Betrayal. In truth, betrayal is one of our worst fears. Betrayals can occur within families, in the workplace, among friends, and in the most sacred space of marriage. All betrayals are difficult to come to terms with, yet betrayal within the confines of an intimate relationship can feel like the worst violation of all. Within a marriage, betrayal by a spouse can create an upwelling of emotions and leave serious devastation in its wake. If ignored, dismissed, or allowed to fester, the effects of betrayal can cause irreparable harm to a relationship. When faced openly and honestly—and with appropriate, wise support—betrayal can be understood, addressed, and ultimately healed.
The idea of betrayal brings a litany of distasteful thoughts and images to mind: unfaithfulness, lies, humiliation, disloyalty, violation, infidelity, distrust, disappointment, anger, anxiety, disillusionment, pain, hurt, and fear are a few uncomfortable words that may arise. In truth, betrayal is far more than uncomfortable; it can be downright heart wrenching and toxic. As with most relationship challenges, the possible upside to betrayal is the fact that learning and healing may ultimately bring greater health to the relationship. This article, the first in a three-part series, is designed to help you learn more about betrayal. In better understanding betrayal, you will then be able to move through—and beyond—any hold it may have on you and your relationship.
Healthy marriages, like all good relationships, must have a foundation built on trustworthiness and faithfulness. When choosing a healthy partner, we search for someone who can offer emotional safety and security. We seek someone we can have faith in and count on through thick and thin. Of course, even when one’s mate seems like sheer perfection, no human is ever truly flawless. Even the best people and the most caring relationships have their faults and hiccups. When one partner betrays the other, the seeds of deep distrust have been sown. As the old adage goes, “It takes much time and energy to build trust, yet it only takes a few seconds to destroy it.” Once the damage of betrayal has been done, the only way to repair the situation is to face it openly and courageously.
After learning of a betrayal, fear and anger often set in quickly. Once the shock has worn off, those confronted with the harsh reality of betrayal often find themselves asking questions such as, “Why me? Am I unlovable? What did I do wrong?” In reality, the person who has been betrayed did nothing to cause the betrayal. Making the decision to betray one’s partner is ultimately the complete responsibility of the person who chose to take the action.
All too often, the betrayer responds defensively by offering a host of excuses to support the betrayal. Common defenses include: “You were working too much!” “You never pay attention to me!” “If only you would have more sex with me, I wouldn’t have had to look elsewhere.”
The one who has been betrayed may accept the justifications and assume that the fault rests with some personal failure or defect. Although such responses by either partner may be instinctual and protective in nature, they ultimately create greater harm to the relationship by ignoring the full depth and nature of the root issues. In learning to understand the roots of betrayal, it is vital that partners engage in a great deal of personal soul-searching. Self-honesty is a critical component in understanding the root causes of betrayal. It is important to delve into the deeper issues in order to determine how the problems can be fully and properly addressed. Otherwise, the tendency is to ignore or white-wash the more intense aspects of what really caused or allowed the option of betrayal.
The pain caused by betrayal brings many personal unresolved issues closer to the surface. Most people shy away from digging deeper into the emotions that arise, to do so can be incredibly uncomfortable and painful. First and foremost, the person who has been betrayed must accept that they did not cause the betrayal. If you have been betrayed, it is not your fault; it is not your responsibility. Although a partner may have pre-existing patterns that contribute to problematic issues, no spouse can cause the other partner to enter into an act of betrayal. It is important to let go of any martyr, victim, or self-blame role in order to truly move through the host of difficult emotions that arise.
There is no timetable for this process; it can leave the betrayed person feeling very raw and exposed. The spouse who committed the betrayal may also experience an upwelling of painful emotions. Some move through various emotional states and stages with ease, while others take months and even years to process the betrayal. In general, healing occurs more readily when an individual is willing to face emotions and thoughts in an open, nonjudgmental manner. During this stage, talking with a confidant or close friend can be very beneficial. It is important to engage in good self-care that includes proper nutrition and relaxation. Exercise and contact with nature can be extremely helpful in allowing emotions to surface and be released. Journaling in a private diary—allowing thoughts and feelings to arise without censure or judgment—can be deeply cathartic. It is important to allow the full range of emotions to arise—anger, rage, sadness, bitterness, regret, disappointment, fury, embarrassment, shame, grief, and sorrow are just a few of the painful responses to betrayal. “Raw” reactions can be normal, for there are few things in life that are as painful and torturous as betrayal.
After the painful emotions begin to subside, the resulting clarity allows for greater reflection and self-honesty. It is at this point that partners can begin to explore the unresolved patterns and issues that may have contributed to marital difficulties.
Again, accepting blame for the betrayer’s actions is counter-productive. Both the betrayer and the betrayed can utilize this next stage to understand the unhealthy issues that exist in the relationship. Self-honesty is critical to moving through this next stage. Without open and honest personal reflection, the problematic patterns that underlie the betrayal are not addressed or resolved.
Reaching out is essential after learning of a betrayal; a trusted friend, psychotherapist, or clergy member can offer essential support. We often strive to ignore painful, uncomfortable emotions, but avoidance only worsens the situation. When emotions are allowed to arise in a healthy manner, healing ultimately results. Although the pain of betrayal often feels intensely overwhelming, trust that healing will come with time. The raw pain will heal; with diligent effort and support, trust can be built again.