Factors Contributing to Attachment Shame Part 2: Am I Staying Stuck or Am I Stuck?

In last week’s blog post we started to discuss the issues that frequently contribute to attachment shame for betrayed partners. The first issue we tackled is how to know if you are staying in a relationship that can become healthy and functional or if you need to leave the relationship for your own emotional health and well-being. This week we are going to look at a second key issue that can create attachment shame: staying as a choice or staying because you are stuck.

One of the most significant dynamics underlying the attachment shame betrayed partners experience is the issue of whether or not they are able to leave their relationship. When I was married to a sex addict, I spent many years going round and round stuck in an unhealthy cycle of pain, fear, anxiety and despair. Part of this was a lack of expert help and support. But part of this was about my own deep fears about leaving my relationship. The thought of leaving my marriage activated unhealed abandonment wounds from my family-of-origin, creating not just fear but abject terror inside of me. It took me a while to understand that I wasn’t staying just out of love for my spouse, or commitment to my marriage. I was staying largely out of fear about leaving. I wasn’t choosing to stay. I was stuck.

What I learned, as I entered therapy and began to work on my unhealed wounds and the fears they created, was that I was not going to be able to say a true yes to staying in my relationship until I was strong enough to leave my relationship if I needed to. Without the ability to leave, I was unable to say a truly empowered yes that was a full choice, rather than a passive fear-driven default position. 

The shame that partners feel about staying in their relationships is often connected to a question that they are asking themselves deep in the center of their hearts, “Am I able to leave?” For many partners, the answer, if they can get truly honest with themselves is no. They are too afraid of the unknown, there are too many complicating risk factors to consider (children, finances, family and friends, reputations etc.). 

For betrayed partners, attachment shame can stem from the awareness that they are not emotionally strong enough to leave their relationship. The reality is, there is no shame in not being able to leave a long-term relationship. Our attachments are incredibly strong and woven into the survival system in our bodies. Culturally, we treat our attachments carelessly and minimize their significance. However, anyone who has gone through the process of a divorce in an emotionally connected and present manner can tell you that it is like losing a limb. It is a heart-rending process of separation and loss and contemplating making that type of life-changing decision should never be minimized or made light of.

At the same time, when we are not strong enough to leave a relationship that has become deeply unhealthy for us, we compromise our own mental and emotional health in significant ways. We also create a relational dynamic with our partners that is no longer about a freely made choice and commitment to our significant other, but is now about fear, powerlessness and helplessness.

Betrayed partners who do not currently have the ego-strength to leave their relationship, need help and support to build their emotional strength and capacity to the point where they are able to make a true choice about whether they stay or leave the cheating partner. To truly say an empowered yes to rebuilding your relationship after betrayal, you have to have the clear knowledge inside of you that you could also leave if you needed to. Until then, attachment shame will often continue to surface born out of the underlying self-knowledge that remaining in the relationship is fear-based rather than freedom-based.

To build this ego-strength you need expert help and support from a therapist who can help you to resolve any unaddressed childhood trauma that may be playing a role in how you are attached to your partner. You need help weighing your options, thinking through timing, understanding what both choices will mean for you and coming to a truly empowered place of knowing that you are staying from a position of freedom and true choice, or making the decision to leave from this same place.

In our next post we will look at a third factor contributing to attachment shame: having unclear bottom lines.

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