In last week’s blog, I discussed your right as a betrayed partner to know the full details of what your significant other has done. I also introduced the idea that your right to know often conflicts with your significant other’s desire to tell only partial truths and to continue keeping secrets. In this post, we will examine in detail this reluctance to disclose.
Several years ago, I worked with a client (let’s call her Marissa) who discovered through some world-class sleuthing that her spouse (let’s call him Mark) had been having anonymous sex with strangers that he met online or picked up in bars. Once Mark knew the jig was up, he confessed to having anonymous sex since the beginning of their dating-engagement-married life together, but he was sketchy with details. During the hours of discussion that followed, Marissa desperately tried to learn the complete truth about Mark’s infidelity. The conversation alternated between bouts of angry yelling and painful tears cried together.
The next morning, Marissa called and made therapy appointments for herself and Mark, and they entered treatment. Marissa came to her appointment stuck in a nightmare of fear and pain, feeling like she knew part of the story from what Mark had confessed, but not everything. She felt like there was more. She was also having a hard time holding on to and making sense of what she did know because she was in shock and emotional overwhelm. Still, she knew she wanted the full truth. She had many questions about when, where, who, how many, how often, etc. And it felt absolutely imperative to her that she get honest and complete answers to these questions as soon as possible so she could ground herself in the facts and stop the swirling chaos of being lied to.
Mark, on the other hand, came into treatment knowing he had been caught and that his relationship was on the line. He knew that he had to do something or he was going to lose Marissa and his family, and that terrified him. He felt terrible about the pain he had caused Marissa, and he was shocked at the level of hurt and damage she felt. He wanted to stop the pain and somehow put the genie back into the bottle. He did not, however, want to disclose any more about his infidelity than what he absolutely had to.
I wrote in an earlier post about the attachment dilemma betrayed partners experience when they discover betrayal. They are simultaneously caught between their feelings of love and hate for the cheating partner and his behaviors. However, it is not just the betrayed partner who is caught in an attachment dilemma. The cheating partner has his own attachment dilemma that has stuck him squarely between a rock and hard place.
The cheater’s dilemma goes like this: “I don’t want to hurt my partner and I’m terribly upset that she is in pain and our relationship is in jeopardy. I don’t want to lose my relationship. However, I cannot give up my sexual behaviors because that is the way I cope with and handle the stress and anxiety of my life.” Typically, the cheater’s dilemma occurs because he is attached to two things: his partner and his sexual behaviors. These two things are now in conflict, and he is being presented with a choice: his sexual behavior or his relationship.
Mark was stuck in this dilemma and he did what most sexually addicted or unfaithful partner’s do at this point: he doubled-down. At this stage of crisis, almost all cheating partners will try to find a way to keep both their relationship and their sexual behavior (or, if they are giving up the infidelity, they at least want to keep the secrets about what they did).
To do this, they make heroic efforts to try to calm their partner and ease her fears while simultaneously protecting and hiding their sexual behaviors. Usually, this involves telling some portion of the truth while maintaining a stash of lies about the full extent and scope of their behaviors. And this partial truth is almost always presented as the full truth, with the cheating partner swearing on the family Bible and crying crocodile tears of remorse to convince the betrayed partner that she now knows everything there is to know.
Can you begin to see the sticky, tricky issue that couples dealing with betrayal can get stuck in? Marissa wants and needs to know what has been happening in their relationship. She has been blindsided and tumbled about and for her, it feels like the only way to return to solid ground is to know the entire truth about the betrayal. Meanwhile, Mark is terrified that he will lose Marissa and have to give up his sexual behaviors. It feels to him like telling the truth is the surest way to lose one or the other or both, and his safest course of action is to continue keeping secrets, disclosing only what he has to tell. He believes that if Marissa knows the full truth, she will stop loving him, lose respect for him, and leave him.
In next week’s blog, we will continue our discussion of the dilemma betrayed partners face around their need for full disclosure of the cheating behaviors.