Emotional Memory Management: Dealing with Triggers When Recovering from Infidelity


One of the most difficult aspects of recovering a relationship from infidelity is dealing with our emotional reactions to triggers that remind us of the affair, affair partner, lies, and betrayal. Exposure to such triggers often causes an emotional reaction almost exactly the same as the original emotional response. In other words, we feel like it is happening all over again. Emotional memory management can help.

Emotional memory management is learning to manage our exposure to triggers and manage our memories and emotional response, and it can go a long way toward recovery and healing.

I’ve been reading stuff all over the place for a while now about the concept of managing our memories. I think both the betrayed and the wayward spouse need to learn to monitor and modify their memories, so I will attempt to discuss both sides though the overall concept is applicable to both sides of the discussion.

How Our Memory Works

There are two memory systems at work in our brain. The procedural or implicit memory system recalls emotions and concepts along with behavioral memories while the declarative or explicit memory recalls details. Implicit memories are pretty much not under our control and happen without much input from us. They are linked to that part of the brain called the amygdala, but explicit memories are linked to the part of the brain called the hippocampus and are very much under our control.

For every memory file there are two parts of the file: the emotional/physiological and the details of the event itself or other things surrounding that event. Expressed as a formula we could say that: Memory File = Details + Physiological Response.

Many of our procedural/implicit memories require no input from us at all. They simply happen on their own. This is how we ride a bicycle. We don’t think about, recall the details of how to maintain balance and execute a list of steps; we just get on, start peddling and ride away. Explicit or declarative memories usually do require us to purposely recall them in order to cause them to come into our consciousness.

Those memories that are strongest, that is, have the most staying power and are most easily recalled are those that have the greatest physiological component to them. If I were to ask (at least those in my age group) where you were when you heard that JFK had been shot, you would instantly recall even minor details of that moment in time, forever frozen in your memories. For those born a little later, a similar event might be the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and for those living on the west coast it might be the Northridge quake in 1994.

Most of us know exactly what we were doing when the World Trade Center was struck. I can see easily the second plane as it slammed into the tower and the fire-ball that exploded from the building. I can also see the people who jumped to their deaths falling in space as they tried to escape the flames. I can even see the necktie of one man streaming behind him as he fell to his death. The emotional aspect of these things is what allows us to recall such minute details and is why they are, in fact, unforgettable.

Now the thing about all of this dual memory system is that one side of a memory can and does cause the other side to be recalled. When we see someone that we have not seen in many years such as an old classmate, we first scan their face, link what they look like to a memory file and almost at once know that we know them. But it takes a little longer for us to look into the other part of the brain and find a name that we can associate with a face and say “John, good to see you.” In some cases, we might never recall the name and stumble through a conversation with someone who seems to be an old friend that we know we once knew but we have no recall of any details of anything we ever did while with that person and, therefore, haven’t a clue who they actually might be.

If we had a strong emotional reaction to someone in our past, then not only do we recognize them instantly as someone we should know, but a few seconds later, the memories of the physiological aspects of our memories of them are activated and we feel exactly the same things we felt when with them before. All the same chemicals that were at work in our brain when the memory was created suddenly flood our brains and increased blood pressure, adrenaline spikes, and a whole bunch of other things are there in short order.

An emotion can trigger a memory file as well. Either half of the equation when recalled by our brain brings about the other half in some way. For both the betrayed and wayward spouse, the biggest problem is that when we have a certain explicit memory (details) the implicit or emotional response follows unless we do something to short circuit that trigger.

Implications for the Wayward Spouse

For a wayward spouse this means that when thinking of an affair partner in any way, the emotions of the affair come flooding back in less than two minutes. This is why a past lover can never remain a friend and we must have no contact with that lover for the rest of our lives. Simply seeing that person will trigger the emotional side of the memory file equation and the feelings we once had associated with that person come flooding back into our consciousness very quickly. These emotional reactions then trigger additional detail memories which then bring up the emotional aspects of those and the cycle begins to repeat until the affair reigniting becomes a very real possibility.

Implications for the Betrayed Spouse

For the Betrayed Spouse, the problem is what we would call triggers that cause the anguish, pain, sadness and all the rest to be manifested soon after the memory of the betrayal is brought to the forefront of our minds. This is the cause of PTSD that a strong negative emotional event brings about that causes us to relive that event over and over again.

The Good News

The good news is that we can begin to manage this process to our advantage. An emotional response can be re-associated with a new event or series of events. The event itself can be redirected, so the emotions are prevented by thinking of something else first or by creating a new memory that gets associated with the emotions before they happen by creating a new link between the new event and the old emotion.

Implications for the Wayward Spouse

For the wayward spouse, this means that when you think of the affair partner, and the emotions are about to come flooding back into your brain, thus causing you to desire to relive those emotions with that affair partner, you can instead begin thinking about your spouse first and so cause the emotions to start being redirected toward your spouse instead of the affair partner. This is basically the opposite of what happened when the affair began since your emotions and feelings did not start out being associated with the affair partner, but with your spouse, and only after a repetition of a few times did those feelings become associated with the affair partner instead.

Additionally, when feelings of sorrow, sadness and remorse cause you to become depressed over what you have done, those emotions need to be associated directly with the affair and not with your spouse. By doing this, eventually, your brain begins to link the sadness and depression with the affair instead of with your spouse.

Implications for the Betrayed Spouse

For the betrayed spouse, this link between an event memory and the negative emotions can cause real problems, because when we think of the affair it causes us all the same negative emotions from the trauma of the betrayal. This then causes us to consider the source of the betrayal, our spouse, in context with the negative feelings and emotions. By redirecting our thoughts to something associated more with a positive emotion, we can manage the memory by creating a new association with something more positive. Thus, we link it to our spouse, eventually causing the negative feelings to fade as the good replaces the bad when we think of our spouse.

What Research Shows

The research for all of this is relatively recent and concepts are still evolving. The original research was done regarding burn victims who often relive the trauma of being burned whenever they are triggered in any way to recall the event. For some it might be seeing a flame; for others it could be a pain that triggers the memory of the fire. Heat, pain, light, or a smell can all cause these triggers. In fact any one of our senses might trigger us to relive such a horror in all its emotional, painful and exacting details. Memory management techniques have been shown to lessen the effects of PTSD in such cases and after a couple of years of dealing with the trauma of betrayal, I believe that the same methods are what can make the difference in healing from that betrayal and moving on whether the marriage is restored or not.

Application to Daily Life

Since we cannot control the physiological and emotional aspects of the memory, it requires that we learn to modify the event part of the equation and by so doing hopefully create a different set of emotions attached to new memories so that we no longer have to relive the pain and suffering that resulted from the affair.

This is what we are actually doing when we reclaim aspects of our lives such as visiting a place again and building new better memories though the place was once linked in our minds to the affair. It is why hysterical bonding sex when it occurs is so powerful in helping a couple reconnect. It is why taking a vacation together during early recovery can help with that reconnection as well and it can also be how we can overcome our anxiety over seeing a certain color or type of vehicle as we drive along the road to work.

The emotions involved in an affair are so strong and so profound for both the wayward and the betrayed spouse that the process can take a long time to happen. However, I believe it might be possible to speed the process by making a conscious effort to invoke the ability of the brain to control those parts of memories that it can control, and thereby redirect or prevent the emotions and feelings from causing us to relive the trauma.

I won’t go into further thoughts as to application, since I believe specific circumstances call for specific modification efforts geared toward a single portion of the memory process for a specific event or memory. This requires modification to fit the specific needs of each person and couple rather than a broad stroke application as described here.

What’s Happening Biochemically

Because of the way memories exist in the brain, with a detail component and an emotional component, recalling one automatically recalls the other. The more intense the emotional content of a memory, the more intense the memory itself.

When we have an emotional reaction various neurotransmitters flood our brains. These can include dopamine, serotonin, nor-epinephrine and other chemicals that cause us to feel certain things and certain ways. They are in fact the basis of what we call feelings and emotions. When the right combination of chemicals is present, we feel a specific way, and whenever this combination is present we always feel that way.

Our brain typically only recalls things for about 5 days from the time they take place. We keep them active for a short while to see if they are important and if nothing comes of them in about 5 days or so; our brain dumps them in order to avoid cluttering things up with unimportant details.

We can memorize by repetition a group or list of things that really have little to no emotional content. (When was the Declaration of Independence signed?) As time goes on and we don’t use these things, those memories begin to fade; that is, they become harder and harder to locate and recall. (Article III of the US Constitution has to do with what branch of the federal government?)

There are also things that we repeat so often that we no longer have to think about them at all for them to play themselves out. Riding a bicycle is just one example of this type of thing. Though some of us might have had much more emotional instances of riding one, anyone who ever has ridden one very much can get on one years later and with no thoughts about how to operate it, ride off into the sunset.

Another example of this type of memory would be playing a musical instrument. If I practice a song on the guitar enough, I get to a point where the music just happens and I don’t even have to think about it. For years this type of memory was thought to be teaching the body to execute the proper steps without the brain really getting involved, thus making the action into more of an instinct than a chosen activity. However, if that were true, how would one be able to play not one song, but any one of several hundred chosen specifically for playing at that time?

What it seems is happening is that the emotional content of the memory, though very low in level compared to many activities actually becomes dominant. Emotions happen without any input from us and just kind of flow along so when a memory file has been basically transferred from the logical side of the brain to the side that controls emotion (and language as well) it becomes a kind of program that can be executed without taking up a lot of processor overhead. We don’t have to think the music; we literally feel our way from beginning to end with almost no conscious thought going into the process at all.

Application to Daily Life

In the case of a wayward spouse who had a romantic relationship with an affair partner, the memories contain both details and a high emotional content. These memories are quite strong. Not from the point of view of the wayward spouse wanting them to be strong, but because all of these chemicals flooded the brain of the wayward spouse at the moment the memories were being created, those memories are fixed pretty solidly into their memory banks.

When those memories are triggered, not by choice but by some almost random event that causes one of these memory files to be invoked, the details appear almost instantly. But between 90 and 120 seconds later, exactly the same chemicals that were present during the original event flood the brain of the person having the memory and they “feel” exactly the same things as they did in the first case.

In reality, exactly the same thing is what a betrayed spouse counts on while trying to win back our wayward spouse. We stimulate memories of the past and of our history together that invoke those good emotions in our wayward spouse. The kids remind the wayward spouse of the betrayed spouse. The house reminds the wayward spouse of the betrayed spouse. The car, the television program, the smell of burning leaves, the sound of traffic on the freeway, a certain song all remind the wayward spouse of the marriage they are contemplating the destruction of with little regard for what the ramifications of that really mean.

A wayward spouse will suppress those memories by consciously shifting their thoughts to something else, often to some past wrong or perceived wrong committed by the betrayed spouse. They will rewrite history by making an effort to quench those good memories while at the same time transferring the emotions of those memories to the affair partner.

In recovery, this is the process that has to take place in reverse, though the wayward spouse has to actually want to reverse the process for recovery to really take place. A conscious decision is once again made to replace the thoughts of the affair partner that bring about good feelings with thoughts of the betrayed spouse that begin to replace the affair partner in that instant so that the feelings are once more associated with the betrayed spouse.

But the memories are still intact and though not accessed for a long period of time still contain the emotional content they once held. It is not a decision for this to happen but simply the very nature of memories and how they exist in the human brain.

If you and your former wayward spouse run into the former affair at the mall and the former wayward spouse instantly reaches out to you and reaffirms the commitment and attraction, then BOTH of you short circuit the emotional content of the memories. For the former wayward spouse, the good feelings are transferred to the betrayed spouse and for the betrayed spouse the negative feelings are replaced by good ones since a NEW memory pattern is being laid down that includes the former wayward spouse showing care and concern for the betrayed spouse instead of allowing the negative emotions to take hold.

The danger lies in when the former lovers run into each other unexpectedly and find themselves face to face with no one else around to grab hold of and no other thoughts to transfer the emotions to. Seeing each other invokes memories, beginning with details surrounding acknowledgement of recognition and extending all the way to sudden memories of some past event or events. Since these things all hold a strong emotional component, the former wayward spouse is suddenly bombarded by all of these chemicals that are the cause of the feelings in the first instance and bring them all back in the second.

Now an affair that ended badly, which most usually do, also invokes a flood of negative emotions (the remorse, the sadness over hurting the betrayed spouse, the damage done to the kids and all those things that resulted from the days, weeks or months of conflict over the affair) and in many cases these negatives outweigh the desire to allow the positive feelings to emerge. The former wayward spouse instantly transfers his or her thoughts to the pain caused during the original affair and a rekindling of the affair is averted.

However, nearly as often the wayward spouse does NOT short circuit those emotions or shunt them off in another direction and so is overwhelmed by the emotions of the original affair. Changing what happens requires a conscious thought that invokes the new direction while doing nothing at all allows the old emotions to arrive 90 to 120 seconds into the memory event and once those chemicals fill the brain, the emotions follow like turning on the switch lights the light bulb. Just like the light bulb does not have to choose to turn on, the wayward spouse does not have to want the emotions to be there. Simply not doing anything to prevent them from happening means that they will happen because of the emotional component of memory that is there waiting to flood the brain with dopamine, nor-epinephrine and serotonin and endorphins.

As much as we would like to believe that “LOVE” is a magical thing, that we can find “THE ONE” that is meant for us, and that bond will forever be there and unbreakable (this is actually what causes many to end up in affairs, BTW), the reality is that we are creatures of biology, and as such, we react to chemicals in ways we don’t get to choose.

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5 Responses to Emotional Memory Management: Dealing with Triggers When Recovering from Infidelity

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