Beyond trauma and betrayal

Romantic love is contradictory; we long for the security and permanence of attachment at the same time that we yearn for novelty, adventure, and freedom. It is in the midst of this challenge to reconcile our conflicting pulls and to manage love’s dilemmas that affairs tend to take place. Scheinkman

Sometimes honesty and transparency backfire. It is a very modern, ‘democratic’ even puritanical view that intimacy requires transparency and absolute honesty and that affairs are a symptom of a relationship dysfunction requiring treatment. One hundred years ago there was a clear distinction between the domestic and the erotic in the dominant western cultures.

My concern here is with those discovered or disclosed illicit or non-sanctioned relationships that one or both partners experience as betrayal.

Despite the cultural approval of monogamy and disapproval of infidelity, men’s infidelity continues at the same rate and women’s infidelity continues to increase. So there is more at play here than a symptom of monogamy’s discontent.

Scheinkman’s article in Family Process (Volume 44 2005) provides a balanced view and no easy answers:

The crisis can be productive if it leads the couple to recognize that there are problems in their relationship and prompts them to focus on these problems, or if it leads to a better understanding about matters that had not been fully addressed. It is also helpful if it leads the one having the affair to break it off and focus on repairing the damage, rebuilding trust, and looking inside the marriage. However, it is important to keep in mind that sometimes the revelation of an affair is destructive because it can lead to inconsolable despair, the breakup of the relationship, violence, and in extreme cases, death by suicide or homicide.

Esther Perel is a refreshing voice in this conversation. She describes female infidelity as a statement of empowerment and rebellion. It still carries a death sentence in many countries:

We have affairs not because we are looking for another person but because we are looking for another version of ourselves. We live two lives. We are different with different people.

Am I the last to know?

Since most extramarital intercourse goes undetected we can conclude the majority of us are neither mind readers, psychics nor cheating street smart. We’re more like trusting wombats asleep in our cosy little hole until one fine day we’re blown out of the ground by discovering an unimagined, unthinkable betrayal.
Nothing can really prepare us for the pain, no more than child birth education classes can represent birthing. The map is not the territory.

And yet betrayal is a birth and a death of sorts, an awakening.
The after sensations of infidelity persist in body and mind. However, that is hard to read when you don’t suspect it. Something like looking for a word in the dictionary without knowing the letter it starts with. True, there are people whose body involuntarily melts or cringes when they catch a scent or a song and unexpectedly recall an affair they finished decades ago. It’s a giveaway sign that we might have read earlier if we knew where to feel/look for it.
Some unfaithful build inner shrines to those poignant memories and worship at them in secret and in bed with their betrayed partner. But if we haven’t got the first letter, the first direction, the opening stanza, how do we know where to start? Now you see it, now you don’t.

Truth is – the betrayed are the last to know.

That’s the point of ‘clandestine’ and ‘secret’. The whole charade is designed to keep the betrayed in the dark and thus postpone accountability.

We lie because it works and we have choice.

Gender differences

There are significant gender differences in jealousy induced interrogations and denials.

One research project found that if their partner discovered that they were involved with someone else, (a) men more so than women deny any emotional involvement with the extra-pair partner, whereas (b) women more so than men deny any sexual involvement with the extra-pair partner.’

There is also a gender difference in perceptions of harm. Men are especially bothered by evidence of their partner’s sexual infidelity, whereas women are troubled more by evidence of emotional infidelity.

How people react to an affair in their life

I have no words to explain the deep regret I feel. I have thrown away my whole life, all that I treasured, all that I was blessed to have. I discarded the most important person in the world to me. My wife, Monique, was my best friend, my soul mate and the love of my life.

Words can’t describe the pain I feel when I look into Monique’s eyes. Her eyes reflect the disgust, the hurt and the gut-wrenching betrayal that I have brought to her life. I feel far beneath any level of humankind. Every day, I cry tears of shame and my mind aches with an intensity that no medicine can cure.

In her book ‘Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment’, Emily Brown (2001, 88) describes the implicit bargain the couple often makes: “OK I’ll obsess, you apologize, then I’ll forgive you and then we can move on and not really have to handle this mess”. However, what follows is “But you haven’t apologized enough yet.” Thus the system stays balanced and change impossible. It may be at this point that a couple arrives in the therapist’s office.

Brown (2001, 89) suggests a spouse’s obsession with the affair provides another place for the couple to hide. “It is much easier for the spouse to focus on the drama of the affair than to face all the issues and underlying emotions that have been avoided so far.”
The straying partner also is tempted to avoid the hard work ahead and in the beginning appeasing the spouse can seem easier. Indeed this may have been the pattern in place before the affair, now further heightened and made more rigid by the rupture in safety and trust. Obsession and premature apology can be considered opposite ends on a continuum, both promising safety. In reality both are places to hide – neither is safe. Jane Langmai.

Emily Brown divides affairs into five types:

  1. The Conflict Avoidance Affair
  2. The Intimacy Avoidance Affair
  3. The Sexual Addiction Affair
  4. The Split Self Affair
  5. The Exit Affair

The reactions of the betraying partner, the betrayed and the third party to discovery and exposure, can all be recognized as shame, and as the grieving of a healthy response to loss. And as blame, which is a lose-lose response to loss. And as relief from no longer being besieged by doubt and fear. And as renewed efforts to end the affair and then hide its re-commencement all over again. That may be a form of intoxication. It is a triangular interaction pattern.

The stages of grief were mapped by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and each may be re-visited many times in the 9 to 48 months it can take to recover, with individual variations in intensity and duration. These stages are Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Testing, Acceptance.

There are plenty of exceptions to this pattern with many people coming through bereavement without passing any of these road signs! Recent research debunks the whole idea but I think it still has its uses.

Remember, it’s only a map. Remember, if the territory differs from the map – the map is wrong. You can expect initial reactions of shock, denial and then anger from all parties to the affair. They are unavoidable. I’d be worried if they didn’t appear, and particularly if anger didn’t show up and stay awhile.

Clinical depression can be solidified by unresolved anger or disempowered rage as well as by chronic undifferentiated unhappiness. It may be a factor in the origin of the affair.
Initial reactions differ from later reactions, informed by the consequences of the first but the process of grieving is ongoing unless clinical depression or learned helplessness set in or it is complicated traumatic grief.

Unexpressed or stage managed reactions by both betrayer and betrayed may be an indication of what will turn up later or of what is being wilfully ignored or minimized now. You might get clues to this undertow by observing the standard eye movement directions that most follow when accessing unspoken responses. It is based on the NLP model. Here are free articles on NLP.

For both, a related concern is how should I challenge incomplete disclosure of details of an affair or unfinished expressions of reactions to disclosure?

Genuineness (rather than ingenuity), transparency, tenderness and kindness are what most want, so generally give that in a tough love framework in order to get that back.

Should I fight to get him/her back

Who wants a relationship to be based on pity? asks Arnold Lazarus in his book ‘Marital Myths Revisited’. If your partner wants to leave you there is no point in degrading yourself by begging. He contrasts the hang on and fight versus the let them go approach to disclosure of an affair.

He suggested to Vicki, a client shattered by her husband’s telling her that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce – that she give permission for he and his girl friend to move in together for three months. Lazarus was confident that unencumbered togetherness would allow the romance to die a natural death. Vicki ignored his advice and put up a fight for him. That drove the lovers even closer together and confirmed Gerald’s choice to leave.

By contrast, when Elizabeth’s husband revealed his undying and eternal devotion to another woman, without rancour she said quietly with obvious feeling, I’m really going to miss you! The husband realized his folly and capitulated – a bit too neat for me but in every situation that kind of calm, self-validation is vital to self-respect whatever the outcome.

Unsanctioned, observed and continuing

Because of the ease and low cost of surveillance technology, hacking email accounts and installing web cams – together with detailed phone accounts and itemized credit card and bank statements, a determined person can obtain intimate knowledge of their partner’s affair day by day. This is even easier if both husband and wife run a business together.

In one instance, a client maintained a blog of the events of her partner’s affair, to which the other woman angrily contributed and countered with her own blog. Many others read the daily posts. The betraying partner’s workplace read these blogs and gave him hell each morning. The affair continued in this public glare.

More troubling was one who by discrete surveillance found that the affair partner, so like themselves in many ways, became a surrogate for the relationship they wish they had with their partner, the cheater. It grew beyond wanting to be the other woman to empathizing with the other woman’s experience of her husband.

Edwig read the weekly PI report, saw video highlights of clandestine meetings in an apartment owned by a mutual friend, and played over and over again the telephone conversations between her partner and his lover. Each moment was as if it was hers. She could not bear to bring their marriage to a crisis in case it crashed her hopes. It hovered at the event horizon.

Edwig waited, hoping that the qualities of his affair would grow in her marriage. There was little evidence of that happening, yet the surveillance continued because: 1. she had become a clandestine partner to her husband’s affair hoping he would bring it back home, and 2. she was unwilling to walk away without having done everything in her power to mend an irretrievable situation.

Why did this happen to me?

Why do affairs happen? In the beginning the best answers are about as sensible as why a fire storm destroys two houses on either side but not the one in the middle. Making sense of our collective madness is part of the work during recovery.

There may be little meaning in the biology of sex and that is possibly why some adulterers insist it was not about sex. It is more meaningful than sex. Some argue entitlement to uncommitted or meaningless sex or to the adventure of swinging or to special friends outside of marriage. Sometimes it is a self-medication of depression, anxiety or trauma. Sometimes it is a compulsion to connect, which the felon can only steal sexually like a hungry hit and run.

A predatory violation of trust is normalized in cinema, novels and scandal sheets. Something made so ordinary by its over exposure is also known as a dangerous game at best and at worst an irreparable tragedy in the making. Yet we still do it to ourselves, to our nearest and dearest believing our extreme care and discretion will make it harmless and that our secrets will be safe. Evidence to the contrary abounds in support pages all over the web.

How did this happen to me?

In my experience the why of it is less useful than how it happened?
How questions bring workable answers and directions for growth. Knowing how a good person overcame the internal prohibitions and the guilt of stealing forbidden fruit whilst knowingly violating the trust of a valued primary relationship to which they return with this devastating secret under wraps planning to do it again, is the beginning of making a map of the other’s inner world.

‘How could you do that’ and ‘what were you thinking’ translates into ‘what was your inner process, what did you think and feel, what practical and psychological steps do you take to prepare yourself for it and then to cover it up after and repeat the process after sleeping with me’.

Full and honest answers to those sort of questions can then be followed by, ‘please signal me when you feel or think or act like that again or find yourself walking down that path again, even if you are just about to do it again, call me, talk to me, we’re in this together’.

Then the secret inner world becomes shared and a collaborative venture can begin. Until then, it’s pictionary without the clues.
Some committed relationships have little practice in sustaining a soft eye to eye connection through intimate conversation and tender holding, both when the going is easy and when the going is tough and rough. Many struggle to fearlessly share and willingly explore their inner world, of how they make sense of their lives and how they navigate its ambiguities.

Healthy, intimate, communication requires both a willingness to be vulnerable and a differentiated sense of self. Intimacy can not move without these two limbs. With only one leg you can hop with two you can walk, run and climb. Marriages lacking that hip joint are exposed to a number of problems in which an affair, for instance, is a symptom of habitual disjunctions and disconnections and not a cause of them.

Each watches their own movie of a relationship entirely unrelated to the other’s movie and defends their version as the truth rather than dispassionately watching the other’s movie to learn about their map. It can be shocking when the other movie starts playing in your own private theatre. An affair is a big wake up call in the dress circle.

One path to healing for the betrayed

We tend to say the ugly, blaming stuff for a while but ultimately it is not sustainable: ‘You’ve destroyed my life’ or ‘You have betrayed me and You have to make it right’ or ‘I didn’t ask for this to happen to Me’ or ‘I will never forgive you for this’ or ‘I will make you pay, storm your work place, rant and rage at your family,’ etc..
Blame can be another round of the intimacy-avoiding criticize-defend tango.

It tends to leave the betrayed in continuing, impotent rage and permit the betrayer to wallow in ill defined limits or to retaliate with counter-accusations, such as ‘this wouldn’t have happened if you had or had not done … I would never have done it if you had given me what I asked,’ etc…

Having read the latter statements on this page, one of my clients dared not say in a session, ‘this wouldn’t have happened if you had not been working so hard’ knowing that I would jump on it. Nevertheless he managed to imply it during the session in a tangential way – ‘oh, you know it happened when Kim was very busy with a career and not at home much.’

Jaw dropping denials of accountability like these are common in the early stages.

Another told me (in a session that arose from the affair having been discovered by their partner) that he sent all of my fidelity pages to his special friend and both felt it was very persuasive. They understood that an affair was the wrong way to let their connection develop. They cooled it but then months later continued into an affair, his third. I wondered aloud if this kind of discouraging web information is now part of affair courtship?

Here are four gifts of Islamic and Jewish wisdom, heart won by their authors, that can save one from the terminal sleep or the sleepless anguish of stuck and unforgiven:

  1. The moment we accept what troubles we’re given, the door will open
  2. No matter how wounded, we retain the power to choose our attitude to the new circumstances we have joined.
  3. There is an unbelievable amount of vitality in a broken heart. Rabbi Zalman.
  4. There are three major hurdles to overcome in crisis: dealing with pain, attitude, and cleaning up the heart.

At some time for some of us these truths may be affirmed in naming and claiming the injury as our own. This is a big ask when we are in a lot of pain early in the process of discovery and grieving. When the time is right you may say to yourself and your partner some part of the following:

I am betrayed, wounded to the core. I am now responsible for my own healing. The energy I sense through the cracks in my broken heart is my own vitality and I choose how and with whom to share it. It starts with healing me and that will take time as well. I don’t know how long, but until I begin to feel safe and secure with you, I am unwilling to be as open and vulnerable with you as I have been. Take back the wounding knife you gave me – take it back now … I pray you will do everything in your power to find peace with what you have done and omitted to do. You are responsible for your own healing and for deciding the apology and amends you are willing to share with me. Together we can heal this mess and re-work our relationship. Alone we cannot. Since no one ever showed us, we don’t know how to do this but we can find out. We can ask, we can read, we can seek help. We are not the only ones to have gone though this. You and I can build as secure a relationship as anyone can in this crazy world, one in which we both learn anew how to love and respect each other. I accept that you may not choose to do any of this and I may come to a place where I also do not choose us, no matter how much more grief that may give me.

With or without you, impossible as it might seem now, I will grow to forgive you and myself and maybe one day, grow to thank you for shattering the beliefs I held unexamined for so long. With these gifts I grow stronger and clearer, more fearless and tender. In a sense I have nothing left to lose. So, for the time being let us be kind to each other and begin the healing.

However you construct your own intention, these affirmations begin building new vows out of the wreckage of the original promises that founded your relationship. There are plenty of ideas for the betrayer to show contrition, apology and to rebuild trust in the pages that follow.

Every situation is unique so I doubt the value of hard and fast recipes, one size fits all. The aftermath of betrayal is a little easier to negotiate if we commit to where the responsibility for healing and for boundary setting lies; where the boundary of my responsibility ends and yours begins and where we have shared responsibilities. Even in the shared areas, we are each 100% responsible for our own contribution to the joint effort.
No one can force contrition, heartfelt apology, healing, change or forgiveness or make it happen in a specific time frame or conform to a specific formula like the manifesto above.

One path of healing for the betrayer

Grief is the physical, emotional, somatic, cognitive and spiritual response to actual or threatened loss of a person, thing or place to which we are emotionally attached. We grieve because we are biologically willed to attach. John Bowlby

The strayer may be grieving the loss of a love at the same time as both repairing the damage and re-entering the primary relationship.
When the straying partner appears to be blocking an open disclosure of the affair’s timing and events, it may be that they are being blocked by unexpressed grief rather than deliberately withholding the controversial information about the affair. Both can be true also.

They may believe they have no right to openly mourn the loss of their affair partner, the presence of whom led to the devastation in primary relationship.

They may believe sharing their grief is selfish and the details will only cause more pain to their partner. They often express deep shame and guilt about the damage but are unable to allow themselves to admit the depth of love they have lost in saying goodbye to the affair partner.

This is one of the tougher areas of working with infidelity for the couple and for the couple therapist.

The betrayed partner does not want to become a grief counsellor at home. At the same time they want to create a safe harbour for the straying partner to find home again. At the same time strongly addressing and correcting wrong doings and rebuilding trust.
This requires excellent boundaries and clear thinking if it is to work for both.

It requires considerable generosity of the strayer and the betrayed.

It cannot be undertaken if the affair is unfinished.

It is a matter of balance as well, when weeping and wailing a lost affair is just self-indulgence or self-pity. The balance point is where the betrayer’s grief does not rebuild psychological intimacy in the primary relationship.

Remember the earlier quote, ‘There are three major hurdles to overcome in crisis: dealing with pain, attitude, and cleaning up the heart.’ The attitude required here is of acknowledgment and rebuilding, a balance between looking back and forward, applied in the present moment.

Opening the windows and doors into the affair rebuilds psychological intimacy. The betrayed partner can then reclaim what was hidden in the sanctuary of the affair. The strayer acknowledging and to a degree openly grieving the loss of a (forbidden) love is part of that process.

This presupposes the straying partner is willing to admit the affair was not just about sex or companionship but something deeper and more meaningful.

No matter how trivially one describes an affair, it is still an attachment.

There is always some kind of emotional bonding including over the internet, with sex workers and in a one night stand.

Trivializing attachment denies one’s humanity. ‘We are biological willed to attach’.

Openly grieving the loss, to a degree, also demonstrates the extent to which the affair is finished both externally and internally.
In most cases grief can only proceed to resolution when there is no possible bargain with the end of the affair.

Betrayed women are usually more devastated by the story of psychological intimacy and love than betrayed men.

Betrayed men tend to be more devastated by their partner’s sexual infidelity.

Grief and mourning is a little valued process in our fast culture. Many people report to me that friends and colleagues allow them about two weeks to grieve the loss of a love, family pet, death of a child, parent or partner. After that no-one asks or they switch off when you touch on the subject.

Grieving the end of an affair slams up against the duplicitous judgment of a society that both condemns and condones affairs. You get very little support for helping your partner to grieve the loss of a love that betrayed you. You can expect to be condemned for giving them air time at all.

Very few partners and even fewer strayers can deal with this grief at the same time as mending the relationship.

However, as difficult as it is to open the doors to that mourning, doing so may rebuild trust in a profound way. At the same time it risks revealing the depth of the love and thus the loss. That is a two edged sword.

One of my couples realized that if they didn’t know the whole story they couldn’t work out where their marriage had gone off course and thus could not help to put it back on the right track. The straying partner felt they did not deserve to receive this kind of care and close attention to their loss when they had caused the other so much more.

The betrayed partner wondered, ‘Will you ever feel that way about me? How did we lose that love we once felt for each other? Will you ever be able to forget about them? How much is that going to cost you?’

At the same time the betrayed partner is grieving the loss of a love and secure attachment, which they thought they had in their partner until they realized the depth of their betrayal.

To grieve together is a huge challenge

It pulls for compassion, connection and attachment.

Yet, with no guarantee that the primary relationship will survive. There are no guarantees.

However, only a generous and safe harbour could possibly contain so much grief.

That is life changing.

We need at least one place in life where we can be known, found, heard, where we can be ourselves and can lean into the support of that place. It is an existential question. Most people need that and chose their partner for that place. A safe haven.

Trauma is a violation of human connection. Attachment theory is a theory of trauma – a secure attachment is the ultimate antidote for healing. Trauma survivors are often trying to fight two battles at the same time – they are fighting the cycle of distress in their relationships and are also fighting the echoes of traumatic events that are constantly evoked in an intimate relationship.