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.
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:
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:
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.
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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 www.camft.org.