Betrayal is dehumanizing.
Over the years, I have sat with countless betrayed partners while they’ve struggled to put into words the profound loss they feel around their humanity. This loss is related to the sexual betrayal for sure, but it is even more deeply rooted in the deceit and lying that they have experienced.
A partner I was working with recently said to me, “The lying makes me feel like my personhood was taken away from me. I feel like I was not given the right to decide for myself about the relationship, to make choices for myself. Because everything was hidden, I was robbed of my human ability to choose for myself, and that makes me feel like my husband doesn’t see me as a full person.”
When relationship agreements about fidelity, honesty, and sexual boundaries are broken by one partner and those breaks are hidden from the other partner, the cheating/deceiving partner takes a one-up or power-over position in the relationship. That partner knows something that is vital about the state of the relational union and, by keeping that vital information hidden, they ensure that only they get to have knowledge of and make choices about the events that are taking place.
This power-over dynamic is why so many betrayed partners talk about feeling like a fool when they find out about the betrayal. They are putting words to the feeling of having been in a relationship where they thought they were on equal footing and operating as though they and their significant other had the same information. When they find out that their partner had a secret life and kept that life hidden for months or even years, they often feel a profound sense of humiliation.
These betrayed individuals have been relating to their significant other as though both of them were sharing the same reality (to the degree that two people can share a reality), only to discover that their partner has been in an alternate reality (one they promised they would not enter) while pretending that the shared reality was still real. Having their sense of reality upended in this way feels like a deep personal violation – a violation that strikes at the core of their humanity.
Betrayed partners have typically been operating with a level of trust and vulnerability within the relationship that they could not (and would not) sustain if they knew the betrayal was occurring. It is this vulnerability and the realization that they did not get to make a choice about how vulnerable they wanted to make themselves to their partner that causes them to feel dehumanized and humiliated. They feel taken advantage of because their ability to determine their own course of action has been stolen by the cheating partner’s secrets and lies.
This is one of the reasons why full therapeutic disclosure is so important. When the cheating partner becomes willing to disclose the ways in which relationship agreements have been broken, the cheater is moving out of the one-up, power-over position back into a position of equality and shared power. By sharing their secrets, they honor the dignity and humanity of the betrayed partner. They are returning the power of informed choice to their betrayed partner. This creates the opportunity for a level playing field in the relationship, allowing both partners to make decisions and to negotiate whether and how they want to move forward together.
When cheating partners hold onto secrets or continue to lie about the infidelity, they disempower the betrayed partner. Betrayed partners who are living in relationships where they know the cheater is withholding information and protecting secrets are left with two unhappy choices: leave the relationship because to continue living in the power-over power-under dynamic is too costly or stay in an unhealthy relational dynamic that limits the potential for connection and intimacy.
For any of us to build and maintain a safe bond with our partner, we have to operate from a level playing field. One partner taking a one-up position over the other partner destroys trust and safety and creates dysfunctional transactional tit-for-tat dynamics in the relationship. For relationships to heal, this dynamic must end, and equality must prevail.
Next week, we are going to look at what happens when the power-over power-under dynamic flips and the betrayed partner takes the power-over position in the relationship.