Infidelity, deception, broken promises. Being human means having to face the pain of betrayal at some point during our lives. As I explore in my book Love & Betrayal, the important question is how do we deal with it? How can we face this most difficult aspect of the human condition without succumbing to cynicism or despair? Whether a betrayal happened recently or years ago, we need to find our way toward healing.
Here are some tips for moving forward in our lives after a life-changing betrayal.
Move On from Blaming and Judging
It’s natural to blame and judge someone for have treated us in a way that is disrespectful and harmful to our heart. Blaming others is one way to avoid blaming ourselves when a relationship goes awry. But blaming ourselves or others has a limited shelf-life. It can keep us spinning our wheels in our minds rather than healing and moving forward.
Some betrayals, such as an infidelity, come out of the blue. We thought the relationship was going well, but our partner was dissatisfied or not as committed as we assumed. Our sense of reality can be brutally undermined when we discover that our partner has strayed into the arms of another.
In other instances, we may have contributed to a climate ripe for betrayal. Perhaps we didn’t listen well when our partner expressed hurts, fears, or discontents. We might have minimized our partner’s feelings when they tried to tell us they were not feeling heard or appreciated. Perhaps it was too upsetting to hear that we hurt the person we love, so we tuned-out their expressions of discontent.
We don’t need to blame ourselves for these common human shortcomings. And these human failings certainly don’t excuse our partner for acting out their feelings by having an affair. Perhaps they could have expressed their feelings and needs more assertively, or in a less critical way, or insisted on seeing a couples therapist.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t serve us to get stuck in blaming and accusing. If we want to repair broken trust, it would serve us to take responsibility for any part we may have played that contributed to a betrayal. If we don’t want to repair the relationship and just want to move on with our lives, it can still be instructive to explore if we interacted with our partner in a way that fueled their frustration and contorted to a climate that led to a betrayal.
Blaming and accusing is a common stage in healing from betrayal. Understandably, it conveys our anger — and our viewpoint that our partner or friend did something hurtful and destructive. It’s vital that our partner “gets” that they did something extremely hurtful if they hope to repair trust. But if we get stuck in the anger and blaming stage of the healing process, we’re less likely to heal our betrayal wound.
Uncovering Our Pain
Oftentimes when we feel betrayed, we express our pain through blaming and accusing. But at some point in our healing journey, we need to be willing to face our pain directly, without (or with less) of the contaminating effects of blaming and shaming our partner, which is likely to make them defensive and push them away rather than soften, hear our pain, and take responsibility for their hurtful actions.
Whether we want to repair broken trust or part ways with a person who betrayed us, our healing is furthered as we find a way to gently hold the hurting places within ourselves. Perhaps old traumas have taught us to push painful and difficult feelings down. A current betrayal may reactivate old traumas that we haven’t dealt with well. Unfortunately, our society teaches us that pain is something to avoid rather than being with it in a way that allows and honors it, though without getting lost in it.
An essential part of our healing and growth is learning to be with our feelings in a “caring, feeling way,” as Focusing teachers Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell put it. When our heart breaks open from a betrayal, our challenge is to find a way to be with the full range of our feelings that we notice inside us — the rage, the shame, the hurt — and allow ourselves to feel them in a way where we’re neither too close to them nor too far away, which might then enable them to move on. We also learn more about ourselves as we find our way toward embracing difficult feelings and hearing what they may be trying to tell us.
A major betrayal is traumatic. We may not be able to work it through without wise and compassionate support. Talking openly with trusted friends can be helpful so that we don’t feel so alone. However, while friends may offer helpful support and love, they may not offer the best advice, especially if they have not dealt with their own pain in a skillful way. The combination of speaking with trusted friends and working with a therapist skilled in dealing with trauma may help us heal, learn lessons, and move forward in a positive way, whether we stay with a partner or not.
There is life after betrayal, though it can long and winding journey. It’s important to be gentle and patient with our process and give ourselves whatever time we need to heal.