In my previous post, we discussed the fact that the road to a new healthy relationship includes many moments where relational disconnection and loss are experienced and acutely felt. As betrayed partners, we are already dealing with mountains of loss from the discovery of sexual betrayal. We have lost our safety, as we can no longer trust our partner. We have lost our past, as it is no longer what we thought it was. We have lost our present, as it has been hijacked by pain and uncertainty. We have even lost the future we thought we were headed toward. We have lost ourselves, the partner we thought we knew, and the relationship we thought we had.
As a result of these losses, we can unconsciously begin to operate in ways that try to prevent the experience of more loss. We can skip setting boundaries because we don’t want to experience more disconnection if the request is not honored. We can have a huge fight instead of expressing a need because it feels easier to fight than to risk unresponsiveness in a calm conversation. We can talk endlessly about the betrayal to the cheater rather than making space for the cheater to take action and move toward us, because what if the space that is created when we stop talking remains empty?
These loss-prevention strategies are not deliberate; they are largely unconscious. But remember, we are extremely intentional creatures, and our unconscious behaviors, while outside our awareness, are still intentional, meaning we do them for a reason. As betrayed partners, we are often trying with these behaviors to avoid the pain of more relational disconnection and loss because we are already overwhelmed with loss.
Often, when I see betrayed partners who are stuck and not moving forward in their healing process, this issue is at the core of their stuckness. The unconscious fear of experiencing more relational loss prevents them from learning and implementing the new healthy behaviors and skills that will move them toward what they really want. The paradox is that staying stuck keeps them in a state of chronic, acute loss.
Stated simply, the losses that we experience when we stay preoccupied with leaving get wrapped into the betrayal trauma vortex. As a result, they feel like they are part of the experience of betrayal trauma, and we can lose sight of the fact that these losses do not have to keep piling up and that our reactivity is actually contributing to the chronic state of loss in which we are trapped. Moreover, this state of chronic loss has despair and hopelessness at its core – the feeling that there is no way out and this is just what happens in the aftermath of betrayal. Many betrayed partners get stuck here. Many build a house and start living here. This is not necessary.
This type of loss is not the same as the loss that is experienced when we begin to move toward health and safety. The losses that we experience when we move toward healing are different because they involve two key factors: risk and hope.
When we ask our significant other to meet a need we have, we are taking a risk. For example, if we ask the cheater to work with a qualified therapist to provide us with therapeutic disclosure, we are bravely risking. We have determined that this is part of what we need to heal. We have determined that we need to rebuild the relationship from a foundation of honesty and trust, and we have risked sharing this need with our partner and asking for it to be met. Let me say it another way: We have risked presenting the partner who just cheated and lied to us, sometimes for years on end, with our need, and we have asked this person who has been highly unreliable and selfish to come through for us and meet this need. This is risky! This is brave! This takes courage!
And our partner might say no. Our partner might say yes but continue to lie. Our partner might fight with us about it. Our partner might get angry and withdraw. All of these less than ideal responses, if they occur, will be experienced by us as another relational loss. To move toward our own healing and to persevere with our cheating partner in ways that could potentially rebuild our relationship, we must take risk after risk after risk. And each risk we take will hold the potential for more relational loss if it is not met well by our cheating partner.
On the plus side, each of the risks we take will also involve hope. Each request we make is an act of braving hope in the face of betrayal. We risk and we brave the hope that our cheating partner will do the work required to respond well, that our cheating partner will try, no matter how clumsily, to move toward us instead of away. Every time loss is risked, there is hope for a better outcome with renewed trust and intimacy.
Because these new healthy behaviors and relational patterns involve risk, they are difficult to embark upon. As such, it can be harder to move forward in this way than it is to stay stuck in chronic loss. As a result, often without even knowing they are doing it, betrayed partners may avoid the new healthy behaviors.
Unfortunately, therapists sometimes do not realize what is happening here. I hear therapists at times express frustration with a betrayed partner who is unwilling to set a boundary or unwilling to express a need or opinion despite all kinds of work and encouragement on the part of the therapist. Often, the therapist has missed the fear of relational loss and disconnection that is driving the partner’s reluctance to move into healthier behaviors. In such cases, this fear must be named and explored and acknowledged. The roots of this fear may spread all the way back to childhood neglect and abandonment. If so, this too must be addressed.
Here is the good news. When we are able to name this fear of loss, it loses some of its power. Then, with lots of support, information, encouragement, and guidance, we can begin to take small risks within our relationship. Each time the risk results in a relational loss, we can learn to feel it, process it, and determine what it means for us, and then we can move forward. And of course, nothing risked, nothing won. In other words, these risks can also move our relationship forward as the cheater learns how to respond and move closer relationally. Typically, when both partners are committed to the process of healing, the risks we take produce more gain than loss.
Now, if you are starting to get a little irritated thinking about risking and hoping, and you are feeling that it is unfair for you to have to do such hard work when it is your cheating partner who created all the damage, allow me to say that you are not the only one taking risks. The cheater’s path in recovery is one big relational risk after another. Risk of being honest. Risk of facing your pain. Risk of facing themselves and their failures. Risk of learning to communicate. Risk of dealing with feelings (both their own and yours). Your cheating partner also must risk relational losses, disconnection, and pain along the path of recovery. In fact, much of the cheater’s recovery is learning to move out of self-preserving avoidance into the risk of relational connection. So, the burden for risking loss is not yours alone; it is your partner’s as well, and the responsibility for leading the charge lies with them.
If you are a betrayed partner who feels stuck and you’ve been struggling to set boundaries and use your most effective voice, take some time to consider whether fear of relational loss is underneath those struggles. If you’ve been preoccupied with leaving the relationship, take time to consider why it feels easier to think about leaving than to risk the smaller relational losses that may accompany new and healthier relational patterns.
It is this process of learning to risk by asking for what you need and tolerating the relational losses that sometimes occur that grows your sense of strength, power, and selfhood. When you experience the ability to hold onto your reality and your boundaries despite your cheating partner’s flailing around in anger or manipulation, you will feel something new and different growing inside of yourself. A power to be who you are, to live from your true self, and to operate in your relationship based on what you are truly worth. This new way of being, this new freedom to be who you were created to be, will ultimately impact not just your relationship with your cheating partner but your relationship with everyone around you and, most importantly of all, your relationship with yourself.