Sandra A. Shachar, PhD
We are wired for connection with others. From the moment of birth, our very survival depends upon being cared for by others. As we mature, we seek a deep love connection, usually with one person in particular. That special person is your "safe haven" in life, who knows you best, has your back and would never knowingly hurt you.
Few things are more painful than discovering the secrets and lies of your chosen partner. Partner betrayal is a uniquely painful trauma - one that can feel unsurvivable. Shock, disbelief and devastation combine to create a sense of unreality. Thoughts such as, "This can't be happening …. s/he would never do this to me" are common with the discovery. At the same time, you may also have an ironic sense of validation, if you had been feeling that "something is not right," as betrayed partners often report.
The discovery itself may be a single piece of information, like a receipt, a message you noticed on their phone, a browser left open on their laptop … but that one piece leads you down a rabbit hole of investigation as you search for evidence that what you fear is not happening. Your mind is swirling as you place what you find together with what you were told:
"We're just a friends."
"I've got a big project at work coming up that will require some extra time at the office."
"I don't want to go on this trip but it's necessary for my job."
or what you noticed:
-Your partner is never without their phone, even in the bathroom.
-They close their laptop or close out a browser tab when you walk in.
-They frequently talk about or spend time with one person at work.
-They seem distracted and not fully present when they are with you.
-There are periods of unexplained absence or stories don't make sense.
Suddenly a lot more makes sense to you, but only if you accept that your partner has been lying to you, or leaving out crucial information.
As you dig deeper, you may have discovered that:
They were seeing someone else, or multiple people.
They have another lover/spouse/family/life besides you.
They have been on dating apps, and seeking-sex-partner sites.
They have spent many more hours on porn sites or are watching more extreme porn than you knew about.
They have been paying for online or in-person sex.
They have used savings or gone into debt for porn, drugs, gambling.
Once the shock has worn off and a new reality is sinking in, you may have new emotions: anger, even rage. How could you??!!!
The anger makes sense when you consider that your relationship was founded, or so you thought, on mutual trust and protection. Not only has your partner wounded you in the most deeply personal and vulnerable way, you may also have been exposed to diseases, credit and financial problems, and security threats to your personal information and life, exposing you in a way you had no control or say over.
Your brain is now having a tremendous battle that makes you feel crazy and causing your moods and body to swing wildly from moment to moment. One minute you are furious with your partner and cannot imagine continuing in the relationship, let alone forgive them and get past this together. The next minute you feel sadness and only want to feel close to them the way you used to. These wild swings of emotion can make you look, act and feel crazy and out of control, with some betrayed partners throwing things, or threatening physical violence, exposure and ruin. An hour later you may find yourself having sex with your partner and feeling closer than ever. And after that, feel yourself recoiling at their touch.
What are the major mistakes Betrayed Partners make?
- Going DIY. The immediate aftershock of discovering your partner's betrayal is usually so traumatic that most people cannot think clearly. It may be tempting to think you can figure out how to stop the pain and get control of your life back, and you will eventually, but it helps to have guidance from professionals who are trained in betrayal trauma recovery, as well as support from those who have "been there" and can share their experience, strength and hope. They say "Misery loves company," but in this case the company should be people who can offer you hope and a path forward.
- Telling everyone you know what happened. Tempting as it may be when you are upset and angry, is is better to be selective in whom you confide. Yes, you need support, but you also need to not feel judged or told what to do, which can happen when friends and family learn what happened. And if you decide to stay together to repair and rebuild your relationship, it may not be easy for those close to you to accept that decision and embrace your partner once again. So, again, this is where having people to support you, who are not connected to you emotionally, can be very helpful.
- Reacting by making big decisions, like filing for divorce or moving out or kicking your partner out. It is okay to "take space" and establish some boundaries for your own safety, such as "I need for you to get an STD test" or "I need for you to find another place to stay for now." When you take time to respond rather than react in the moment, you can hold space to see where you land as you come out of shock and anger in the the early days post-discovery, and you will see what can happen for you and your relationship.
- Accepting your partner (or anyone else) suggesting that this was at least partly your fault. There are many choices a person can make to cope with their unhappiness and frustration within a relationship besides cheating or lying to their partner. You cannot make your partner cheat or lie - that is a choice they made.
- Accepting being told that you are "overreacting". Whatever you learned that was an unhappy surprise, whether it is how much or what kind of porn they were viewing, what they were spending money on, or who they were seeing without your knowledge, it is a breach of trust. It is normal to feel violated and upset with being betrayed. At the same time, it is not safe your you or your partner if you become violent or self-harming as a result, so again, getting help is advised.
- Doubting your intuition. If you still feel you are not being told everything or don't "buy" what your partner is saying (like, "We're just friends - really!") then chances are you are not. Sad to say, it is usually a gradual process for betraying partners to "come clean" with all the relevant details once their secret has been discovered.
- Jumping to the conclusion that your relationship is over. Many couples do recover when the betraying partner takes responsibility and commits to doing the work to repair with you.
What SHOULD you do?
- Seek help. Many free and low cost resources exist to help you with betrayal trauma, as listed below.
- Allow yourself the benefit of peer support, such as Sanon.org or Infidelity Survivors Anonymous isurvivors.org
- Check out websites that offer accurate information about Betrayal Trauma such as APSATS.org or seekingintegrity.com
- Listen to podcasts that support those who have been betrayed by their partner, such as "Sex, Love & Addiction with Dr. Rob," APSATS, "Betrayal Trauma Recovery, and "Helping Couples Heal".
- Know that whatever you are feeling is normal under the abnormal circumstances.
- Set healthy boundaries for yourself with your partner, knowing you cannot control them, but you have choices about what you are and are not willing to do.
- Have faith that you will recover your sanity and stability if you give yourself time, help and compassion. With help, you can do this!
For personal help from Dr. Sandra, send an email to [email protected]