Healing:  When Betrayal Ends a Relationship
       By Melanie Brown Kroon, MA, MFT               

(Identities of clients have been altered and disguised to protect confidentiality)        

Of  all the ways to lose a person, death is the kindest.
-- Emerson

       Betrayal is a shock. Most of us have experienced it  and felt  the harsh hit of reality and the isolation and confusion that follows.  People say "get over it," but you can't. Betrayal  involves lying,  cheating, stealing, broken promises, or revealing someone’s  secret.  Betrayal is the violation of  trust. 

Ella came to see me several weeks after  discovering that her  live-in boyfriend, Sam, had been cheating on her  throughout their  relationship. The other  woman came to her door and confessed, wrenching  Ella out of denial. She had seen signs of an affair but hadn’t  wanted  to believe them. By the time  she came to see me, she had moved out, but  she was still haunted by thoughts of  Sam and couldn’t stop crying.

There are five stages of the betrayal  experience that  must be addressed during the  healing process:

  • Shock. 
  • Grieving the loss of the person you  thought you knew.
  • Grieving the loss of the actual person.
  • Dealing with self-blame and humiliation. 
  • Forgiveness and letting go. 

The first four stages are not necessarily  consecutive. They can overlap each other  like waves in a turbulent ocean. 

The first stage, shock, comes in many  different forms. It  might feel like  numbness or unreality. You might feel immobilized or  have a strong urge to run away. You may feel calm  or full of rage. Your  mind swirls with thoughts. It is a crisis. Shock, disbelief, anger,  devastation,  humiliation, sadness, the wish to rescue, and the wish to  retaliate are all  natural and expected reactions to betrayal.  The most  important thing to do during this stage is to find a support system to  contain and  normalize the feelings, and rather than beat yourself up,  try to deal with it in  constructive ways. (See Tips for  Dealing With  Betrayal.)

Ella confronted Sam, then packed her  things and left. She  thought she was  fine, even though in one hard blow, she had lost the  man she thought she knew,  her closest friend and lover, her home, and  most of all, her belief in  herself. As the shock wore off and the   feelings surfaced, Ella had no foundation to cushion the pain she was   experiencing. Raising Ella’s awareness  of these five stages provided a  normalizing framework for the trauma of  betrayal she had experienced,  and reminded her that others had gone before her.

The  second stage is unique to betrayal: grieving the loss of the relationship you thought you  had. Yesterday Ella had someone she cherished and  trusted. Suddenly,  not only was that  relationship gone, but she realized that she never  had it in the first place;  that for the entire seven years she had  loved and trusted Sam, she hadn’t  really known him. She had to grieve  the  loss of the person she thought she knew first.  This is a cerebral  stage, though one fueled by the powerful emotions of  hurt, anger, and  humiliation. 

This is where there is a strong need  to understand what  happened.  Ella was asking, “Why? Why? Why?”  It is important to allow  this phase to breathe and find it's own resolution, even if there is no  understandable answer. You are trying to figure out what  happened. It  is as if you suddenly  discovered that the world was round—not flat!—and  it takes time to adjust.          And you know what? It’s  good to wonder, as long as you don’t  hurt yourself trying to get answers from  the person who betrayed you.  Take all  the time you need, talk about this with safe people, read  books that address  your situation, write down your thoughts, and figure  this out. But remember, this is so that you can find  the lesson in it  for you—not so that you can fix the other person. Please know, though,  that you may never fully understand what happened, or why.

The danger here can be that this need to understand can get  mixed up with self-esteem issues. You may be asking,  “Why did he or she  do this to me?”  This is hardest when you know that you have  been loving, ethical,  and conscientious. Still, it is important to  remember that,  although it feels like it was done to you,  it was really done by them.  Betrayal is about the person who did it—not  about the person it was  done to. We do  not make someone lie. We do not make  someone cheat.  Those are choices people  make on their own regardless of the strengths  and weaknesses of their loved  ones.          It is truly enlightened to seek your role in what happened, but  It is possible that the only part you may have played in this was   choosing the wrong person to trust.     


What if there is still a decision to be  made about whether  to try to save the relationship? A relationship can be healed only if   both you and your loved one are willing and able to live honestly from  now on.

Bill was still married to Helen when he  discovered that she  had drained the family bank account to support her gambling  addiction.  He didn’t know whether he  should stay or go. Many couples are  able to  work through a betrayal and come through healthier, closer, and more   loving than before. There are many  causes of betrayal, such as acting  out instead of working through relationship  issues, addictions, or  personality-disordered behavior. Here are some guidelines to help figure  out what is possible for your relationship: 

  1. Couple's counseling is invaluable at this  time but requires  willingness, commitment, and the courage to be honest from  both  parties. 
  2. Learn about addictions and  co-addictions, and the value of  12-step programs for both parties if the  betrayal was fueled by an  addiction.  Reinforce that trust can be rebuilt only through honest,  responsible  action over time. 
  3. Assess your loved one’s  commitment to truth by paying  attention to the person’s behavior rather than  his or her words. “Make  the Rule of  Threes your personal policy. One lie,  one broken promise,  or a single neglected responsibility may be a  misunderstanding instead.  Two may  involve a serious mistake. But three  lies says you’re dealing  with a liar” (Stout, 2005, p. 157). 

The third stage of healing applies if the  relationship is  over: grieving the loss of a person from one’s life. This is the  “missing” stage, in which you will feel the loss most intensely.  Ella  judged herself for missing her boyfriend and was even embarrassed  to  tell me that she did. I reassured  her that it is not “stupid” to miss  someone who hurt you, or to feel sad or  angry. It is natural and  necessary, and  it will take as long as it takes.

The fourth stage is the most persistent  and pernicious aspect  of the betrayal loss, one that goes on throughout the  healing process:  dealing with self-blame and humiliation. This is a loss, too, the loss  of self-trust, a third loss. This one, however, can be  temporary. When people are betrayed, they ask  themselves, “How could I  have been so stupid?”  “How can I ever trust myself again?” They beat  themselves up for having  “known” and yet not letting themselves know,  or for just not knowing. Even when the betrayer is long gone, these   painful thoughts and feelings can remain. 

This is the stage that for Ella, Bill,  and others takes the  longest to heal from, because although it is about the  current loss, it  is also about early childhood betrayal and abandonment. Ella’s mother  was a single parent who was  unable to care for her owing to a cocaine  addiction. Ella’s uncle adopted her, but he was distant  and depressed,  and she never knew her father.  So for Ella, abandonment and rejection  felt familiar. The current betrayal brought up her prior  losses. Deep  down she believed that there was something about her that was either   cursed, unlovable, or both. After work  has been done in the earlier  stages of grief with a therapist or support group, this self-focused  area can be  rich to explore and a pathway to deep inner-child work. 

What also needs to be addressed is the  unconscious feeling of  powerlessness you may try to counteract by thinking  that if only you  did this or that better, or differently, it wouldn’t  have happened. It  can feel better to  blame oneself than to feel powerless. 

Finally, the day will come when you have learned from  the  experience, when you no longer blame yourself or feel stupid, when you   do not feel compelled to fix the other person or make him see that what  he  or she did was wrong, when you accept that that person is who that  person is—then you are in the last stage of healing: forgiveness and  letting go. 

Forgiveness and letting go are undeniably connected. Many  people believe that they shouldn’t  ever feel angry and that they must  forgive right away. I disagree. Forgiveness does not mean  condoning the  offending behavior, and it does not mean that you should open  yourself  up to be hurt again. Bill  decided to leave his marriage when, after  two years, Helen still would not take  responsibility for her gambling  addiction.  He would like to forgive her, but she is verbally abusive  with him every  time they have contact regarding their children. Each  time this happens it hurts him. We are working on his assertiveness and  on  protecting himself from this abuse. I believe that it is not healthy  to forgive anyone who is still hurting  you. You have to be emotionally  safe in  order to forgive. Forgiveness means you can take care of   yourself and you can wish the other person the healing they need. You  can let go of them with an open  heart. And when you do this, the   forgiveness is for you, so that you can let go.  I love this quote from  Lily  Tomlin: “Forgiveness is giving up all  hope for a better past.” It  is only then  that letting go with love is possible.

Ella chose to experience a letting go ritual. She wrote a   forgiving goodbye letter and sent it up in the air tied to a helium   balloon. There were no names or  addresses on the letter, but for her it  was a goodbye. I want to say she had absolutely moved on,  but I don’t  think anyone moves on absolutely.  You are changed from the experience,  and your innocence transforms into  wisdom. Ella thinks about Sam from  time  to time, but now he is in her past. Her  life is full, happy, and  complete without him.

It helps to be aware of these stages I've described so that you  don't feel all alone or like you have gone crazy. They are a normal and  natural reaction to the trauma of betrayal. The good news in all of   this is twofold. Healing from betrayal  can be a catalyst for healing  from early childhood wounds. It can also be an empowering experience,  one  in which you emerge a wiser and more powerful person. 


Carnes, P. (1997). The betrayal bond: Breaking free of exploitive relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL:  Health Communications.

Carnes, P. (2001). Out of the shadows: Understanding sexual addiction. Center City, MN:  Hazelden.

Forward, S., & Frazier, D. (1999). When your lover is a liar: Healing the wounds of deception and betrayal. New York: HarperCollins.

Glass, S. (2003). Not just friends: Rebuilding trust and recovering your sanity after  infidelity. New York:  Free Press.

Stout, M. (2005). The sociopath next door. New York: Broadway  Books.

This article appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of The Therapist,  the publication of the  California Association of Marriage and Family  Therapists (CAMFT), headquartered   in San Diego, California.


This  article is  copyrighted and been reprinted with the permission of  CAMFT. For more   information regarding CAMFT, please log on to