To Stay or Leave After Cheating: Earning a New Relationship

Several months after divorcing my sexually addicted spouse, I was talking to the clinical supervisor overseeing my Residency to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. We were discussing the process of me deciding to leave my marriage and what led to that ending. 

My supervisor said to me, “You earned your way out of your marriage.” 

I cocked my head and looked at her, surprised by her choice of words. “What do you mean?” I asked. 

“You looked at your own issues within the relationship,” she said. “You changed patterns and behaviors that were not serving you or the relationship and started doing things differently.” Then she paused and looked at me thoughtfully,  “When you grow in health and become more equipped and able to participate in your relationship, you either earn a new relationship with your partner because he joins you and cleans up his end of things too, or you earn your way out of the relationship because it becomes clear that he’s not going to join you and it’s not a relationship you can stay in when you’re healthy. Either way, you’ve earned your way into a new relationship by changing your own behavior instead of waiting for your partner to change his.”

I had never heard the process that I had gone through described in this way. All I knew was that once I was in recovery, staying in my relationship and then leaving my relationship were two of the hardest things I’d ever done. They were also two of the things I was most proud of because I had done them both well and from a place of health. I had allowed myself to move through a growth process that I thought at the time I might not survive but that ended up being a source of complete transformation and freedom. 

When I found real help and was able to move into recovery, I was so sick of circling the drain as I engaged in the familiar unhealthy behaviors that I had grown accustomed to that I was finally willing to face whatever truths I needed to face in order to become healthy myself. Even if those new truths were scary (they were) or hard (they were) or required that I change myself in significant ways (they did). 

I came to a place where I decided that I had to save myself, even if that meant leaving the marriage. Up to that point, I had wanted the relationship more than I wanted myself. I had been willing to stay activated, confused, and compromised in order to stay in the relationship. I kept waiting for my spouse to get well so that I could get well, too, but without losing him. I wanted the relationship to survive because I felt like I needed the relationship if I hoped to emotionally survive myself. 

However, I finally came to a point where I realized that I was losing myself completely to the unhealthy dynamics created by living with an actively sexually addicted partner who wasn’t willing to make changes. 

There is an ancient spiritual saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It was when I finally hit bottom that I realized I had to do things differently. To continue with what I was doing was just costing me too much. So, I found an experienced therapist who was able to provide real support and direction as I entered my process of recovery and healing. I was ready, and my teacher showed up. 

My journey of recovery began with two huge and very scary leaps into the unknown. The first was a decision to save myself even if it cost me my relationship. Now, as you will see over the coming weeks, I was in no way actually ready to leave my relationship when I made this commitment. I was still scared to death of that possibility. However, I did commit to my own healing, regardless of what happened. 

The second big leap was that I decided to separate my choices and behaviors from my spouse’s choices and behaviors. Up to that point, I’d been caught in the cycle of action and reaction that all betrayed partners know so well. Trapped in a swirl of trauma symptoms, I’d been reeling from one betrayal to the next for years, never able to get my feet under me for a long enough time that I could figure out what to do. Now, by some grace, I’d found a moment where my feet were on solid ground, and I decided that I was done letting my spouse determine my reality. I decided that I was going to emotionally step back far enough to figure out how to respond to what was happening instead of automatically reacting to my trauma. I was going to figure out who I was and how I wanted to handle things. I was going to quit giving my power away to him and his addiction. I was going to figure out what healthy meant for me, and I was going to do that

These two key decisions were what opened up the way for me to ‘earn my way out of my marriage,’ as my supervisor so eloquently put it. They launched me on a path of healing and freedom.

Many of the blogs I’ve written here at PartnerHope have been about how to stay in your relationship and heal both individually and as a couple. However, for many betrayed partners staying in the relationship is not the healthiest option or even a possible option. Either way, whether you are staying or leaving, beginning to operate from a place of ‘earning your way to a new relationship’ by changing the patterns and behaviors that are not serving you well, regardless of what your significant other is doing, will open up new possibilities for healing and change. 

Over the next few weeks I am going to share with you some of the key issues that I had to wrestle with – patterns and behaviors I had to change and lessons I learned as I went through my healing process. 

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