In my previous two posts, I talked about the fear of attachment loss that comes when we contemplate leaving the relationship with the cheating partner. Today, we are going to continue our discussion of these fears, but we are going to focus more on the way that this fear unfolds within the relationship and how it can at times keep us very, very stuck.
One of the common patterns that I see betrayed partners fall into is becoming preoccupied with potentially leaving their relationship while never actually doing so. These individuals spend a lot of time thinking about leaving. They may even threaten to leave or file for divorce during fights with the cheating partner. Thinking about leaving is the place they run to in their minds when the pain is too much, when the powerlessness feels too intense, and when they don’t know another way out of the distress they find themselves in. Preoccupation with leaving the relationship allows them to emotionally keep one foot out the door while never actually crossing the threshold.
Many betrayed partners feel torn between their desire to escape the pain of the relationship and their deep attachment to their partner. This creates a bind, and becoming preoccupied with the possibility of leaving is one of the results of this bind.
This preoccupation also serves a more unconscious function for betrayed partners. Regularly thinking about leaving or threatening to leave allows betrayed partners to avoid more relational loss.
You are probably thinking, “How is thinking about losing my entire relationship a way to avoid experiencing more loss? That makes no sense!”
Ah but stay with me because it does, and it will.
Often, partners who are in this place of preoccupation with leaving spend significant mental and emotional energy weighing their options. Doing this keeps them distracted and occupied. Being distracted and occupied by the question of whether to leave feels immediately important and meaningful.
However, it can prevent them from doing the most important work that they need to do in their relationship with the cheater. For betrayed partners who are still in a relationship with the cheater, much of the early recovery process is about learning how to set boundaries, how to use your voice effectively, how to connect to and process your feelings and emotions, how to identify what you need and communicate it clearly, how to step out of being gaslighted, how to hold onto your reality, etc.
These new skills and relational patterns must be learned and practiced. Learning how to do these things builds the internal strength and clarity needed to eventually answer the question about staying or leaving in a real way that frees them to take the best action for themselves.
However, and here is the catch, in order to move out of reactivity and toward healthy functional behaviors with the cheater, we must be able to tolerate more relational loss.
Learning these new skills and relational patterns will bring betrayed partners directly into situations where there is the possibility of more loss. When we make a request and set a boundary for ourselves, we might have to maintain our boundary if our request is ignored or denied. That may mean loss of relational connection in some way. If we express an emotional need and our significant other is unwilling or incapable of meeting it, we will experience relational disconnection (more loss). If we have a fight and the cheater pulls away and withdraws afterward, that is a relational loss. If we have a conversation and the cheater moves into stinkin’ thinkin’ and gaslights us, that is a relational loss. If we try to talk to each other and we are both doing our best but miss each other anyway, that too is a relational loss.
This potential for experiencing more loss is why betrayed partners can instead choose to stay in preoccupation about whether to stay or leave. Focusing on that big picture question allows them to avoid these more incremental risks within the relationship. Unconsciously, it can feel easier to stay in the ‘what if’ of thinking about or threatening to leave than to face the concrete losses that are always part of the growing work we do within the relationship.
In my next post, we will discuss how betrayed partners can learn to tolerate the fear of relational loss.