It’s one of the most common reasons couples seek counselling: betrayal. In spite of our intuition nudging us when our partner is behaving strangely and might be straying, the shock of discovering them cheating is usually as traumatic as it is brutal and can be near impossible to recover from.
All at once, the betrayed person is stripped of safety and thrown into a reality where there’s no escape from their worst assumptions. They’re sent reeling into fearfulness and the ultimate rejection: they’re not wanted. Someone else has taken their place.
Couples who have the courage to confront the grave wounds created by an affair and who seek counselling, often ask about their odds for survival. The potential for recovery depends on the depth and breadth of betrayal that the betrayed person is wrestling. And whether the affair is indeed over.
12 Factors that Count Towards the Severity of Betrayal Include:
- Whether the affair was a once-off or long-term liaison.
- Whether the other person/people were known to the betrayed person.
- The degree of intimacy that was shared with the other person.
- Whether the betrayer had/has feelings for the other person.
- Whether the betrayal was spontaneous or pre-meditated and planned.
- The timing of the affair in terms of the circumstances and hardships in the couple’s life at the time eg. pregnancy, financial pressures, new baby, illness, depression, conflict, emotional and physical distance, grief etc.
- The context for the affair – a colleague at work, online dating sites, live porn, trips away from home, a brothel, in one’s home and so on.
- Whether this the first-time, or a repeat betrayal.
- How much the betrayed person was put at risk by the betrayer in terms of their welfare, privacy, protection and dignity.
- The degree and frequency of lies during the affair.
- The degree and frequency of lies after the affair was discovered and
- Who knew about the affair/s.
The above factors can be applied to a scale ranging from moderate through to extremely severe and can help determine the brevity of betrayal that the betrayed person is likely to experience. Similar to experiencing a death, the betrayed person will typically navigate the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, which can take years, if not a lifetime, to process.
Acceptance of the traumatic intrusion of an affair requires that the ego backs down for both the cheater the betrayed person. Finding meaning in suffering demands a frank review of the state of the relationship and its cracks. A relationship that is prone to neglect develops cavernous voids which can become filled with toxic vices that masquerade as ideal solutions – such as an undercover lover.
The Recovery Process: For the Cheater
- Take responsibility. Come clean with all your shame – if further deception is discovered you will sabotage your chances of rekindling trust and respect.
- Identify the feelings and meanings that your partner is internalising. Do the same for yourself.
- Empathise and show genuine remorse and vulnerability.
- Understand and have patience for your partner’s anger, rage and contempt and hold the space for them to vent.
- Understand the cost to your partner’s self-esteem, safety and self worth. Do the same for yourself.
- Answer your partner’s questions. Again and again.
- Be proactive in finding out how your partner is doing and be open to discuss the situation.
- Share your understanding of what motivated you to stray from the relationship. How did you feel about yourself and what were the payoffs for you when you were cheating?
- Be transparent with your communication devices. Be an open book.
- Keep your word on the smallest details going forward. Don’t over promise and under-deliver.
- Seek individual counselling and start the process of self-forgiveness. Guilt is self punishing and gets you nowhere in the long-run.
- Develop your personal code of honour – one that you will hold yourself to and share your pledge with your partner.
- If you know you want to restore your relationship, show your partner – in ways that matter to them – that they are wanted.
The Recovery Process: For the Person Betrayed
- Share your feelings and the meaning you are deriving, with your partner.
- Be explicit and realistic about what you need to work through the trauma. (Perhaps you need time apart to reflect and heal).
- Watch out for misery attracting misery. Manage your thoughts and avoid spiralling into irrational thinking and behaviour which could be a convenient distraction from the work that’s needed.
- Give yourself time to find your truth. Try not to make knee-jerk decisions from a place of fear, hurt and pride.
- Avoid making the affair about the other man or woman. Focus on what is within your control ie. you, your reactions and your relationship – the relative strengths, merits, weaknesses and voids.
- Allow the cheater time to process their shame – it takes time for defensiveness to give way to self-awareness so that the vulnerability of true remorse can be experienced and shown.
- Consider your negating patterns in relationships and the work that’s required to raise your self esteem.
- Have boundaries on your own need for control. Endless sleuthing and interrogating is fear-based and is seldom helpful. Your partner is far more likely to step towards you with their truth when you let go of control.
- Self-soothe with positive self-talk and enabling behaviour – don’t take responsibility for your partner’s behaviour. Rather take responsibility for your own denial and absence (be it mental, emotional or physical) from the relationship.
Working on Finding Meaning Together
- Consider the pillars of Trust, Hope, Respect and Love that still remain in the wake of the betrayal. If there is evidence of just one of these pillars, lean on that pillar while you tend to the pillars that have been pillaged.
- Commit to counselling and use the safe place to set boundaries to navigate the unspeakable.
- Remember the whole person in your partner, not just the behaviour that lead to this.
- Have limits in how you navigate this trauma. Avoid adding fuel to the flame by piling on unfinished business and dragging up the dirt.
- Keep your circles of privacy and only engage with third parties who can be discrete, objective, supportive and helpful. Remember, this is your relationship. Don’t feel pressured by other people and their agendas.
- Share your ideas and wants for mending/developing a safety net of trust in the relationship.
Finally, in my book, depending on the severity of the betrayal, there can indeed be life after an affair. If you have the courage and will to prize open the fist of suffering, you’ll likely gain the meaning and understanding that lies behind the betrayal. You might even find that hand contains the ingredients the relationship was missing all along.
Once you understand how this trauma came to be, you’ll no longer feel like the victim or the underdog or the persecuted. Finding meaning in this moment paves the way for forgiveness to be granted and tenderness to be recultivated. Then you can truly decide if the relationship is worth keeping and restoring.
“People are always fascinated by infidelity because, in the end – whether we’ve had direct experience or not – there’s part of you that knows there’s absolutely no more piercing betrayal. People are undone by it.” (Junot Diaz)