When your world has been rocked by betrayal, it may feel as though nothing makes sense. Betrayal causes deep unrest because the very foundation of the relationship comes into serious question. Not only does the revelation of the betrayal caused deep anger and pain, but it can make the entire relationship feel unsafe and farce-like.
If you have been betrayed, you might find yourself thinking over and over again, “How could this have happened to me? It doesn’t make sense. If I could only understand…” As the thoughts and feelings spiral, it’s easy to get increasingly fearful and confused. It is vital to allow the various emotions to arise and to acknowledge that this very individual process cannot be hurried. Each person feels and expresses the pain of betrayal in a unique way that has no set tempo or schedule. Although the agonizing emotions may feel unrelenting and even permanent, the distress will lessen when given caring attention and time.
The mind becomes clearer as the shock and raw, intense emotional pain begins to subside. At this point, the betrayed party often becomes eager to understand the causes of the betrayal—and how to prevent it from occurring again. In fact, a key aspect in healing from betrayal rests upon being able to understand the “how and why” of the betrayal. As the underpinnings of the betrayal are acknowledged and digested, a sense of understanding arises. Although the betrayed person may continue to feel deeply hurt and angry, the willingness to listen and understand can open the pathway to deeper healing.
Betrayal is so emotionally charged because the act of betrayal violates a couple’s core agreement—the promise to care for each other and keep each other safe. In relationships, our emotional bonds rest upon the bedrock of knowing that our trust will not be violated. When betrayal occurs—whether through actions of infidelity, dishonesty, or abuse—the resulting feelings of instability and unsafety are profoundly painful and disorienting. The mind begins to buzz with fearful, anxious thoughts. The tape often sounds like this, “How will I ever be able to trust again? What is wrong with me? How can I get past this and move on?” The cloud of betrayal can loom large and dark over the relationship, and the person who has been betrayed can feel hopeless and helpless until the various aspects of the betrayal are integrated and understood.
Moving forward after betrayal takes time. Simply put, the psyche cannot quickly assimilate the full impact of the betrayal. It is extremely difficult to comprehend the trauma that results from betrayal; although visible wounds may not be present, the psyche feels intense, incomprehensible pain. On the deepest of levels, the betrayed person has come face-to-face with the horror of knowing that their primary relationship is unsafe. The shock can be devastating and feel overwhelming. The marriage may feel like it has ended; in truth, life as it was did end. The only hope is to understand, learn, forgive, and commit with your partner to rebuilding the marriage from the foundation up.
An act of betrayal can occur when someone engages in an unhealthy behavior that damages the bonds of trust. The most damaging betrayals occur as a result of passive-aggressive actions or overtly deceitful behaviors that ultimately harm the sense of safety in the relationship. In the healthiest of marriages, the thought of betrayal is an anathema. Even during the roughest of times, spouses in a strong marriage simply do not entertain the possibility of betrayal. Instead, challenges are met with open communication, respectful dialogue, and the desire to take positive actions to resolve problematic issues. Betrayals often occur as a result of longstanding unresolved issues, poor communication, and thoughtless actions.
If you have been betrayed, the first step in understanding betrayal is to accept the truth that you are not to blame; you are not responsible for the actions of your spouse. The actual act of betrayal rests solely on the shoulders of the betrayer. Indeed, an act of betrayal occurs because it is made an option in the mind of the betrayer. The person who has been betrayed did not cause or force the betrayer to act out. Whether the motivation arises consciously or unconsciously, a betrayal does not occur by happenstance.
The next move in understanding betrayal involves an in-depth look at what went wrong in the marriage. This can be a difficult phase, for it requires determined, respectful introspection. This step requires a heartfelt journey into deep issues such as the history of the relationship, personal history, including trauma and wounds, and even family of origin history. Ideally, both partners mutually agree to engage in the work that is necessary to understand the root causes of the betrayal. In proceeding forward together, it is important to be as open and reflective as possible. Although it might be tempting to take a “shame or blame” attitude, the goal is to take a thorough, unbiased look at how the relationship went awry. When feelings are hurt and sensitivity is high, it is even more critical that each person speak and listen with a respectful, nonjudgmental attitude. An outside source of support can be very helpful in sorting through the details, so do not hesitate to consult with a psychotherapist, pastor, or other competent professional.
Initially, the focus may be on the betrayer’s missteps, yet it is ultimately beneficial to slow down to take a look at both sides of the relationship. As noted, it is important to emphasize the betrayed person did not cause or create the act of betrayal; simply put, there is no excuse for betrayal. However, out of service to the relationship as a whole, both spouses can benefit by noticing those areas of the relationship that require attention. For example, if the betrayer acted out as a result of feeling unimportant or neglected, it is important that such feelings be aired openly. In doing so, the other spouse is given the opportunity to express love and affection in ways that honor the needs of the spouse. Understanding can only come through continued heartfelt sharing, listening, processing, and learning.
Although the tendency might be to “blame” or “shame” the betrayer, such attitudes increase defensiveness and hurt. By adopting an open, curious attitude that is focused on exploring and understanding the causes of the betrayal, communication between the partners is deepened. The ability to really hear the other person is increased when “I” statements based upon feelings are used.
For example, a husband might tell his wife, “My thoughts constantly wander to how this happened to us. I felt abandoned when you were at work every night until 10:00 p.m. I feel devastated and crushed knowing that you were with another man during some of those nights. I feel so hurt and wonder if I’ll ever be able to trust again.” Not having to rush to her own defense, the wife might be able to respond by saying, “I didn’t know you felt abandoned by me, but that helps me understand where things started to go wrong. Looking back, I felt hurt when it seemed that you were no longer attracted to me. I tried to get your attention. I bought pretty lingerie, and it hurt when you didn’t notice. So, I guess I put my energy into work instead of us. Then, when ‘Joe’ in the office came along and told me how pretty I was, I felt wanted. I’m not excusing what I did; it’s hurt our relationship so much. Iwant to learn how to communicate my feelings and needs to you better.” Although this level of communication might sound implausible, it is absolutely possible to create conversations of this depth and honesty. Ideally, the communication continues to deepen until each spouse has a better understanding of the layers of unspoken hurts and miscommunications that led up to the betrayal.
Well-developed communication skills are essential to making progress. Although it can be incredibly difficult at times, it is vital that each partner speak—and listen—with honesty and an open heart. As I often tell couples, “If you are forming a response to your partner’s words even as they speak, you are not truly listening with an open heart or open mind.” In situations where one partner is taking mental notes to be used later as ammunition, the level of communication deteriorates. True listening requires 100-percent attention and focus. There is much to be learned by attending to the words, nuances, and body language of a partner; this is the essence of constructive listening. Introspective, respectful communication can be the most important tool in the processing and understanding of the betrayal.
Communication tends to worsen during difficult and stressful times, and betrayal is often one of the most stress-inducing challenges a couple will ever face. If efforts to communicate turn into no-win battles, it is important to take a “time out” to get centered. It takes an incredible amount of energy, patience, and time to digest and understand the myriad elements of any betrayal. As the process is not easy, many couples benefit from marriage therapy, and concurrent individual therapy for one or both partners is often very helpful. Understanding and healing can be deepened when an unbiased professional offers guidance and tips on productive communication strategies.
Simply put, betrayal hurts in the worst of ways. An act of betrayal creates wounds in the areas where we are most sensitive and deeply vulnerable. Betrayal generates a flood of feelings including fear, anger, hurt, and insecurity. Once the heavier emotions are processed, the journey into understanding is possible. As progress is made and understanding leads to awareness and clarity, deeper healing becomes possible. If you have been betrayed, allow yourself time to move forward. With sensitive care and gentle attention, the rawness and aches will ease over time. Allow yourself the time you need to move forward with attention to your needs.