First, I need to introduce you to the language that we use to talk about this. The person that engaged in behavior that betrayed trust is referred to as the Participating Partner. The other person, who is often reeling and hurting is referred to as the Injured Partner. This language is purposeful because it communicates both responsibility for behavior and outcomes as they relate to the relationship as a whole. It also helps us start to use common language to communicate about an already fraught situation. This advice also works from the assumption that both partners want to explore saving the relationship.
To the injured partner, I’m sorry that this has happened. I know your world is spinning right now, like you’re caught inside a hurricane. It’s disorienting and consuming— and that reaction is very normal. In that kind of pain, we often feel like we are out of control and at the mercy of the elements around us. I want you to know that eventually the winds and seas will calm and you will be able to breathe again. It takes time, but it does come. While you’re in the storm, let me offer you some advice for steadying yourself while you shelter in place.
- I know you are hurting and angry, but now is not the time to shout the betrayal from the rooftops. If you can avoid it, I suggest sharing the current situation with only the people in your inner circle that can offer you calm and support. You can decide how to handle the rest later— but right now, you need your safe people to love you and offer you safe harbor. Note: your children should not be on the list of people in-the-know right now.
- Take care of yourself. Do your best to eat. Don’t drink alcohol or use substances. Call you doctor for any needed medical exams. Check in with your therapist. Get outside if you can. You’re going to need all the self-care you can get.
- Sit down and write out all of the questions you can think of— big and small. Many injured partners report feeling like their brains are stuck in an endless loop of questions and puzzle pieces. Get all of that out of your head and onto paper (or screen). Now, look at your list. Is the goal of that question to help you understand the scope of the betrayal? Or is going to make your anxiety worse and paint mental images that you cannot delete? For now, we need to focus on the scope questions.
- There are pictures and images that you do not want to be seared into your brain. You might feel a huge NEED to know EVERYTHING.. but I promise, there are details that might haunt you later. There is time to find out everything that you need to know, but we don’t want to rush into becoming a CIA agent and create those haunting pixels. Do you best to spare yourself the torture of not being able to erase those.
- Give yourself permission to feel many different ways about this situation and what the future may look like. A friend once told me that affair recovery made her simultaneously want to hug and choke her husband. Now, I don’t think her husband was ever in danger of being choked— but it was a great image of the complex, opposing feelings that come and go during this process. It’s okay to want a divorce today. And not to be sure tomorrow. To want to go to counseling right now and to want to never speak to the participating partner again ten minutes later. You are dealing with a lot of big emotions and your life is still happening in the background— Of course your feelings are all over the place. It’s okay. This is part of the hurricane and it will eventually pass and the seas will start to become more predictable, with high tides and low tides.
- Affairs and betrayals can change the meaning of everything, and make you asks questions that never occurred to you before. Can I trust my partner? Can I trust myself? How did I miss this? Am I a fool if I stay? Am I hurting my kids if I leave? It takes time, but I promise that all of this can be sorted out— and we can help you!
To the participating partner: I’d bet that you are reeling right now, too. Many of my clients report feeling ashamed, embarrassed, angry at themselves, defensive, scared, and many more intense emotions early in affair recovery. That’s all normal, too. But, here’s the thing— you now have a job to do. For some reason, you ended up breaking your vows or promises to your partner (we can worry about why later), and now you have to make space for that reality. Your partner is going to have BIG feelings, lots of questions, and needs you to be available to them for those purposes. Here’s what you need to know:
- You cannot start healing until you stop dying. Whatever you did to betray your partner’s trust has to stop, before you can begin to heal and work on your relationship. If you want a future with your partner, you have to end contact with affair partners, delete dating sites profiles, block contacts, stop compulsive behavior, stop going out with friends all night— whatever is causing the injury has to stop right now. Your relationship cannot start to heal until it stops dying.
- Your partner needs responsible disclosure. That means that they need to understand what has happened in a non-blaming, logical, and coherent way. These betrayals often come to light unexpectedly, which means that your partner came into this story in the middle. They do not know the beginning or the end. They may not even really know what book they are in. It’s your job to fill in those blanks in a way that is organized and safe (not attacking and not blaming). For example, “he asked me for my number at the bar. I don’t know why but I gave it to him. Then we started texting, mostly silly things and memes” sounds very different than “you never want to go out, so I went out with my friends. It felt good for some dude to show me attention, since I never get any here”. The disclosure process is complicated and messy. You’re both experiencing huge emotions and may need help with this process. Alll of our therapists are trained to help couples through affair recovery.
- Beware of death by 1000 cuts. It’s one thing to have a huge piece of information to come out and have to cope with that. It’s another to think you’ve got the whole story and then find out there is another horrible surprise around the corner. Again and again. Many participating partners think that by shielding their partner from certain information or aspects of the betrayal they can keep things form getting worse. It’s an attractive illusion— “I can avoid the blow up and causing more pain, if I just keep this piece to myself.” I’m telling you now— don’t do it. Trying to repair a relationship and heal from betrayal while there are still secrets or deceit is like building a house with a bomb in the basement. When that secret is discovered, it will implode every inch of progress you’ve already made and leave your in a deeper hole.
- Saying “I’m Sorry!” isn’t enough. Forgiveness cannot come with those words alone. Your partner’s pain is likely enormous and they need you to make space for it. Forgiveness can only come when we have expressed our remorse, taken responsibility for our actions, and made space for the impact of those actions. This means hearing and accepting your partners pain— really understanding their pain. This does not mean making statements like “I know, I suck.”, “I’m an awful person.”, or any other self-depreciating commentary. I recognize the intent of sharing remorse in those statements, but those shame-based statements unconsciously subvert your partner’s pain and can make a person feel compelled to take care of you (which, in this situation, might unleash a torrent of anger from your partner).
- Trust takes time, truth, and safety. There will be a time period in which your partner would not believe you if you told them the sky is blue. And it can be frustrating for the participating partner, because you’ve been totally honest and put everything out there… and the trust isn’t coming. When this happens, the missing piece is often a felt sense of emotional safety between the partners. This is a deep KNOWING that I don’t have to be looking around the corner for the next painful secret or piece of information. There are no short cuts and no ways around this process. It’s about consistency, openness, and honesty.
To both of you, your relationship will never be the same. We all know that. However, I have found that after completing counseling, healing their relationship, and building a new, stronger foundation, couples experience better relationship satisfaction than ever before. It will be different from now on, but that does not have to remain a negative thing. It is possible to come out of the other side in a better place than when you entered. Our team helps couples do that everyday — if you want that help, you can call us at 770.451.0404. We’re ready to help you clean up this mess and start to rebuild.