This is the fourth posting in our look at the power-over power-under dynamics that often take place in relationships where cheating has occurred. In the previous post, we discussed that the way to combat these dynamics starts with becoming aware of them on a larger scale in our lives. In this post, we discuss ways to overcome power-over dynamics in our everyday relationships, starting with our partners – how we think about them and treat them when they become a threat to us. Do we take power-over by making them our enemy and assigning the worst possible interpretation to the things they have done? Or do we reach for something different?
As betrayed partners, we have become part of a group of people who understand the sting and throb of being wounded in the particular way that cheating wounds. As we seek support, community, and belonging within this group, it is easy to make our cheating partners the common enemy that binds us together. And with that, it is easy to take the power-over position by slinging terms like narcissist, broken, sociopath, heartless, etc., at our cheating partners while believing that they are in some way worse people than we are. It is easy to try to soothe the ragged edges of our pain by taking power-over.
Once we become aware of our human vulnerability to this behavior, however, we must intentionally choose something different. Instead of going one-up or adopting a better-than position, we can instead look to the powerful tool of accountability. When we remain on a level playing field emotionally with our partner and we ask them to become accountable for their behaviors and the damage to our relationship, we are operating from a position of empowerment that does not cross the line into power-over. Instead, we are firmly rooted in our human dignity and highly aware of their human dignity as we ask them to move toward repair of the relational breach they have created.
Asking our partner to be accountable in this way requires us to be accountable as well. We have to be accountable when we slip over the line into power-over and power-under. At the same time, we have to be accountable to ourselves about what we need and what is best for us.
Let me say that again because I really want you to hear it: We have to be accountable to ourselves about what we need and what is best for us. This means that if our partner continues to cheat or disregard our relationship agreements, if our partner refuses to engage in meaningful repair, if our partner refuses to face the damage and pain the infidelity has caused, then we need to ask ourselves what is best for us given the reality of the choices our partner is making.
This is where it is so tempting to go into power-over. When we want the relationship, when we are hoping to be able to rebuild trust and connection, when we have invested years and built a life and family with our partner, we can feel such painful powerlessness if we have to stand by and watch our partner refuse to become accountable. And, as we know, the quickest way out of that desperate place is to claim power-over for ourselves by assigning our partner to the ‘heartless assholes who cheat and don’t care’ group.
When we do this, we walk away from being accountable to ourselves. We get preoccupied with making sure they maintain their status as the bad person in the relationship and that we maintain our status as the good person. We focus on trying to get them to change or see the error of their ways. We get preoccupied with trying to understand, analyze, and dissect their issues.
Being accountable to ourselves in this grievous situation means looking with clear eyes at what our partner is choosing and then making choices for ourselves that will be good for us. These choices are often going to take us through losing things that we really wanted to hold onto.
These choices may involve setting boundaries that inconvenience and burden us. These choices may involve spending money, time, and energy that we didn’t want to spend. These choices may involve accepting our partner’s refusal to be accountable and letting go of the relationship.
The good news here is that when we are prepared to both ask our partner to be accountable and to also be accountable to ourselves, we fully empower ourselves by giving ourselves choices – the ability to determine our path forward and to move toward healing and wholeness, regardless of what our partner chooses. We hope that our partner will join us. But we do not sacrifice our well-being to the dangerous emotional dances that power-over power-under dynamics create. We do not dehumanize ourselves or others. Instead, we choose dignity, freedom, and hope.