Many betrayed partners find themselves stuck at different points in the healing journey. Usually, these stuck points are the result of fear that is blocking forward movement because to evolve into the next phase of healing includes an element of relational risk.
In this blog post, I want to talk to you about one particular stuck point that most betrayed partners face at some point in the healing process. This sticky wicket involves returning to the pain of betrayal or subtly sabotaging our healing in order to avoid the terrifying risk of trusting again.
In this pattern, we stay in pain, picking at the scab that has finally begun to form and heal the wound of betrayal because we feel that staying in pain is part of what keeps us safe. We remind ourselves of the damage and pain because we cannot tolerate the level of risk involved in letting ourselves heal. To allow ourselves to heal would move us toward a crossroads where we would be confronted with the issue of trusting again. This might be with the cheating partner, or it might be with a new partner, but the crossroads of trust and vulnerability presents itself to all betrayed partners at some point.
The level of terror that betrayed partners experience when confronted with the need to risk vulnerability and extend trust after betrayal cannot be overstated. The emotional and relational stakes are paralyzing. Being asked to trust again or be relational and emotionally vulnerable after betrayal can feel like being asked to throw yourself off a cliff with no parachute and no idea how far the fall is or what lies below. If we are trying to do this with the same person who has cheated on us and lied to us in shocking and unbelievable ways, it is even more difficult.
Because this task is such heavy lifting and is so perilously risky, betrayed partners are adept at avoiding the crossroads. Our threat response systems are not very selective and quite frankly just want us to stay safe and avoid danger. Moving toward the very person who has been so threatening and created so much pain is not something that our threat system sees as a good idea. It does not easily stand down when it is time for us to rebuild trust and emotional vulnerability. As a result, we can be cagey and subtle in the ways that we avoid this risky proposition as we try to protect ourselves from more relational loss. Here are some ways we can avoid coming to the crossroads:
- We keep our pain active by rereading the sexts from two years ago.
- We focus on all the cheater’s flaws amplifying their character defects.
- We move into apathy where we neither feel really good or really bad about our partner.
- We make the bar for emotional safety so high that it is unachievable sabotaging both ourselves and the cheaters efforts. We continue sherlocking and looking for more details long after we have turned up anything new.
- We are hyper-vigilant and suspicious with our new partner.
- We avoid sex, touch or physical affection.
The temptation to avoid the crucible of vulnerability that is required to extend trust after betrayal is absolutely understandable. Each betrayed partner must navigate this territory at their own pace and with lots of support and help.
However, the choice to stay in avoidance of this risk is its own sort of hell-realm and many betrayed partners get stuck here. This is a place where if you have stayed with the cheating partner, you are together but there is no real joy or trust or intimacy in the relationship. Often both partners are stuck in low-level misery as they engage in relational patterns with one another that sabotage secure bonding just enough to avoid the risk of vulnerability but not enough to end the relationship.
If you have left the relationship with the cheating partner, you may find yourself picking another emotionally unavailable partner because this is another way of avoiding the risk of being truly vulnerable yourself. Or you may avoid relationships altogether, or you may enter a series of relationships that you sabotage by preemptively mistrusting your new partner.
Again, the crossroads where we extend into trust and vulnerability after betrayal is fraught. As I write this, I am struggling to find descriptors that do justice to the weightiness held within the task of rebuilding trust and intimacy after betrayal. It is not for the faint of heart and betrayed partners, the cheating partner and their helpers must all respect the emotional obstacles that must be overcome to do this difficult (albeit rewarding) work.
This is work that cannot be done alone. A relational wound requires relational healing and partners need individual support as well as support for their relationships to navigate the terrain of extending into trust and vulnerability after betrayal.