In the last two posts we’ve been looking at the complex issues that partners face when deciding whether to stay or leave the relationship with the cheater. Instead of focusing on the outcome – staying or leaving – I’m encouraging us to instead focus on how we make the decision. We want to decide to stay or leave from a place of emotional health rather than fear, shame, or confusion.
To help us with that, we have looked at the need for clarity about our reality and what is best for us, as well as the need for freedom from fear that keeps us stuck or propels us into choices that are not good for us long-term.
Today, we are going to going to wrap up our conversation by examining the role that shame can play in our decision to stay or leave and the need for freedom from shame in order to fully own our choice.
I started these posts by talking about witnessing betrayed partners telling each other what to do about their relationships on social media. This is so common that we have made a rule in our Hope After Betrayal Facebook group that prohibits anyone from telling someone else whether they should stay or leave.
I’m always curious about patterns and what shapes them. As I’ve watched this advice-giving behavior and seen how frequently it occurs, I’ve done some thinking about what this pattern is about. My conclusion at this point (and I reserve the right to change my mind) is that this is largely about shame.
For betrayed partners, the issue of staying or leaving the cheater creates a no-win shame bind. Shame raises it head and attaches itself to us if we stay, and shame gloms on and shadows us if we leave. Trying to get free from shame to make a clear choice can be like trying to scrape tar off from our skin – it sticks and sticks and sticks.
Shame If We Stay
In our culture, we have an incredibly powerful deeply embedded belief that if someone cheats on us, we must leave them. Our dignity and self-respect can only stay intact if we sever relationship and walk away. Supporting this black and white idea, are accompanying beliefs such as, “Once a cheater, always a cheater,” or, “You can never trust someone again after they cheat.”
This incredibly un-nuanced position is so widely held that it is often not even questioned. I have had several individuals enroll in our Braving Hope coaching program and tell me that they didn’t know that staying with the cheater was an option or that healing the relationship was possible. Only by sitting in the group with other betrayed partners who have chosen to stay with their cheating partner and are successfully repairing and healing their relationships has this option become known to them.
The first time this happened, it took me by surprise. As someone who has spent over 20 years helping dozens upon dozens of couples heal and thrive after betrayal, it was a shock to see how limiting, blinding, and shaming this culture story about leaving can be.
The belief that we must leave the cheater robs us of choice. It robs us of possibility. It robs us of relationship. It shames us for valuing our attachment to the person who we have chosen to do life with. It devalues our children, our extended family and friend networks all of whom are impacted by the health and wellbeing of our primary relationship.
Betrayed partners who choose to stay with the cheater and repair the relationship grapple with the impacts of this cultural shaming. They feel like they are weak, pathetic, have no self-respect or dignity. The pervasiveness of this cultural shaming robs partners of their reality. They lose awareness and connection to their own courage and strength as they brave hope after betrayal, rebuild trust, learn new ways of communicating, extend into emotional vulnerability with the person who hurt them, co-create a new sex life, co-parent through the crisis, and re-imagine a new future together.
This is hard work and I have unbounded respect for the couples I work with who engage in this process of healing. Particularly because they are swimming against and through cultural shaming to claim what they believe is possible.
We can only choose to stay in our relationship if we release ourselves from the burden of this black and white, assumptive, judgmental cultural story.
The story that tells us we must leave after cheating ignores our attachment systems and devalues the potential that we as humans have to redeem ourselves even after we make egregious mistakes that harm those we love. It limits possibility and treats relationships cavalierly. It serves no one and we need to collectively join together to leave this harmful belief behind.
Shame If We Leave
As with any good shame bind, leaving does not remove shame from our path, it simply changes the shape and messaging that we experience. Now the shame attaches to our sense of relational possibility raising questions about our worthiness and ability to enjoy healthy fulfilling romantic relationships.
After all, our relationship has “failed.”
That is the cultural terminology and belief about marriages and long-term relationships that terminate – the relationship has failed and by default the two individuals who make up the relationship have failed as well.
Now we feel shame about our inability to make the relationship work. We wonder if some lack in us caused our partner to cheat or to develop a sexual addiction. We grapple with what others will think about our divorce or uncoupling and we worry over our fears that we will not be able to find another partner.
This shame story once again is black and white, lacks nuance or context and is filled with judgements and assumptions. Terminating the relationship is automatically deemed a failure. Yet, here is the reality that I witness every day with the betrayed partners I work with.
- Leaving is a decision that is often wrestled over for months and even years.
- Leaving is often incredibly terrifying and enormous fears must be worked through in order to make that choice.
- Children, extended family, and friends are all weighed carefully and many times sacrificially.
- Leaving is rarely the first choice and often is pursued only when staying requires them tolerate the intolerable.
- Leaving is a heartbreak and grief and loss are deeply felt and take significant time to heal.
When leaving a relationship includes self-examination, attempts at forgiveness and reconciliation, thoughtful decision-making about others who are impacted and choosing to navigate uncoupling in the healthiest way possible are we failing or are we choosing the best path for ourselves in light of our situation?
Shame about leaving is as pervasive as shame about staying. Both forms of shame block us from knowing what is best for us. Instead, we unconsciously make decisions to try to avoid shame. Maybe if we stay, we won’t feel the shame about leaving? Maybe if we leave, we won’t feel the shame about staying? This shame bind traps us in a no-win situation where our sense of self gets lost in our attempts to avoid the judgements of others and ourselves.
When I see betrayed partners tell each other what to do – leave or stay – I believe this often springs out of unconscious shame about decisions they have made regarding their own relationship. The certainty about what someone else should do can be a defense against shame about our own decisions. “I chose to stay/leave and that is the right decision, and one you should make too,” can be a coping strategy to fend off the sticky tar of cultural shame.
It is only when we identify these culturally weighted shame messages and recognize the way that they are shaping our thinking and beliefs that we can begin to unwrap ourselves from the shame bind that they create.
When we release ourselves from these harmful judgements and assumptions, we create space where we can now begin to be curious about our own experience and what might or might not be possible. Now, we are truly free to explore our options and make informed and thoughtful choices about what is best for us. Now, the focus shifts to growing our emotional and relational health and learning how to engage in the next steps (whatever those might be) from our wisest self.
When we shift our focus from, “Should I leave or should I stay,” to “How should I engage in engage in the process of deciding whether to stay or leave?” Or “How can I make this decision in the healthiest and most life-giving way possible?” This releases us from the shame bind by shifting our focus to what really matters. It creates space, possibility and best of all, hope.
About the Author:
Michelle Mays, LPC, CSAT-S is the Founder of PartnerHope.com and the Center for Relational Recovery, an outpatient treatment center located in Northern Virginia. She has helped hundreds of betrayed partners and sexually addicted clients transform their lives and relationships. Michelle is the author of The Aftermath of Betrayal and When It All Breaks Bad and leads the field in identifying and crafting effective treatment strategies for betrayed partners.
Braving Hope is a ground-breaking coaching intensive for betrayed partners around the world. Working with Michelle will help you to move out of the devastation of betrayal, relieve your trauma symptoms and reclaim your life.