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Healing from the trauma of betrayal

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(Continued from last edition)

It is also quite typical for a questioning spouse to have had his or her reality denied for years by the unfaithful partner who insists that he or she is not cheating, that he or she really did need to stay at work until midnight, that he or she is not being different or distant, and that the worried partner is just being “paranoid, mistrustful, and unfair.” In this way, betrayed spouses are made over time to feel as if they are the problem, as if their emotional instability is the issue, and they blame themselves.{{more}} Eventually, faced with a web of lies and well-crafted defenses, they begin to doubt their own feelings and intuition. Their thoughts and emotions are denied so the cheater can continue to cheat; and as we have long known from work with abused children, being made to feel wrong when you are right – having your accurate reality denied – is a solid foundation upon which much trauma is built.

Is it any wonder that when betrayed spouses finally find out they’ve been right all along they sometimes look like the crazy one? The simple fact is this: as survivors of interpersonal trauma, it’s perfectly natural for the betrayed person to respond with rage, tearfulness, or any other emotion when triggered by something as simple and possibly innocuous as seeing a bathing suit ad or a lingerie billboard, watching a film scene that mirrors their loss of faith in the loved one, or having their partner again return home unexpectedly late. It doesn’t matter if the infidelity is in the past; betrayed spouses report that they are readily triggered into feelings that mirror the pain they experienced when the cheating had just occurred. Until relationship trust is re-established, which can often take a year or longer, betrayed spouses are likely to remain on this emotional rollercoaster – labile, mistrustful, angry, lost, etc.

Sadly, betrayed partners are usually angry not only with their spouse but with themselves as well. Some, having become used to living with a physically present, but inconsistent, unavailable, and ultimately dishonest partner, can turn to alcohol, overeating, compulsive exercise, spending, or other potentially self-destructive behaviours. Sometimes betrayed spouses will “cheat back” in retaliation, only to hate themselves for doing it. It’s not unusual for betrayed spouses, even before finding out what’s really been going on, to develop these dependencies as a way to fulfill their own unmet emotional needs and to soothe a deeply felt sense of frustration – often without knowing the definitive source of their unhappiness. After all, the betrayed partner is frequently the “last to know,” as the closer you are to someone (and the more dependent you are), the harder it is to see that person’s faults and interpret their actions as negative. While people with distance and objectivity can often very easily spot a cheater, the betrayed spouse may struggle to see what’s happening.

These betrayed partners, spouses, and loved ones have good reason to feel angry, mistrustful, hurt, overwhelmed, and confused. At the very least, these individuals need validation for their feelings, education and support to move forward, empathy toward how their life has been disrupted by the trauma of betrayal, and help processing the shame of being cheated on, feeling not good enough, etc. Many betrayed spouses also need guidance with day-to-day issues such as managing pain and rage, setting appropriate boundaries, approaching potential health care issues, and dealing with their constant desire to question the cheater in detail about his or her past and current behaviours.

When betrayed individuals choose to remain in the relationship, as most often they do, it is usually quite some time before they are able to reestablish real trust and comfort with their spouse – if ever. That said, if the cheating partner is committed to behavioural change, honesty, and regaining personal integrity, then the redevelopment of trust becomes much more likely. When a betrayed spouse joins the cheater in his or her efforts at growth by also engaging in a process of support, education, and self-examination, it will more quickly and effectively facilitate healing for the couple. However, some betrayed partners do ultimately conclude that the violation they have experienced is greater than their desire to remain in the relationship. For these individuals, trust cannot be restored. Not every broken relationship can be fixed.

BA Steffens and RL Rennie, “The Traumatic Nature of Disclosure for Wives of Sexual Addicts,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 13 : 247-67.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.