When betrayed partners first enter treatment they are often mid-trauma. There is no post-traumatic stress; instead, they are dealing with ongoing traumatic stress wrought by newly discovered past betrayals, currently unfolding betrayals, and the very real fear of future discoveries and betrayals.
Research shows very clearly that the antidote for relational distress resulting from attachment injuries is meaningful, secure connection (what researchers call secure bonding). Secure bonding heals wounds and restores safety within the relationship. However, and here is the kicker, the very thing that is most effective in helping couples repair the trauma resulting from betrayal is the one thing that is almost impossible to achieve at the beginning of recovery. This is because the betrayal is often ongoing or at a minimum no sustained period of abstinence from the problematic behaviors has been attained and trust is still absent from the relationship.
Betrayed partners do not need researchers to tell them this. They know it in their core. Betrayed partners are frequently incredibly stymied and frustrated during early recovery because they cannot get what they need no matter how hard they try. Even if they can’t articulate it, they instinctively know that they will not be able to get “better,” however that is being defined, until the unfaithful individual is able to meet them at a deep emotional level, to hear and empathize with their pain, and to provide a meaningful amends in a way that restores safety, security, and trust to the relationship.
The problem is that even if all the secrets have been told and the cheating partner is wholeheartedly committed to getting help and changing, there is still a period of time where the intention to change rubs up against the problematic sexual behavior – which has a life of its own until the cheating partner develops the tools and resources needed to arrest it. Sex addicts in particular must learn how to be sober and face life on life’s terms without their primary coping and emotional regulatory tool (i.e., compulsive sex).
This takes time. And the time that it takes creates an emotional no man’s land for betrayed partners. They need safety and security restored, and they naturally look to their significant other to provide what they need emotionally so they can begin to feel the traumatic stress of the attachment injuries subside. This is often a confusing process, because even though their spouse may be doing everything he is supposed to be doing – going to 12-step meetings, attending therapy, participating in group therapy, talking to his sponsor, being honest and accountable with his time, etc. – it still doesn’t feel a whole lot better for the partner.
Let’s be clear, these actions do improve things and they do help betrayed partners feel better at some level. Betrayed partners whose spouses are not taking these actions can tell you how terribly bad that feels and how much they wish they were seeing those behaviors. However, at the deeper emotional level, where the attachment injury has broken the heart and torn the relationship in two, these actions do not heal that.
This is confusing for cheating partners, too. If they have chosen recovery, they are likely making huge efforts in one of the hardest, most demanding processes of their lives. Recovery often becomes a part-time job that they are juggling along with work and family responsibilities, while also trying to navigate the incredible fallout and consequences of their infidelity. They are working diligently, and it’s confusing when their efforts don’t make a bigger difference in the pain level and relational distress of their partner.
Meanwhile, betrayed partners often complain that when they bring up their ongoing emotional distress, the unfaithful partner recites a litany of all the different actions he is taking as part of recovery. “I’m going to three 12-step meetings a week, I’m participating in individual and group therapy, I’m working on step four with my sponsor,” etc. This list inevitably frustrates the betrayed partner, who knows about these behaviors yet somehow needs more. Both individuals are stuck in no man’s land – the betrayed partner reeling with unmet needs for safety and trust, the cheating partner feeling powerless and unable to make it better.
Next week we will talk about how to weather this very challenging phase in the journey of recovery.