One of the most common questions I hear from betrayed partners who have decided to try and stay in the relationship with the cheater is this:
“What does it say about me?”
This question – and it is always worded in exactly this way – is so revealing. Hidden within it are other questions. Betrayed partners are asking, “What does it say about me that I am staying with someone who treated me this way? Who cheated on me and lied to me for years? Is something wrong with me? Am I sick? Codependent? Weak? If I were healthy, wouldn’t I leave him or her?”
At the heart of these questions is often the feeling of shame. This shame latches on to how the partner feels about themselves. But not just how they feel about themselves as a parent, employee, sibling or friend. It attaches to their hearts and taints their most significant relational longings, desires, needs, hopes and wants with self-doubt, critical judgment and insecurity. This shame haunts the betrayed partner, dogging their steps and making them question their decisions about the relationship over and over again.
I call this attachment shame because it is a very specific type of shame felt by betrayed partners. It is shame about their experience of connection and disconnection and their ongoing attachment to and love for the person who hurt them and violated their trust.
Attachment shame is part of the attachment ambivalence we discussed in the past two posts. And like attachment ambivalence, attachment shame surfaces around both the experience of relational connection and disconnection equally, though for different reasons.
In addition, attachment shame is not just felt by partners who are staying in their relationship but also by partners who have made the choice to leave. Often, for partners who are leaving there is not as much push/pull relationally with the cheater (though for some individuals there can be). Instead the attachment shame is about the failure of the relationship.
These betrayed partners are asking the exact same question, “What does it say about me?” but instead of it being focused on their choice to stay, the question is being asked about the ending and loss of their relationship. They are asking, “What does it say about me that I stayed so long with someone who was cheating and lying to me? What does it say about me that my relationship has failed? What does it say about me that my partner cheated on me? What does is say about me that this is not my first relationship with an addict or a cheater?” They are wondering if they tried hard enough, if doing x would have made a difference, if they have made the right decision for their children, if they have done the right thing. These and many other questions haunt the partner who has chosen to leave the relationship as they feel attachment shame connected to the loss of their most significant attachment.
In next week’s post, we are going to look at the way that attachment shame manifests when both relational disconnection from and reconnection to the cheating partner are experienced.