really do need help doing this.
This is how we can begin to deal with our grief. Now I’m going to switch gears a little, and talk about a common reason why people who are grieving the end of a secret relationship think their grief is especially hard to deal with. And that of course is that their grief is private. People tend to think that if only they could have support from other people, their grief wouldn’t be so difficult to bear.
And of course, support from other people can be really great. Human connections and interactions are important, and being able to talk to people we care about when we’re hurting can be a really, really wonderful thing. And to echo what I said earlier, you COULD choose to talk to someone about what you are experiencing. You could choose to let someone in on the details of your secret situation. You certainly don’t have to, but you could. And if you don’t want to talk to someone you know personally about what’s going on, you could find yourself a professional to talk to who is going to provide a safe haven for your secrets! I am one such source of this kind of support, but I’m not the ONLY source of this kind of support. The big point right now is that if you really want to be able to talk to someone about what you’re experiencing, you can find someone to talk to. By telling yourself that you cannot talk to anyone about what you’re going through, you are a) not telling yourself the truth, and b) not doing yourself any favors.
Now, what I’m about to say next may sound like it contradicts my previous point, but stay with me. There may well be times when other people just can’t be there for us in the way we would like them to, for all kinds of reasons. There may well be times when we do not get the kind of support we would like from others, or the amount of support we would like from others. And this can be true even when our grief is totally public.
For example, even if you have a house full of caring people supporting you in exactly the ways you would like immediately after a loved one dies, you still have to deal with being by yourself when the well-wishers go home. And even in the moments when you are surrounded by wonderful people, their presence will not, in and of itself, relieve you of your feelings.
Similarly, when a relationship that is NOT a secret ends, you may be able to talk to your best friend or your closest confident for hours on the phone, and they may be so helpful while you are talking to them, but there’s still that moment when you have to get off the phone and go through the next minutes of your life without that other person talking to you.
So the paradox is this: if you’ve been thinking you have to bear your grief privately, and you don’t like that idea, you do not have to bear your grief as privately as you think you do. You COULD seek out someone to talk to. And, whether you choose to do that or not, you will always have to digest your feelings on your own, no matter how much support you get from others.
It's also important to be aware that sometimes, seeking out other people’s support can function as more of a distraction than anything else. Talking to other people about our feelings is not a substitute for feeling our feelings. And looking for people to talk to about our feelings can function in the same way. If you want to find someone to talk to, find someone to talk to and talk to them. That’s great. But embarking upon endless quests for support may not do anything great for you.
Similarly, if we don’t have the support from others that we want, or have decided that we are not going to seek out support from others that we would like, lamenting this at length is very unlikely to be helpful. Yes, you may feel lonely AND grief-stricken, and you may not like that very much. Totally fine to acknowledge that. But there’s a difference between saying things to yourself like, “Wow. I feel lonely, I feel full of grief, and my god is this intense right now,” and saying things like, “Woe is me! This is so hard! I shouldn’t have to do this on my own! This would be so much better if this and this and this were different!” Acknowledging our pain is great. Effectively telling ourselves that we shouldn’t have to feel the pain we’re feeling is only going to add to our overall experience of discomfort.
I’m going to begin to wrap things up for today by pointing out that the end of a relationship we cherish can be pretty fucking painful whether it was a secret or not. And to that effect, I’ll read a passage from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran.
Then said Almitra, speak to us of love.
And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them.
And with a great voice he said,
When love beckons to you, follow him.
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste to the garden.
For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you.
Even as love is for your growth, so is it for your pruning.
Even as love ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall love descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Love threshes you to make you naked.
Love sifts you to free you from your husks.
Love grinds you to whiteness, and kneads you until you are pliant.
And then love assigns you to its sacred fire, so that you may become sacred bread for god’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you so that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
You don’t have to take any or all of that literally to find it useful. I don’t know why love has to be gendered as a “he.” I don’t think we need to think about god’s sacred feast in any literal sense. But I do think we might want to take the spirit of these words pretty seriously.
All right! I’ll conclude by saying that if you’re grieving in private, you have all of my sympathy from afar. And if you want help dealing with your private grief, let’s work together. There is a difference between listening to me talk on the podcast, and having me as your coach who helps you actively apply the concepts I talk about to the specifics of your own life. Sometimes a bit of useful insight here and there is all we need to help us get to where we want to go. But sometimes we need to work closely with a guide in order to make the changes we want to make, and live the way we want to live.
So if you’re ready to resolve your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you and you want my help doing it, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com. I can’t wait to meet you.
Thank you all so much for listening! Have a great week. Bye for now.