One of the significant shame issues betrayed partners struggle with is the belief that if they don’t leave the person who cheated on them, they are weak.
I’ll give you an example. I was talking with one of my clients about how angry and shaming she was being to her spouse. The couple had been working on their recovery for over a year. He had established sobriety, and the relationship was improving. However, she would occasionally give him a good ol’ down-and-dirty tongue-lashing that would leave both of them emotionally reeling for days.
I asked her what she thought this behavior was about for her. She told me, “You know what it is? I don’t just feel like I have a right to hurt him because he has hurt me; I feel like I have an obligation to hurt him and make him pay. Otherwise I am a weak and stupid fool for staying with him, and I am just letting him walk all over me in the relationship.”
On television and in magazines, we often see this storyline portrayed: a partner is unfaithful. The victim of this betrayal is a self-respecting woman who gathers up her cloak of pride and stalks out of the relationship, looking for greener pastures elsewhere. If television isn’t enough, our friends and family often jump to conclusions for us, and with little to no understanding about what we are dealing with, advise us to leave our relationship.
Real life is vastly different. Until you have been in the situation yourself and faced the details of your own reality (children, a mortgage, good memories, love and affection for your partner, a close relationship with your in-laws, financial obligations, etc.), you can’t possibly know what you would, could, or should do. Most people want their relationships to work. Most are looking for a way to stay together, even in the face of great trauma.
Initially after discovering betrayal, leaving can feel like the right thing to do to save your pride and take yourself out of pain and confusion. And for some, that is indeed the best course of action. But for many others, making such a huge, life-altering decision when you are smack in the middle of a major crisis and experiencing a significant trauma reaction is often not the wisest choice.
Whatever you choose, it is your choice. It is not weak to choose to stay in your relationship. I am amazed every day by the strength and grace of the women and men I sit with who, in spite of being dealt a very crappy hand, are choosing to stay in the game. They are taking on the difficult task of opening themselves up to new ways of thinking, and stretching toward growth and change in order that they might heal. This takes bravery, patience, fortitude, and a willingness to hope and risk despite daunting odds. It is not an act of weakness to stay, and there is no shame in it.
In the same way, it is not weak to choose to leave. Sometimes the greatest act of self-care is the courageous choice to end a destructive relationship and lean into the task of rebuilding a new and different life.
If you are feeling like the choice that you have made is a sign of weakness and that you are letting your dignity be trampled on, I encourage you to reframe how you are thinking about this issue. Remind yourself that hope for healing, repair, forgiveness and reconciliation is the birthplace of true possibility.