The vast majority of the betrayed partners I have worked with over the years have an anxious attachment style, as discussed in my previous post. There are, however, some who have an avoidant attachment style (a topic for another blog post at another time), and occasionally I see the unicorn of a securely attached partner. (Securely attached betrayed partners tend to leave addicts and cheaters quickly, so their marriages to such individuals are usually quite short. They determine that they cannot stay with someone who is not emotionally available to them, so they move on and look for someone who is emotionally available.) But most betrayed partners, for whatever reason, are anxiously attached.
What this means is that the threat of losing connection is deeply emotionally distressing. This is true for everyone, but those with anxious attachment feel it even more acutely. Because of this, they spin into internal and sometimes external chaos any time they experience loss of connection and threat to their relationship – especially as a result of cheating. Remember, those with an anxious attachment style tend to respond to disconnection by working really hard at restoring the bond and reconnecting. For betrayed partners, attempts to reconnect and restore emotional security with their cheating partners can go on for months or even years.
There is good news and bad news about this.
Here’s the good news. Because anxious attachers are persistent and dogged, their relationships often do heal. They agitate for change, find resources, demand accountability, set boundaries, and expect both themselves and their cheating partner to grow and mature on behalf of the relationship. This can result in couples who enter recovery together and heal the wounds of betrayal, creating a brand-new marriage or relationship. I have seen this happen countless times, and I consider the anxious attacher the unsung hero of this dynamic because it is often the anxious attacher’s push for change, especially in the beginning, that energizes the transformation of the couple.
Here’s the bad news. Anxious attachers can also stay way too long in toxic relationships because they find it incredibly hard to leave. They sometimes divorce on paper while never truly emotionally divorcing. Or before they leave their current relationship, they find a new partner to cling to. They use the new partner to medicate the fears and anxieties they have about leaving and are only able to leave one relationship by beginning another. In such cases, the new relationship tends to be just as dysfunctional as the old relationship.
For me, getting to the place (emotionally) where I was able to (physically) separate from my spouse, I had to do serious work around learning how to handle attachment loss. I had to develop what therapists call ‘ego strength’ so I could see myself as separate from my significant other and worthy of secure connection with a faithful, honest partner. I had to grow my sense of self-worth to the point that I knew I would be OK without my relationship. I had to develop ‘earned secure attachment,’ where I learned to be securely attached in my relationship with myself so my relationships with others could also change. This took lots of therapy, lots of support from others, and a newfound willingness to jump off the edge of the cliff and trust that I would survive and grow in positive ways.
And that is exactly what happened.
Yes, I did spend a couple of weeks having panic attacks and being surprised that I was still alive. But then that all stopped. I don’t remember if it stopped gradually or if it was all at once. I just remember that it did stop and that it stopped fairly soon. I sat in my therapist’s office and told her that I felt good and I didn’t understand why I felt so good. Shouldn’t I feel really terrible since I had just separated? She looked at me and said, “It can feel pretty good to leave hell.” I looked back at her in surprise and said, “Oh, yeah.”
At that time, Alanis Morrissette’s song Thank You was playing all the time on the radio. There is a line in that song that goes, “The moment I jumped off of it was the moment I touched down.” I remember hearing that line and thinking, that is what is happening. I jumped off and instead of falling forever through darkness, I landed and I’m fine.
Now, lest you think that is the neat and tidy end of the story, allow me to inform you that I had to go through this process all over again when it came time to file for divorce. Minus the panic attacks and anxiety. I did not have those, but I still had fear, grief and loss and sadness.
If you see yourself reflected in what I’ve written here, then please know you are in good company. Many, many betrayed partners wrestle with these dynamics. My hope is that this information and my story of walking through this process give you words for what you are experiencing, along with a sense of where and how you will need to grow in order to move into a different way of doing life and relationships.
Next week we will continue our discussion of the ways in which attachment loss shows up for betrayed partners.