One of the very first posts I wrote for the Authentic Hope Blog, called Understanding Partner Betrayal Trauma discussed the way in which betrayal damages the sense of secure connection in a relationship, creating attachment trauma. Since we have already covered that topic, in this post I want to examine the powerful yet ambivalent feelings that create what I call the ‘attachment dilemma’.
Having your sense of security and connection damaged or even wiped out by betrayal puts most partners in a place where they feel torn in two between both love and loathing for the person who betrayed them. This was certainly the case for me.
As with most relationships damaged by infidelity, the duplicity in my relationship created a major dilemma. Being betrayed by the person I loved and trusted more than anyone else put me on an emotional rack and pulled my emotions in opposite directions until I felt like I was being torn in two. The hurt and pain caused by the betrayal now lay side by side doing battle with my feelings of love and connection. This terrible conflict in my heart made me feel like a schizophrenic at a masked ball.
Part of me felt anger, fear, disgust, and loathing for my sexually addicted spouse. That part of me wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted him to go away and get fixed and only come back if and when he could be a decent partner. I wanted him to feel the same kind of pain he was causing me, to know what it felt like to be on the receiving end of his behaviors. I hated him, felt like I didn’t know him, couldn’t trust him, and didn’t understand him.
But then, darn it, there was the other part of me. This was the part that loved my spouse; most days I even liked him. This part of me was invested in the process of building a life with him. I had good memories with him. I had plans and hopes and dreams with him. He was the person I counted on for companionship, support, comfort, and help. Despite all that had happened, part of me still longed to feel connected and to receive comfort and support from him.
This was my attachment dilemma. The person who created the problem was also the person that I most wanted and needed to hear me when I talked, hold me when I cried, and validate my feelings. These two parts of me, living within the same heart and body and both extremely powerful, made me feel at war with myself.
If it is true, as Amir Levine writes, that “getting attached means that our brain becomes wired to seek the support of our partner by ensuring the partner’s psychological and physical proximity,”[i] then betrayal makes the very person we are drawn to for support simultaneously a source of danger and threat.
This dilemma is what can make your feelings and behavior unpredictable, chaotic, and confusing, even to yourself. While you are spitting mad and crying your head off, you also want your spouse to say something to soothe your pain and ease your distress. While you want them to move out of the house, you also want them to hold you while you wail at the top of your lungs. While you know they are lying, you also want to believe they are telling you the truth. While you never want them to touch you again, you also want the comfort and connection of making love.
If you are experiencing this type of attachment dilemma and the emotional rollercoaster ride that accompanies it, give yourself lots of time and space to feel your feelings. Both sets of emotions are true for you, and each need to be acknowledged and felt. Try to resist the urge to pick an emotional side and camp there, either staying only with your anger and resentment or only with your loving feelings. Try to understand and accept that all the feelings you have are true and need to be honored and felt, and it is okay that these feelings are opposites and contradictory. They are still true and need their turn. So, give yourself permission to feel it all, knowing that eventually your feelings will change and settle and the emotional rollercoaster will slow down.
[i] Levine, A. & Heller R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. Penguin.