Factors Contributing to Attachment Shame, Part 1

In the last several blog posts, we have looked at how betrayed partners experience shame. This shame occurs when betrayed partners feel the disconnection that betrayal brings, as well as when they allow themselves to reconnect with the person who betrayed them.

Looking at attachment shame helps us understand more about the dynamics of attachment ambivalence and the all-too-common dance of connection and disconnection. But it does not help us answer the core question that betrayed partners wrestle with: What does the betrayal say about me?

Often, betrayed partners are caught in the cycle of shame and attachment ambivalence. They ride the emotional rollercoaster from connection to disconnection and back; over and over without understanding what is happening. The shame is felt and the question, “What does it say about me?” is asked, but the underlying issues are rarely excavated, brought into awareness, and resolved.

Betrayed partners need help and support getting to the crux of this important question. They must face and explore their shame, with therapeutic assistance, if they wish to resolve the attachment dilemma and experience emotional and relational freedom. 

Below is an exploration of some of the issues that tend to drive the feelings of attachment shame that betrayed partners experience. Not all of these issues will apply to you, but it’s likely that you will identify with at least one or two. And that identification will help you better understand what drives your version of attachment shame so you can move toward resolving it.

Unhealthy or Toxic?

One of the things that drives attachment shame for betrayed partners is confusion about the difference between behavior that is troublesome and needs to change for the relationship to survive versus toxic behavior that is unlikely to change and will be costly to the betrayed partner’s emotional and mental health if the partner chooses to stay connected. One of the reasons betrayed partners feel shame about their desire for connection is that they are trying to determine if they are working to maintain a relationship that should end in the name of their own health and healing.

As a therapist, I have many years of experience working with betrayed partners who’ve faced behaviors all along the healthy/unhealthy continuum. However, most betrayed partners do not have the luxury of this experience to draw on as they try to assess their specific situation. They are looking at a sample size of one, their significant other, and trying to figure out what the prognosis for healing really is. As a result, betrayed partners often fear they are making the wrong decision and are staying with someone they really should leave. This doubt feeds the shame they feel when they allow themselves to reach for relational connection with the cheater. What if they are making the wrong decision? And if they are, what does this say about them?

Sadly, I believe this is an area where therapists are sometimes quite unhelpful. In the name of withholding judgment and supporting the dignity and inherent worth of each human being, a practice I fully support, therapists can, at times, leave betrayed partners stuck in confusion and uncertainty. There are times when clients need therapists to weigh in about what the realities of their situation are.

I sometimes see clients who are married to sex addicts blame every dysfunctional behavior the addict exhibits on the addiction. I have more than once pointed out to a client that the vast majority of the sex addicts do not exhibit behaviors X, Y, or Z in an effort to help them understand the scope of the issues in their relationship. I have also been very clear with clients about what things might change and what things are unlikely to change so they can make informed decisions about the relationship.

Betrayed partners sometimes need this type of help from the experts supporting them. Without it, they struggle to sort through the issues confronting them post-discovery and to gain a clear picture of their significant other and their relationship. It is only with the clarity that their support system can help them achieve that they begin to feel more confident in their decision to stay in or leave the relationship. Making an informed decision in this way also helps them move toward resolving the attachment shame they feel about staying or leaving.

In next week’s post, we will look at a second issue that impacts partner attachment shame – the issue of whether you are staying, or you are stuck.

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