As a culture, how we live within our relationships and what we believe about our relationships is incongruent with how our bodily-based attachment systems actually function. We treat our attachments as much more ‘optional’ than they really are at the level of our basic biology.
Our common belief is that if the relationship isn’t working for you and isn’t healthy for you then you should leave it. Whether that is a relationship with your parents, your best friend, your family or your partner, we treat our attachments cavalierly and do not respect the deep intertwining that happens inside of us when we are connected to the significant others in our lives. We act as though leaving is much easier and much less costly than it actually is. But as anyone who has gone through a divorce can tell you, it’s a bit like losing a limb. It feels like being emotionally and relationally rent in two and it takes some serious time and work to heal from.
Part of the attachment shame that partners experience comes from living within a culture that denies the significance of their attachments and the level of negative impact that results from severing them. Partners who leave their relationships are encouraged by friends and family to ‘get out there’ and start looking for a new partner before they have even filed divorce papers. Space to process what has happened, grieve and mourn the loss of someone you have lived, loved, dreamed and perhaps parented with is not provided or even acknowledged as something you should do. Instead, we have the idea that we get over the loss of our attachments by replacing them and so people are pushed toward a new relationship before they have ever really absorbed or understood what the loss of their current relationship means for them.
This cultural shaming of betrayed partners who choose to stay in their relationships (or to at least try to stay for a while as they sort out the best route forward) layers on top of the attachment shame that partners already feel. It reinforces and deepens shame about their desire to maintain connection with their significant other. A desire that is normal, a basic element of our human nature and part of our primary survival strategies.
It is fascinating to me that at a time when we know and understand more about the importance of our attachment systems and the negative implications of ruptured attachments than we ever have before, at the exact same time our ability to sustain our attachments is decreasing alarmingly. Not only that but the value we place on our attachments in our thinking and beliefs is diminishing as well.
Betrayed partners are caught in this confusion. Betrayed partners need support that validates the importance of their relationships and validates the longings and desires that they have to maintain their connection and rebuild a new life with the person they love. They need education about how their attachment systems function and understanding about the challenges inherent in making a decision to end a long-term relationship. They need help grieving. Whether that is grieving the relationship they thought they had, so that they can consider building a new relationship with their current partner or grieving the loss of that relationship as it ends. Regardless, partner need permission and time and space to be broken-hearted and to process the loss, pain and sadness that they are experiencing.
Most of all, partners need support that helps them to honor the truth that their body is telling them about how important their significant other really is. This type of supportive understanding from therapists, friends, pastors, and family members can go a long way to help alleviate the attachment shame that the betrayed partner so frequently feels.