You’ve met the person of your dreams. It feels so good to be in love and now you are married to the one you had always dreamed of. While you and your partner didn’t have much of a sex life after having kids, you enjoyed each other’s company and liked parenting your two children. Seventeen years have gone by and marriage has been good to you so you thought. You believed that your marriage was grounded in a solid love for one another. Although you notice some different behaviors from your spouse, you ignore them. You even begin to wonder if something is going on with your spouse but you brush it off. After all, the last thing you could ever imagine is that your spouse is having an affair. You don’t even want to go there.
Then one day you picked up your spouse’s cell phone and see a text message saying, “Last night was amazing. Can’t wait to see you again.” You are devastated. Anxiety is piercing through your body as though your world is about to come to an end making you feel sick to your stomach. Although you know better you can’t help yourself and read through a series of text messages which reveal that the affair has been going on for several months with a co-worker. You begin to piece some things together and know that something is really going on. Your spouse denies everything until the day comes when your spouse gets caught in all their lies. Everything you ever believed to be true was suddenly shattered including your very existence.
Betrayal Runs Deep
For those of us who have experienced situations like this, we know that betrayal runs deep. Betrayals are devastating. It shakes us to our core and can have a profound effect on our sense of identity. Betrayals undermine our sense of self-worth. They can make us doubt our ability to judge other people. Betrayals can even have us question the fundamental goodness of this world. Trust has been torn apart because the unthinkable has just happened. And the door is now opened to the possibility that one’s intimate world may not be as it appears.
Pain and anguish are filling your heart and soul. In your heightened emotional state, you may even want to seek revenge on your spouse for the pain and humiliation you are going through now. Possibly the only thing you can think of is how to get back at your spouse so they will hurt as much as you do. Revenge fantasies abound. Do you contact the co-conspirator? Do you have an affair to get back at your spouse? So much is swirling through your head. And then there is the marriage. Is it possible to heal from the pain and humiliation of betrayal and adultery? Is it possible to forgive someone who has hurt you so badly? Is it possible to rebuild trust and a friendship that was the cornerstone of the marriage?
The Introduction of Forgiveness
Betrayals and forgiveness are significant issues for many couples. However, in couple’s therapy the introduction of forgiveness is only beginning to emerge. Forgiveness in this context is a process whereby partners pursue increased understanding of themselves, each other and their relationship in order to free themselves from the pain as a result of an interpersonal betrayal. A key part of a marital relationships is for everyone to take responsibility when you make mistakes, small or large and this is what forgiveness helps us do.
Forgiveness does not excuse the person who committed the betrayal nor does it require from the person who was betrayed that they need to reconcile if they forgive. Nor is forgiveness letting anyone off the hook. Instead, to eventually be able to forgive we need to take a realistic, non distorted view of the relationship, be willing to work through and release painful emotions such as our anger towards the partner who committed the betrayal, and give up the desire to seek revenge or punish the one who has betrayed us.
Betrayal is an interpersonal trauma since it shatters assumptions about ones spouse or significant other. Shattered assumptions can leave us feeling as though our reality has been blow apart. When we are betrayed our feelings alternate between a sense of numbness or disbelief. We may also find ourselves behaving erratically and not like our usual selves. We feel victimized and our lives seem to be out of control.
To Heal from a Betrayal Is to Heal from Trauma
Interestingly healing from trauma follows a very similar path as does being able to forgive. The process begins by feeling safe and being able to tell your own story. It is important to talk about what happened so we can begin to understand and gain more clarity. When we choose to tell our stories, because of the intense array of emotions, we should make sure that the person we are talking to will deeply listen in a supportive way. As we talk about what has happened we maybe in shock and alternate between numbness and strong emotions. It is especially important to talk about our anger and listen to what our anger is telling us. Anger is an important messenger and usually is saying that something within us needs to change and that we need to be responsible for our own behavior. If we don’t get in touch with our anger and honestly look at it, we will more often than not act it out toward the person who has betrayed us or keep it in possibly setting the stage for depression.
Getting in touch with our anger and our possible need for revenge is important. It is natural to want revenge and it is ok to feel angry. Write out your revenge story if you need to all the way to the end result of the revenge. If you can do that you will probably realize that revenge will not get you what you really want. This can open the door for forgiveness to occur.
On a very practical level forgiveness is about lessening your own emotional burdens and healing the pain of your heart. Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook. It is about your own inner healing.
As we begin to work through our anger, guilt and fear we begin to think about why this event happened to me and search for some meaning behind the trauma. This meaning may come from identifying causes such as not paying attention to what was really going on in the relationship, or some positive impact the event is having on your life now, even from what at first felt so painful. We sometimes look for meaning behind the event such as a deeper meaning behind the relationship. This helps the injured party regain some control over their lives and what has just happened.
Giving meaning to the event helps us move along the healing process and mourn the loss of what could have been. As we mourn, we absorb the pain which is probably the hardest part of the forgiveness process. By absorbing pain we are saying that we accept what has happened, like it or not. Mourning helps us reintegrate our lives to something new and different. It helps us reevaluate our situation and make a decision, not out of anger, but out of a clearer understanding of the situation. This is the time to decide if you are going to stay in the relationship or not. Remember that you may be able to forgive the person who betrayed and still chose not to reconcile.
How Do We Heal from Infidelity?
We begin by developing the skills to deal with strong negative emotions and to more effectively talk about the impact the betrayal had. This may require setting appropriate boundaries with each other, learning how to deal with emotions effectively and express how you feel about the infidelity.
Next you look at both the current and the developmental issues within yourselves and within your relationship that may have contributed to the affair. Usually both parties have an idea as to why the affair may have happened but they are often unaware of deeper or unacknowledged needs or motives from their partner’s past history which may be impacting on current behaviors. Gaining this new understanding often results in an increase in compassion for the partner and tolerance of his or her flaws.
Finnaly, as a couple begins to understand why the affair happened, they need to evaluate the viability of their relationship, the potential for change, and their commitment to work together. This is when the process of forgiveness becomes the focus of intervention, including a clarification of what forgiveness is and is not, and any resistance there might be concerning forgiveness.
Forgiveness is transformative. When couples can forgive it provides an opening for greater love, closeness and openness. It can turn situations around and for those where this is important it can deepen our sense of spirituality and faith in the world. It is a great healer helping a once shattered relationship attain greater heights leaving in its wake the greatest gift we can give one another, unconditional love and a much stronger marriage.
The article is provided by Dr. Eileen R. Borris.
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