The Tales We Tell: Using Narrative to Recover from Infidelity

Tristan and Isolde (Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

The classic tale of Tristan and Isolde, adulterous lovers who are drawn to each other by way of a love potion | Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

As we move through life, we tend to build narratives around our sense of self. We have our sense of what the story of our life is, who the characters are, and what the arc is. We perceive our lives as having a plot — a cohesive structure uniting the disparate pieces of experience into a story that embodies our sense of self. Our understanding of this particular narrative, how it fits together, and what role we play in it helps us to order the world and make decisions in response to the plot points or the behaviors of the other characters in our life. A recent study at Olin College has validated these constructed narratives, which describe our lives, as major predictors of mental health. They argue that “individuals’ stories about their lives ought to be understood as core elements of personality.” Once we have established what we believe our story to be, its plot comes to drive us and our actions.

Two partners hang their sense of the world — and hence their sense of self — on the predictability of one another’s characters.

Among the most beloved narrative types is, of course, the love story. Romance novels, dating apps, various rom-coms, and mythology all speak to the human obsession with finding love. Within our own lives, the plot often centers around the quest for and experience of love. Our stories of first loves, great loves, and lost loves make up the plot threads of our lives, leading us through intense emotional story arcs and often to some important lesson or a major point of growth or breakthrough. Our greatest heartbreaks remain timeless elements of our sense of self. Throughout it all, we remain on the great quest for love, wading our way through the endless scenes of sexual tension, miscommunication, irresistible attraction, and bittersweet endings.

Once we have established what we believe our story to be, its plot comes to drive us and our actions.

Once we find our sidekick — our partner with whom we face the world — that person becomes deeply entwined in our plot-line. We begin to structure the future of our narrative around theirs, to envision a storyline in which the two are mutually dependent. Once someone has found their way into our primary story arc, they irrevocably become part of our sense of self as well.

"The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta" by Alexander Cabanel (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta by Alexander Cabanel, which depicts the couple’s death at the hands of Francesca’s husband (and Paolo’s brother) Gianciotto. These two shall forever be immortalized in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno as inhabitants of the second circle of Hell — Lust | Source: Wikimedia Commons

We build our narrative upon our assumptions about the world and how it is put together. As such, the general consistency in one’s comprehension of the world allows for stability in one’s understanding of oneself. This is why trust is such a core component of a successful relationship. The entanglement of two narratives means that the relationship’s storyline becomes the basis for much of your sense of self and stability. Two partners hang their sense of the world — and hence their sense of self — on the predictability of one another’s characters. Our perceived position in the relationship can also shape our sense of self worth. Whether one imagines oneself in a healthy communicative relationship of equals, perceives oneself as always striving for the affection of the other partner, or feels apathetic towards a partnership, someone’s relative position in a relationship can impact the way they perceive their relationship to the whole world.

Past, present, and future all suddenly stand on shaky ground, and a previously predictable narrative is rendered unstable.

By the Sea (Source: IMDB)

By the Sea — written and directed by Angelina Jolie, starring herself and her then-husband Brad Pitt (both of whom fell in love with one another while Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston) — is a 2015 movie about a couple’s last-ditch effort to salvage their marriage, which is compounded by acts of adultery during their vacation. | Source: IMDB

Psychological research suggests that traumatizing events tend to be those that violate these kinds of “assumptions regarding how the world and others operate.” Traumatic experiences dislodge our sense of security in these assumptions, shaking our sense of the rules by which the world operates. In a relationship, acts of infidelity can have precisely that effect. The rules and narratives on which partners have structured their relationships are shaken to the core. When one’s relational narrative is also the basis for personal narrative, this can leave the injured partner totally stripped of their confidence in their identity, perception, and the structure of their life. What was understood as one united plot-line made up of two characters has, in fact, become two disparate narratives. This realization not only shatters the plot itself, but also the entire meta-narrative around it. The discovery of additional plot-lines that have been kept secret introduces new information about the number of characters and the role of trust in the story. In response, an injured partner has to adjust their sense of what their life looks like and what it involves. Additionally, an entire history of perceptions may have been based on inaccurate assumptions, and plans for the future structured on an illusion of narrative unity. Past, present, and future all suddenly stand on shaky ground, and a previously predictable narrative is rendered unstable.

Revolutionary Road (Source: IMDB)

Revolutonary Road — starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (as April and Frank Wheeler, respectively) and based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates — is a 2008 movie about the Wheeler’s unhappy marriage, which lead to acts of adultery and very dramatic and traumatic consequences | Source: IMDB

Interestingly, couples experiencing greater levels of independence in their relationship tend not to find this experience so traumatizing, as the shaking of this narrative does not necessarily destabilize their entire sense of self. The overlapping storylines may not have fused as completely, so the disruption of one may not reverberate so deeply through the other. However, many injured partners experience a radical unsettling of identity that greatly resembles PTSD. These individuals report a “violation of fundamental assumptions regarding their participating partner, themselves, and their relationship-shattering core beliefs essential to emotional security.” The shaking of these pillars — which have been foundational to a sense of self — leaves an injured partner radically uncertain of what can be trusted at all. This leads to a loss of control and predictability, often spiraling into anxiety and depression characterized by deep uncertainty. Many describe the emotional experience as one of “vacillating feelings of rage, overwhelming powerlessness, victimization, and abandonment” resulting from the dissolution of their conceptualization of their relationship. The shattering of a lens through which one has viewed the world leaves one unable to know how to move forward, how to trust and assess the data available, and how to make decisions in response to that data. One is left wondering what information can be trusted, as well as mourning the loss of a perception of the world rendered inaccurate. Until a partner gains “a clear sense of why the trauma occurred, their assumptions remain violated and they cannot trust their partners not to hurt them again.” In order to move forward, they have to build a new narrative to serve as their foundation.

By creating new narratives that make room for why the infidelity occurred, a couple can learn to trust a relationship again.

Taking this into account, psychologists have found success in healing trauma and recovering from infidelity via the active and intentional reconstruction of narrative. In order to facilitate recovery, a couple’s therapist works to help the partners construct a new narrative to help make sense of what happened and help frame the relationship in a new way. After managing the effects of the trauma itself on the individuals and the relationship, a couple works toward a shared picture of how the affair came about. The process involves delving into the whole story of what occurred and why it came to be.

Couple Sitting on a Ramp

Couples explore the elements of their relationship that might have led to communication breakdowns, isolation, and distance, thus uncovering elements of the relationship that were previously blind spots. These therapists work to “restructure clients’ schemas about how the world operates and to help them regain a sense of control over their lives.” By creating new narratives that make room for why the infidelity occurred, a couple can learn to trust a relationship again. They develop a new, more nuanced storyline, and trace that into both the future and the past to help make sense of what has happened, which in turn allows them to feel comfortable about making new predictions regarding the future. “Both partners often crave mechanisms for restoring trust — injured partners for regaining it, and participating partners for instilling it,” and the process of creating a new, more comprehensive story helps them to rebuild it together. They then choose how to move forward with a new set of information that includes the factors that were previously so earth shattering. Whether partners choose to end or continue their relationship at this point, they are able to do so with a re-established sense of self instilled by this new narrative.

In order to move forward, [couples] have to build a new narrative to serve as their foundation.

The act of deceit — inherent in infidelity — entails living out multiple mutually exclusive plots simultaneously. While the partner who participated in the deceit might experience relief at being able to shake off this facade, the partner who discovered their life was only half the story can be deeply shaken. As such, the process of recovery from this uprooting of identity must find a way to reconcile these co-occurring plot-lines, to bring them back into the kind of cohesive storyline that we cling to for our well-being. This is the work of healing and recovery that characterizes many of the modern world’s romantic plot-lines. Whether it is a grand finale or a bump in the road, a couple has the opportunity — or, at least, option — to redefine and rebuild their story together in order to bring one another’s lives back to solid ground. The successful restructuring of that story allows both characters to feel more complete moving forward, regardless of where their storyline may lead next.

Couple Sitting on a Bench


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