Perhaps you have had the following experience. Your cheating partner comes to you and gives you, with sincere feeling, clear regret, and obvious remorse, a heartfelt apology for his behavior and the pain and damage it has caused. You see that he means it, you see that he is in pain about what he has done, you see that he is trying to repair the rupture he has caused. And you don’t care. You are unmoved and, even worse, you feel annoyed and angry. This can make you wonder what is wrong with you and lead you to feel like a cold-hearted bitch.
Rest easy, that is not the case. You are simply caught in one of the major dilemmas that betrayed partners face during the initial phases of recovery. The problem with all the “I’m sorry” statements and the reason they can leave you feeling irritated and then confused about why you are so irritated is that “I’m sorry” does not mean “I’m safe.”
Betrayal breaks the safety and trust in a relationship. To feel securely attached to your partner, you must be able to trust him and feel safe with him (emotionally, physically, etc.) When your partner has cheated on you and lied to you about it, often over a long period of time, the safety in your relationship is wiped out.
What we know from the research focused on healing attachment injuries is that safety can only be built back into a damaged relationship through repeated experiences of safe, meaningful emotional connection. Your partner must earn your trust over time by repeatedly telling the truth and behaving openly and honestly. Until that happens, you cannot fully feel safe with him.
So, when your cheating partner says “I’m sorry,” it can leave you feeling cold and confused. Because it’s not what you need from him. You need him to be sorry and to show you his authentic guilt and remorse about what he has done. And then you need him to re-earn your trust.
It is not that “I’m sorry” is not important. It is. However, it does not solve the problem sitting in the center of the relationship: you don’t trust him, and you don’t feel safe with him. For you to truly heal, to truly reconnect and rebuild the relationship, you must feel safe with your significant other. That won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen because your partner continually tells you how sorry he is.
If you have heard your cheating partner say “I’m sorry” and felt confused about why this did not do more to help you feel better, you are normal. “I’m sorry” does not mean “I’m safe.” And for things to truly change for you and the relationship, you need safety restored.
Next week we are going to look at the three stages of rebuilding safety after betrayal, so stay tuned.