You’ve been duped. Perhaps your partner strayed from the relationship. Perhaps it was you who strayed. Either way, your romantic life is not progressing as you anticipated, and pulling the plug seems more appealing by the minute.
After all, a breakup would help end the pain, heartbreak, and cuts that only seem to get deeper with time.
However, it’s possible to heal not only your relationship with your partner but also your relationship with yourself.
The Exemplification of Betrayal
Consider Anne and Jacob. After 16 years of marriage, Anne learned that Jacob had affairs with more than a dozen other women, two of which lasted for over a year both emotionally and sexually. When Anne discovered that her picture-perfect, fantasy life only existed in her head, she was crushed, and her self-worth plummeted.
Or think about a young couple in their early 20s, Berkeley and Dean. After months of Berkeley acting distant, Dean stumbled upon flirtatious texts between her and an ex-boyfriend, the same man who Berkeley assured him was not a threat to their relationship. Dean had adored the relationship he thought he had with Berkeley, till he realized he let himself get attached to someone who took advantage of such vulnerability.
Betrayal is not contained to the sexual and romantic spheres. Tanya discovered that Chris had been hiding the fact that their house was on the brink of repossession and more than $500,000 in debt, a discovery that wreaked havoc on nearly every aspect of her existence. She went from feeling secure in her life of abundance to losing the person and place meant to keep her safe.
A shared understanding of what betrayal means to each partner is a useful place to start if your relationship is going to survive it. Couples tend to fixate on specific and the most dramatic details of what transpired rather than the context, why it happened, what was missing in their relationship, and what they want to create between them now.
Experiencing that the same person who built a world with you is the one who also lit the match to burn it to the ground is usually what leaves the biggest wound.
Examples of types of betrayals range from sexual infidelity to financial concealment to breaching agreements. All instances of betrayal, however, have one thing in common: they expose an unbalanced relational dynamic in which one party—the one who was betrayed—lived a false reality because the other—the betrayer—opted to act for themselves instead of as a unit.
Relationships are built on a foundation of trust, agreements, and expectations about what is acceptable and what is not, with the goal of preserving the relationship. When someone who is following those norms believes their partner is doing the same, only to find out they are not, trust and the very core of the relationship is shattered, leaving both parties adrift with no point with which to anchor.
Withholding facts that would have influenced your partner to possibly make different choices is a type of manipulation that deprives them of one of the most fundamental freedoms we have as human beings. Intentionally creating a false reality, whether through outright lying or deceptive omission, can have devastating effects on the well-being of each person involved.
We have little control over whether we’ll develop cancer or lose a parent in the coming year. We cannot choose the next president or control the paths of hurricanes on our own. But shouldn’t we all have the freedom and facts to decide who, if anyone, we want to share our bodies and beds with, and establish the boundaries we rely on for security with those who won’t trespass on us?
What now? the Betrayed
There are two fundamental realities to take into account if you’ve been betrayed.
Recognize that you might be going through trauma. The discovery of treachery can, as psychologist and researcher Stan Tatkin has noted, force the brain to resort to a mentality of fear and uncertainty, which requires the safety-seeking process of re-aligning, examining the new facts, and trying to make sense of the world again. One of the best ways to anticipate the future is to understand the past; thus, trauma from betrayal can result in a fixation on what happened in an effort to feel safe and in control. You deserve to heal and regain a sense of equilibrium, both of which can be attained through the guidance of a specialist.
Second, you would need to advocate that the dynamics of your relationship alter. You decide and negotiate the conditions for reentry if your partner broke the terms of your arrangement. These should focus more on creating and rebuilding trust. Working towards creating a comfortable environment, and rebuilding trust is more important than policing the betrayer.
What now? the Betrayer
If you were the betrayer consider the following.
If you want to remain with your partner, you must re-examine the relationship, advisably under the supervision of experts who are familiar with your history. Sessions do not need to be a confessional where you disclose the graphic details of your transgression but rather focused on helping your partner in the process of making sense of their grief and healing, understanding what was awry in the relationship, and building trust, as well as your own healing and recovery.
Second, after the discovery, your relationship will feel unbalanced for a while, and that’s because it is. Your partner has just become aware of the unfairness resulting from your dishonesty and disempowering cheating. They might be closed off and self-protective while demanding a certain level of openness and reliability from you as they reconcile what they learn with what they had previously believed. Expect the imbalance, work on the healing, and re-establishing that intimacy is secure.
Does the payoff merit the work?
Not all relationships are meant to withstand betrayal. Those that do have a chance are the ones that reframe their interpersonal dynamics around the ideas of honesty, fairness, and healthy communication. They are able to work together to create a new story, a new identity, and a new way of being by sorting through the destruction of the past.