In my previous three posts, we talked about the discovery dilemma that betrayed partners often find themselves in where their need for the truth about what has happened runs into their cheating partner’s continued commitment to lying and secret-keeping. Most recently, we looked at the very challenging reality that you cannot make your partner tell the truth if he is unwilling to do so, no matter how much you want, deserve, and have a right to that truth.
This week I want to talk about the toxic trap that many betrayed partners get caught up in when faced with this discovery dilemma. We call this trap staggered discovery, or “death by paper-cut.”
When betrayed partners are confronted with infidelity and realize the level of dishonesty and manipulation to which they have been subjected by their cheating partner, they are hurt, shocked, and enraged. Their need to know everything that has happened – to get to the bottom line truth of who, what, when, where, and how often.
In an effort to meet this urgent need, betrayed partners can try to force the issue with the cheating partner. In so doing, she inadvertently and unintentionally enters into a toxic process of staggered discovery that can destroy any good will that is left in the relationship while dramatically increasing her trauma symptoms, distrust, anxiety, and emotional pain.
Staggered discovery looks like this: You, the betrayed partner are filled with your need and right to know what has happened. So, you go after it. You are creative, smart, and most of all, motivated, and you begin a campaign to wring the truth out of your significant other—by hook, crook or trick.
You interrogate him like a special agent on speed. You rage, you explain, you argue. You are sweet and try to catch him off guard, seeing if he trips up and tells you something new. You set up cameras, you pretend to be someone else and chat him up online, you put keyboard trackers on his devices, you put a tracker on his car, you read his therapy homework. In short, you make Sherlock Homes look like an amateur.
Guess what happens? You catch him. He trips up and says something different than what he said before. Or you find out a new detail when you read his therapy homework. Or he sends a sketchy text and you see it. Some new bit of information comes out. Often, it’s a small bit, only one little piece of the puzzle, but it’s a new bit nonetheless.
From there, the two of you have days of fighting and crying and talking. You do more digging, grilling him about what he has already told you, trying to get to the bottom of this new information, plus whatever else you can unearth. To placate you, he tells you a little bit more but certainly not everything—just what he thinks you need to know to get this round of fighting, crying, and talking to settle down so the two of you can get back to normal-ish.
Eventually things do settle down. You’ve got another piece or two of the puzzle, and he is swearing once again that you now have the whole story. You are at an impasse and things settle down into an uneasy peace for a while.
Until…you once again find out some new detail. He makes a mistake and something gets discovered, or you do more investigating and learn about something else. Whatever, however, back you go into the vortex of betrayal, feeling once again the waves of shock and pain at being lied to and betrayed, until, worn out with trying to get the truth, you hit the pause button and things settle down again. For a while.
This is death by paper-cut. It is the damaging cycle of repeated rounds of betrayal as the partial truth is trickled out in dribs and drabs. It deepens your mistrust, heightens your trauma symptoms and worst of all, at the end of all the drama, you still don’t have the whole truth.
But what, you ask, is the alternative? You need to know what happened, you have a right to know what happened, and this is the only way you’re going to find out, right?
Well, no. There is another option available and it is to wait until your cheating partner has gotten himself to a place where he is willing and able to tell you the whole truth. And yes, I know that at this stage of the game the very very, very last thing you want to hear is that you are going to have to wait to get the whole story. In fact, the idea that after being lied to, cheated on, manipulated, shamed, and heartbroken, you must wait on the truth until your lying, cheating partner is ready to tell it probably makes you want to throw your phone or laptop across the room.
I don’t blame you. This is so freaking unfair that it’s hard to even grasp. The person who mauled your emotions, broke intimate promises, put your health at risk, and stomped on your heart now needs to be treated like some delicate flower who needs…what? Time? Handholding? Help?
You. Must. Be. Joking.
I wish I were. This waiting is actually one of the worst things that betrayed partners deal with. It feels unfair and postpones the ability to get some sense of safety back for yourself. The only thing that brings most betrayed partners in off the ledge during this “wait it out” phase is recognizing that the alternative—staggered discovery, death-by-papercut, repeated rounds of betrayal—is even worse.
In my next post, we will discuss the benefits of waiting for full disclosure vs. pushing for immediate, though staggered discovery.