The most significant need partners have in the aftermath of betrayal is for their sense of relational and emotional safety to be restored. Infidelity lays siege to a betrayed partner’s attachment system, rupturing the sense of safety that being securely bonded with a primary partner usually provides. This in turn affects every other part of the partner’s life, as the secure base that allowed that individual to go out into the world with confidence and stability has been wiped out, and she is left wobbling about on a Jenga-like structure undercut with lies and secrets.
If you are dealing with sexual betrayal, it is important to understand exactly what the process is for restoring a sense of safety in your relationship. The good news is that if you and your cheating partner are willing to do the hard work of recovery, you can rebuild your relationship on a truly secure base.
To do this, you must pass through three stages of building relationship safety: getting help, getting honest, and getting vulnerable. We are going to look at the first two tasks this week. Next week we will discuss the third (and most important) task.
To rebuild relationship safety, the first thing that must happen is that your cheating partner must acknowledge that he has a problem and get help. Real help. Help, as defined here, is not about going to individual therapy for 50 minutes every week, sitting on the couch, talking about himself, and leaving—having checked the box for the week. That degree of help is not going to create significant change. It is just going to cost time and money and make your cheating partner feel like he is doing something positive while he continues to engage in problematic behaviors.
The kind of help that I am talking about here is more intensive and requires your cheating partner to change the way he does life and relationships. Individual therapy will very likely be a part of this help. But so will group therapy, 12-Step meetings, working with a sponsor, and recovery-focused homework assignments. Ideally, you will see your partner calling people from his new community of support as he learns how to live life in consultation and relationship with others, rather than in the isolated fashion that fed his cheating.
There is a saying that an addict’s best thinking is what brought him to the bottom. For you as the betrayed partner, there is no safety when he continues to rely on his own thinking. For you, safety lies in knowing that your significant other has opened himself up to and created a circle of accountability for himself, in knowing that he now has other people helping him to think more clearly and make better choices. Seeing your partner take these steps is where safety begins to be rebuilt.
The next step in rebuilding relationship safety occurs when your partner gets fully honest. You have a right to know what has happened in your relationship and who your partner really is. You have a right to know about the history and events that have impacted your relationship, so you can make fully informed decisions about how to protect yourself appropriately and whether to proceed (or not) in the relationship.
This means your cheating partner must come to a place where he is ready and willing to tell the entire truth about his unfaithful behaviors, the ways that he lied, the ways that he covered up his behavior, the ways that he manipulated you, and any other issues that have been part of his secret life (i.e., financial secrets, health secrets, work secrets).
Watching your cheating partner work through the process of giving you a full disclosure of his behaviors is a vital step in rebuilding safety. There can be no safety in a relationship without honesty. Giving disclosure lays a new foundation of honesty on which the relationship can be rebuilt.
In addition to giving disclosure, you need to see a new level of honesty in all that your cheating partner says and does. The lies and manipulation that accompany infidelity are like an insidious weed that winds its way through all areas of a cheater’s life. As a result, you may be used to seeing your partner lie about all kinds of things both related and not related to the betrayal. Now, however, he does not get to be selectively honest or dishonest. He must live with honesty as a core value that permeates all of his dealings and interactions. Until that happens, safety in your relationship cannot be restored.
So, another step on the road to safety is that you will begin to see your cheating partner be more honest in all his dealings and affairs, not just around the betrayal. When you see that happen, it creates a sense that you are dealing with a partner whose behavior is congruent with his values, and this will in turn create a new sense of safety and trust with him.