In last week’s post, we talked about how the cheating partner’s secrets and lies put that partner in a one-up, power-over position in the relationship. This week we are going to look at what happens when the power dynamics flip, and the betrayed partner moves into the power-over position.
One of the most common patterns I see happen in couples who are dealing with infidelity or sexual addiction who stay together and try to repair the relationship is a flip in the power-over position. The cheating partner who, thanks to secrets and lies, initially held the power-over position becomes honest (or gets discovered) and, with that, the betrayed partner steps into the power-over role.
As every betrayed partner knows, discovery of betrayal brings an enormous sense of powerlessness. Betrayed partners did not choose this dynamic, get a say in it, or have any chance to control it, and yet the cheating and lies are life-changing in profoundly negative ways. As a result, they are plunged into an experience where they feel out of control, unsafe, and powerless to stop the horror story in which they find themselves.
Powerlessness is one of the hardest emotions for us to feel as humans. When we feel powerlessness, it activates the threat center of the brain, which screams at us to fight, run away, or freeze in place. Our brains automatically want us to do something to escape feeling powerless. And one of the easiest and quickest ways to do this is to grab any power we can for ourselves and move into a one-up position. So that is what many betrayed partners tend to do.
After discovery, cheating partners are faced with the reality of the damage they have caused. While in the cheating ‘bubble,’ they have ignored or repressed awareness of the consequences of their actions. Now that the bubble has burst, however, they are face to face with the fallout from their behaviors. This brings shame, pain, shock, and anger to the surface, along with an internal struggle to take ownership and responsibility for what has happened.
At the same time, cheating partners face the potential ending of their relationship. For many, this is terrifying. They do not want to lose their significant other, even though they have been cheating. The potential loss of the relationship sends them into high distress and panic, and they begin to work overtime to apologize, show remorse, and somehow hold the relationship together.
When this happens, the cheating partner often moves into the one-down position in the relationship. They know that they are the one who cheated, lied, and harmed their loved ones. They are dealing with an enraged and pain-filled partner. They may be dealing with a new diagnosis of sexual compulsivity. They are on the hot seat to take responsibility for their actions, rebuild trust, restore a sense of safety, and repair the broken bond of their relationship.
As the cheating partner shifts into the one-down position, the betrayed partner typically moves out of powerlessness by shifting into the one-up or power-over position in the relationship. They do this not to get even, but because they are in shock and doubt about who their partner is and what to expect in their relationship, and every instinct they have is prompting them toward self-protection. Moving into a one-up stance is an inherently self-protective move, which is why this is such a common pattern among couples trying to heal from betrayal.
If you are a betrayed partner, you may be reading this and thinking, “I do not see this at all. I don’t feel one-up. I don’t feel like I am in the power-over position. In fact, I still feel powerless.” This is probably because power dynamics within relationships shift quickly back and forth, especially in the volatile times after the discovery of betrayal, and it is possible to occupy both places of the power dynamic at the same time, albeit in different ways.
Here are some ways that we, as betrayed partners, can operate from a one-up or power-over stance in our relationship with the cheater:
- Offending from the victim position: This occurs when we’ve been offended against by being lied to and cheated on. In response to this victimization, we can unconsciously give ourselves permission to be offensive in the relationship ourselves. We can rage, name-call, throw things, destroy possessions, and shame and humiliate our partner, and we can feel fully justified in doing so because of how badly our partner has treated us. Engaging in these behaviors is an example of going one-up in the relationship and having power-over.
- Sweeping character assassination: It is easy to make sweeping statements about the cheating partner. “They are all narcissists.” “Cheaters always cheat.” “All of them were poisoned at a young age.” “They are broken and selfish.” “They are sick.” “They can’t love.” “They are broken people who do not love or value others.” (FYI I took a quick glance at the Facebook group that I run for betrayed partners and pulled these quotes from a few posts I read.) These and similarly sweeping statements that lump all cheating partners together and label and denigrate them are a form of taking power-over or going one-up.
Sweeping character assassination is one of the most common (and potentially damaging) behaviors that I see betrayed partners engage in as a form of being one-up. Whenever we speak in sweeping statements about a group of people, we have to be very careful about what we are saying. There are patterns and identifiable elements that make up behaviors like cheating and sexual addiction. However, each person’s story is unique.
When we talk about our cheating partner as ‘they’ and lump them into one big group to which we then assign negative attributes, we are adopting a classic dehumanization technique. We dehumanize others when we lose our ability to see them as unique yet deeply imperfect humans who are struggling through this thing called life alongside us. When we make sweeping statements about our cheating partner in this way, we minimize their personhood and, in doing so, we also diminish our own personhood.
Whether we are offending from the victim position or engaging in sweeping character assassination, we are working against repair of the relationship. When we begin to view and treat our partner in such negative ways, we block our ability to like them and to love them. It is hard to feel good about someone if we are frequently telling ourselves and others that person is a selfish, broken narcissist who is incapable of love. These power-over power-under dynamics, even though they are engaged in as forms of self-protection, can be the death of safe connection and intimacy.
Again, I believe it is tempting to engage in these types of dehumanizing behavior because we have felt so dehumanized ourselves by our partner’s cheating and lying. However, when we flip the dynamic and move into power-over ourselves, we do not move toward health and wholeness in our relationship. Instead, we are just exchanging one damaging dynamic for another.
I also think that these power-over behaviors are attractive because they help us combat the shame that we often feel as betrayed partners. When we are pointing our finger at the cheating partner and negatively labeling them, we do not have to feel the insecurity and self-doubts that being betrayed often creates in us.
This all begs the question, what should be happening instead? How do we deal with the way we have been dehumanized by the cheating and lying while not joining in the power-over power-under dynamics? That is what we will talk about next week.