In last week’s post we looked at the emotionally charged issues around staying or leaving the relationship with the cheating partner. I am challenging us to change the conversations we often hold around this topic.
Instead of thinking of staying or leaving as “right” or “wrong” choices, we want to expand our perspective and instead recognize that how we stay or leave is the bigger and more important issue. We want to make our choice from a place of emotional health and the freedom to choose what is truly best for us.
We started our conversation by looking at the issue of gaining clarity. Clarity comes through giving ourselves the time to understand our situation, learn about the healing process and make a thorough assessment of our options. This week we are going to look at a second skill needed to make the best choice regarding staying or leaving: freedom from fear.
Freedom from Fear
Some betrayed partners have enough of what we call ego strength or inner resilience to make their decision to stay or leave their relationship from a position of clarity and conviction about what is best for them.
However, for many other partners, decision-making turns into a quagmire of confusion. Confusion about what is best, what others will think, what life will be like if we stay or go, etc. When we peel back the confusion and probe underneath, what we almost always find is fear.
Because our romantic partner is our primary attachment figure, we do not make decisions to stay or leave them lightly. These decisions have enormous impacts on our attachment systems creating stress and distress as we contemplate the potential loss that will accompany a decision to leave or the potential risk that will accompany a decision to stay.
Both decisions create loss. If we leave, we will be plunged into the grief of separating our lives, our families, our finances, our goals, and our dreams. The anguish that contemplating this loss creates is real and severe and can overwhelm betrayed partners’ ability to act.
If we stay, we will be plunged into the grief of losing the relationship we thought we had. We will never again be someone who has not experienced cheating. Our future with our partner is fraught with the risk of more loss if we venture into the uncertainty of trying to build a new relationship with them.
For many partners, this fear is paralyzing. It creates such a sense of threat to our attachment systems that we go into a freeze response and become unable to make movement in any direction.
Often this fear is unconscious. We know that we are confused, or uncertain about what is best. Or perhaps we see ourselves setting boundaries or making threats to leave if the cheating and lying doesn’t stop but we don’t follow through. We are unaware of the fear our body holds around the potential relational loss that we will experience by making a choice to move forward in one direction or another. Our unconscious fear puts us in a freeze state.
The goal is to become aware of the fear of relational loss that is paralyzing us. This fear is held in our bodies, and we often need expert help to identify and connect to it without it overwhelming our nervous systems. When we can contact our fear with the support of another, we can then begin the work of slowly holding the fear, feeling the fear, and becoming familiar with it. Just doing this helps the fear to begin to feel more manageable as we are no longer avoiding it but are now consciously engaged with it.
As we do this work, we can then begin to identify small actions that we can take that are risky and do create some fear but are not the big overwhelming decisions that create paralysis. For example, we might take the risk of requesting that our partner go to therapy, or we may take the risk of sharing with our partner how hurt we are because of their behavior. Maybe we ask them to move out of the bedroom or to begin to work on a full therapeutic disclosure. We might take the risk of deciding that we need to take a sexual hiatus to heal or that we need to limit contact with our partner.
Each of these actions brings with it the risk of relational loss as our partner may not respond well to what we are suggesting. And maybe some of the things listed here feel impossibly big and scary. If that is the case, then you want to do more work with your therapist around the fear and you also want to break your risk-taking down into even smaller chunks that are more manageable for you.
Notice that I am not suggesting that we work with our therapist until the fear goes away and then we take action. This is because fear of loss does not just go away, no matter how much work we do around leaning into the feeling of fear and creating space for it.
Fear diminishes as we build our inner resilience and resourcefulness. Fear diminishes because we move toward the fear, walk into it, and find, by doing so, that we are still OK.
For example, we set the boundary that we have been terrified to set and find that we are still intact and whole afterward. Or perhaps we take an action we have been afraid to take and find that we are OK on the other side.
Each small victory builds our internal sense that we can handle things we thought would defeat us and that we can trust and rely on ourselves to carry us through scary or daunting situations. This is the beautiful, amazing process of building a core self that you can depend on.
When we experientially know that we can face our fears and not just survive them but thrive because of walking through the fear, we are then truly free to make the decisions that are best for us.
Now, as we face the decision to leave our relationship, we are free from the fear that keeps us stuck, lost in chaos and confusion, distracting ourselves with conflict and threats. Instead, we know, deep in our guts, that we will be OK if we leave our relationship. We will grieve, we will experience heartbreak, but it will not overwhelm our coping capacities and take us out. We can move through it and flourish after as we create a new life.
Or perhaps, now that we know we are truly able to leave our relationship, we are fully free to make a choice to stay. We are staying not because we are stuck or because we are afraid, but because we choose to stay. Our newfound inner resilience and resourcefulness has equipped us with the ability to risk leaning into the vulnerability of relational repair.
Can you see that the point is not whether we stay or leave but how we come to that decision and whether we are free to choose. To make a fully free choice, fear must not stand in our way. It may still be present, because as I’ve said it doesn’t go away completely. But it must lose the power to stop us, to put us into freeze and immobilize us. When this happens, we are truly free to make the choices that are best for us. And that is priceless.
In next week’s post we will look at the last skill that is needed to choose what is best for us in terms of staying or leaving: freedom from shame.