When betrayal strikes, everything seems to change; nothing seems untouched by the effects that create havoc in the relationship and the couple’s world at large. Healing from betrayal is no easy task, for an act of betrayal can cause significant trauma. While the mind reels from fears, worries, and confusion, the heart and spirit are affected by painful emotions such as sadness, anger, resentment, and shame.
Physiologically, the effects of betrayal can manifest in somatic issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleeplessness, and digestive issues. Each person is unique, and depending upon a partner’s history, it may feel as though stability and trust will never be regained. If one partner has a history that includes complex issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), abandonment, or prior betrayal issues, an act of betrayal may trigger any issues and fears that were not fully resolved.
Due to its wide-reaching effects, the process involved in healing from betrayal is often much like healing from grief. The five stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although full processed grief will ultimately result in complete acceptance, the first four stages do not necessarily occur in a linear fashion. When looking at these stages in regard to healing from betrayal, the betrayed person may cycle in and out of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. For example, just when the anger begins to subside, feelings of depression may leak back in. As the depression begins to lift, thoughts of denial may return: “I can’t believe this is happening to me! I can’t believe he (or she) would cheat on me . . . lie to me . . . ruin our marriage.” As with the grief, it is vital that the upwelling of emotions and thoughts be acknowledged. True healing results only by going through the stages as they arise. There are no shortcuts, no fast track, and no way to circumvent the intricate processes that each individual’s psyche needs to heal.
As outlined in my first article in this series, it is vital that the pain of betrayal be processed in order to move through the emotions and resounding effects of betrayal. As each human is unique, there is no timeline for this first important step; depending upon the person and the level of betrayal experienced, it can take weeks, months, or even years to move through the painful emotions that arise. True healing is impossible if the emotions and thoughts are ignored, marginalized, or left unattended. This step takes great courage, faith, and support; it is vital that both partners work together to move through the upheaval that often occurs when the betrayal comes to light. Apologies and promises will mean little until the pain—which includes agony, fear, and distrust—is given deep and appropriate attention.
The second article in the series on betrayal focused on understanding the root causes of betrayal. This step, too, is critical in the healing process. It is human nature to be fearful of that, which is not understood. Betrayal—regardless of the type—can cause a deep sense of mistrust to arise. The relationship may not feel at all safe until there is a deep and genuine understanding of what went awry. In truth, it is difficult to create a renewed sense of trust until there is a true belief that the offending behavior will change. By discussing and coming to understand why the betrayal occurred—and how it can be prevented in the future—the pathway to confidence and trust begins to unfold. This process can be slow and painstaking, and it requires that the betrayer take full responsibility for his or her actions. As this occurs, each partner can also strive to assess old behaviors, thought patterns, and habits that might impede a healthy relationship. When these processes are faced with honesty and heartfelt accountability, the relationship can become more stable and healthy.
When the first two aspects of the “post-betrayal” process are given conscious attention, a foundation for deep healing has been set. This type of strong foundation allows for a healing that is far deeper than the temporary fix of a perfunctory, “I am sorry. I will never do that again.” If the betrayed person has any doubt that the betrayer has reformed and will not relapse into further betrayals in the future, any sense of trust is likely to be superficial and transitory. As much as he or she might want to be convinced that all is well, suspicions may arise if the foundational work is not thorough and strong. The couple must work collaboratively to shore up the relationship. The betrayed person’s fears can be assuaged when the betrayer offers honest affirmations, proof of changed behavior, and a transparent lifestyle that can withstand the other partner’s open scrutiny. Knowing that one’s partner has truly reformed allows the relationship to be rebuilt from the ground up. Patience, dedication, and commitment to the relationship are key. True healing will take time, but the health of the relationship is worth every minute invested.
Many people want to believe that an apology will make an act of betrayal disappear. This is wishful thinking. Although a heartfelt apology is an essential element of the healing process, an apology itself is not enough. If the words, “I’m sorry” come without deep introspection of what caused the improper behavior and a true awareness of how to avoid repeating the action, the apology can be quite meaningless. When the offending person makes a committed effort to become more self-aware in order to change the negative behavior, the apology becomes truly meaningful. Faith is fostered when the betrayed party can feel and see that the betrayer is striving to regain and rebuild trust.
Most couples find tremendous support from reaching out for the guidance of a skilled psychotherapist, secular advisor, or religious counselor. A neutral, objective person can help each person listen to the other’s perspective without the damaging effects of blame, toxic emotions, or other unhealthy behaviors. For those not skilled in communicating effectively, the healing process often requires that a skilled professional be present to allow the healing to unfold with clarity and respect. As the partners learn to listen to and validate each other’s thoughts and emotions without blame or criticism, a sense of unity and trust results. When the healing process is honored with awareness and compassion, the relationship can become stronger than ever before. When partners become devoted to openly and honestly addressing whatever might arise in the course of the relationship, betrayal does not become an option. Honest, clear, and respectful communication is the best preventative prescription for the health of every relationship.
Learning how to hold steady, persevere, and grow through whatever challenges come in the course of the marriage takes incredible dedication. In reality, it takes a great deal of work—and heavy doses of forgiveness—to restore faith and trust after a betrayal has occurred. Marriages rocked by betrayal can be saved when both spouses are dedicated and committed to consciously engaging in the healing process. The journey to healing can’t be pushed or rushed; it must be allowed to unfold with compassion, honesty, and an abundance of loving patience.