Once the trust in a relationship has been broken, can it ever be healed?“For many couples, infidelity isn’t the ultimate deal breaker. And, whether or not infidelity ends the relationship, it acts as powerful alarm system that often jolts a couple out of complacency and makes them realize what they stand to lose, or what they have already lost.” —Esther Perel, noted couples and sex therapist.
What should we do if we discover that our partner crosses a line – whether it be by texting inappropriately, by viewing pornography, or by entering illicit internet chatrooms—or by entering an emotional or physical relationship with another person?
What if, instead, the betrayal comes in the form of a spouse who lost the family’s savings after making ill-advised or impulsive investment decisions without consulting us?
Any of the above actions might feel like a devastating attack on one’s equilibrium—much like after a violent physical assault. No words can describe the excruciating pain we may feel after discovering that a trusted loved one has betrayed us. Understandably, it might then seem that the world as we’ve known it will no longer feel solid or safe.
To make matters worse: any secrets, lying and/or evasive attempts to cover up the damage, could further destroy any shreds of trust or goodwill remaining. If the “betrayer” defensively denies or minimizes what happened in an attempt to shift the blame, it can feel like a further damaging blow. The initial shock of learning that there has been a betrayal can bring out the most distressing of negative emotions—depression, anger, worry, fear and shame.
The hurt individual might be dismayed to discover they’re now showing a side of themselves they’re ashamed of— obsessive and/or demoralizing thoughts, an inability to concentrate, or to perform even the simplest of daily tasks, and/or a hyper-vigilant need to monitor the other’s actions.
During the tumultuous days following the hurt, both parties are often overwhelmed and confused about the right path to take going forward. When emotions are charged and volatile, efforts to reach resolution are often dashed by escalating tirades. To transcend a breach of this magnitude, the “betrayed” partner will need to believe that the unfaithful partner has shown genuine remorse and compassion for the harm that they’ve caused. Without this, the hurt partner has no reason to trust or forgive.
However, it’s important to recognize that BOTH parties are usually in tremendous pain—albeit for different reasons—and addressing the impact on both will be critical, if there is to be meaningful, sustainable resolution. Oftentimes, the one who has inflicted the hurt is simultaneously suffering a huge blow to his or her self-esteem. There may be shame and embarrassment, leading to a sense of isolation and loss. Well-meaning family and friends often wish to be helpful, but they, too, are often reacting emotionally, so they may have difficulty remaining objective.
There is no “quick fix” that enables a couple to heal from a betrayal without the opportunity to take all the time they need to vent, rant and grieve. This can be emotionally draining, requiring a tremendous amount of patience, as the parties move through an ongoing process of sorting through a wide range of intense emotions. Restoring trust can be a rigorous process, of learning a new way of speaking with each other, and demonstrating that both parties are committed to a path of rigorous truth-telling and accountability.
Each member of the couple might need assistance in addressing his or her ambivalence about the relationship, and may need the opportunity to consider many factors while making a thoughtful decision about whether to forgive one another, and whether or not it is advisable to stay in the relationship. Individual, couples and/or family therapy can be a safe place for the individuals to open up a thoughtful, compassionate dialog that addresses not only the hurts, but an understanding of the complexities that may have contributed to the breakdown of the relationships.
It is important—and encouraging—to note that many couples who have viewed their situations as irreparable, ultimately have been able to, not only repair the damage, but build a stronger, more intimate, trusting relationship going forward. As unimaginable as that may initially seem, it can be possible.
Please feel free to contact Linda Lipshutz for a confidential discussion about the best way to proceed.