It is a devastating event to discover a partner’s betrayal; it strikes at the heart of many aspects of our identity. The betrayed partner may doubt their own attractiveness or their ability to judge people, and can raise questions about the fundamental goodness of the world.
Our relationships are built upon the idea that we can trust those who we care about the most to behave in a consistent, reliable manner. When this belief is shattered, our emotions and common sense dissolve and reframe our reality. It feels like all that we have trusted in may not be as it appears. How do we navigate through this difficult time?
The roots of trust are built in our childhood, where we learn to receive consistent, predictable care from our parents. Trust is built on order and predictability, which makes it even more psychologically traumatizing when that trust is broken. Studies have shown that psychological traumas (like discovering an affair) can have an effect on brain functioning long after the event has happened. One of these common changes is the development of hyper-vigilance to prevent further assaults. Being hyper-vigilant is a survivor perspective, it protects us from harm.
These behaviors are commonly acted out by the partner who has been betrayed, by looking for and being ultra aware of any change in behavior or pattern from their partner. Unfortunately, being hyper-vigilant is non-discriminating. This puts us in a position to mistrust everyone around us- other family members, co-workers, spiritual leaders. This is harmful to our social connections- how can we prevent ourselves from mistrusting everyone around us after a betrayal?
Becoming mistrustful of everyone around us is harmful- it limits the strength and number of our social connections and may leave us isolated from the rest of the world. It is critical to learn how to rebuild trust, even if you feel like your relationship has been destroyed. Trust is not just essential to relationships; it is a cornerstone of a happy, healthy life.
As a couple’s therapist, I have observed that the most important predictor of rebuilding trust in a relationship is the ability for both partners to take responsibility for what happened. This can be incredibly difficult if you are the betrayed partner. But it is a crucial step to saving the relationship- and laying the groundwork for reducing the probability of a repeat event.
After establishing mutual responsibility, the next step is to regain a sense of control. This is based on the idea that we are not victims, or at the whim of our partner’s actions or our own mistakes. We DO have control over our actions and thoughts, and can make decisions to improve our relationships. Whatever action you take, it is important to heal the wounds of the past. Here are some tips to start healing:
1. Avoid humiliating your partner- do you want revenge or a do you want a relationship?
2. Separate complaints from criticism- your relationship will heal more quickly.
3. Isolate the times that you talk about the betrayal- too many details are damaging.
4. Evaluate your capacity to forgive, motivation to change, and the pattern of mistrustful behavior. You have the right to regain a sense of control.
5. Get help- from your usual support system, professional counselor or family. Don’t isolate yourself because of shame or humiliation.
Use these tips to help the healing start- before another year begins!