Betrayal is an enormous threat to the safety and security of any important relationship. The rupture of the attachment bond in a couple can often be long lasting and can be viewed both emotionally and neurologically as trauma.
Couples often come to therapy when a betrayal has either been discovered or revealed. Feelings range from anger, to confusion, to shame, to fear, to grief. Sometimes couples question if there is the possibility of hope. Also, sometimes couples have tried to deal with the betrayal on their own for a while, believing that there has been forgiveness, hoping that they could go “back to normal”, and finding that nothing feels normal.
Betrayal impacts our brain in such a way that we are forced to re-evaluate history. Partners are left with the questions: who am I? who are we? how do we understand our history together now?
Couples can work through and recover from the painful injury of betrayal/ infidelity with a skilled couples therapist. They have the best chance if:
…the “betrayer” shows regret and remorse
…there is full transparency
…both partners do want to get back into the relationship
Barney and Gloria a couple for 18 years, both 45, with two teenage children came to couples therapy about a year after Gloria discovered Barney’s sexual affair with a work colleague. Barney, a successful executive had long been devoted to his career in order to ensure financial stability for his family, traveling frequently and working long hours.
Gloria, a stay at home mom, after mutual agreement with Barney, had put her career on hold to raise their children. Gloria discovered the affair after finding unfamiliar hotel charges on the family credit card. Initially, Barney had denied the affair. Gloria had tried to calm her suspicions but was unable to, and began monitoring Barney’s charges, checking his text messages and finally found the evidence she was looking for. At this point, Barney confessed and promised Gloria that it was only one time on a business trip and expressed regret and asked her to forgive him. They came into therapy when Barney could no longer tolerate Gloria’s questions, rage and lashing out at him. He would be apologetic at first, but then retreated and/or lashed out at her himself. Gloria was in a constant cycle of trying to go back to the way it had been, feeling numb and finding herself more and more angry and inconsolable.
In the first phase of couples therapy, the reality of the betrayal as trauma to the betrayed partner must be addressed. This trauma, like any other, cannot be erased, and must be allowed to metabolize in its own time. Although it is temporary (hopefully), the “betrayer” has no power to negotiate.
Barney had to deal with his own feelings of shame, regret and guilt and express his commitment to getting back into the relationship. He had to put whatever feelings he had of loneliness, anger or resentment towards Gloria on hold.
The actual truth is that the “betrayer”, the cause of the trauma, eventually can also be the most important source of healing the relationship. Having the most important person in your life be the source of repair from a deep and genuine place is extremely healing for most people. The next phase of treatment is focused on resolution of the betrayal. Barney had to accept that he needed to be fully transparent with Gloria, realizing that she needed that in order to avoid any re-traumatization. Barney needed to be genuinely supportive of Gloria’s need to know and understand what had happened. Transparency also became a template for both of them in the next phase of therapy.
Although these phases are not always linear the third phase of therapy involves a deepening of the understanding of each other on both partner’s parts. A willingness of the betrayed partner to allow the “betrayer” to express their own feelings towards their partner and/or the relationship. A willingness of both partners to address their culpability in the evolution of their relationship. In Gloria’s case, she had to allow Barney to tell her of his loneliness, to express his long buried feelings of coming “last” after the children, and his own feelings of fear of growing older and being less and less vital. Gloria also was able to express her envy of Barney and his career success despite her devotion to her children, as well as her feelings of coming in as a “poor second” to his career.
She was able to deepen her understanding of the parts of Barney who needed support for his devotion to his work, while Barney realized his tendency to bury himself in work as a strategy of dealing with his own feelings of loneliness, rather than turning to Gloria. Both partners realized how much they had withheld from each other in the name of protecting each other. Each person had to learn to protect the parts of their partners that were the most vulnerable. They worked on ways to work together to come up with different strategies to do that.
Following a period of deepening understanding, real repair began to take hold. Gloria and Barney celebrated their relational work together with a weekend “get a way” without their children for the first time in many years.
After couples therapy, the relationship is not what it was before. It is something newly created by the couple in their work together. Remembering that they are in each other’s care is essential to the continuing health of the relationship.
I am constantly touched and inspired by people’s ability to work together creatively and collaboratively, with love, to make their relationship more and more securely functioning even with the traumatic experience of betrayal.