The Betrayal Predicament

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

“The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” — Charles Dubois

There are many complex consequences that come with traumatic experiences in life. When an addict chooses to act out he or she is oblivious to the whirlwind of repercussions the destructive behavior manifests. The fallout from broken trust creates a ripple effect that exists for a long time.

Relationship betrayal is like a shoulder separation. Any movement or action triggers tremendous pain. With shoulder separation, the pain remains the same until the shoulder is back in place. With relationship betrayal, the pain remains as long as one partner stays in the “basement” and the other condescends toward the one who has betrayed. There is a long journey toward healing the breach in betrayal behavior. In the end, healing betrayal requires an acceptance of common shared brokenness between the betrayer and the betrayed. 

The journey toward healing is long and arduous. It makes sense that the partner offended would writhe in emotional pain and rail about the behavior of the betrayer. The role of the betrayer is one of honesty and validation of the behaviors committed. Support requires that within reason a betrayer take it on the chin regarding a painful partner response. In addition, there is the expectation to stop the destructive behavior while validating the partner betrayed who is groveling with emotional pain. For the betrayer, there is this sense that you have no moral capital to stand to set boundaries after betrayal. It is common experience for a betrayer to not be trusted, to face a firestorm of anger and fury, to be called names, and to be treated with a collection of hurtful responses from a betrayed partner. After all, betrayal breaks the heart of the one betrayed. 

That being said, actually getting emotionally naked and facing the fallout of emotions that occur when betrayal is discovered has a designated shelf life. What I have noticed is that a couple can engage in a dynamic that becomes a “pain game”. The one betrayed lashes out and the betrayer deflects. The deflection can evolve into various strategies such as all-out verbal war, hunkering down and becoming silent, or passive-aggressive behaviors that likely fuel more acting-out behaviors that might destroy the relationship.

Relational healing requires boundaries for both partners. The partner offended by betrayal feels entitled to tongue-lash and berate. It makes sense, but it just doesn’t work toward healing. In anger, a partner betrayed can respond “I don’t care, the S.O.B deserves it all”. In many cases, for sure. In all cases, remaining stuck in this attitude will ultimately kill the possibility of healing intimacy. Partners betrayed who make the betrayer a pin cushion to be stuck at will with nasty comments of resentment will over time only have a pin cushion and not an intimate partner. This usually results in becoming stuck with bitterness.  Healing requires ongoing forgiveness and the practice of letting go and surrendering which Step 3 in a 12-step program promotes. 

Betrayers complain about the penalty box. This embraces the mentality that the betrayer says “You screwed up so the privileges of relationship trust are suspended and you need to stay in the penalty box until I, the betrayed, say you can come out”.  Some partners who have betrayed put a chip on their shoulder and walk the corridors of their relationship seething that the betrayed hasn’t gotten over it.  This obvious sign of narcissism usually plays into a relational explosion. It is a contributing reason why so many relationships wrecked by betrayal dissolve. 

Others, go along with the penalty box mentality, hoping to endure to see the light of the day of emancipation. This approach requires perseverance. It engages the idea that the betrayer deserves to be mistrusted and he or she must earn their way back with impeccable behavior while demonstrating acceptance that they are not worthy of trust. Some betrayers get stuck in the misbelief that they simply are not trustworthy at any level of the relationship. They even argue that they belong in the penalty box. Their perception of themselves becomes one and the same as that of the partner who was betrayed. This mistaken belief blocks emotional healing from betrayal in a relationship.

Here are a few considerations toward healing broken trust:

1. Empower your adult self. Don’t give your power away to the little boy or girl within you. Recovery requires the powerful resources of an adult. Often, in recovery, we surrender and give the power to the little boy or girl within. Setting a boundary with a partner who has betrayed you or the partner who has been betrayed is an adult action and should not be made from the perspective of a child in control. Take back your power. You can and must say “no more”. You don’t have to throw a temper tantrum. A direct and simple “no more” in behavioral action is enough. When you are overwhelmed and reactionary, ask yourself the question “Who has the reins of your thoughts and actions?” If it is the little boy or girl, take the reins and put them in the hands of your adult self and follow through with the action that your adult says makes sense. Addicts tend to lose themselves trying to please their offended partner. The child mentality takes over, thinking that if somehow I do whatever my partner wishes then we will be happy again. It seldom works. When you honor yourself by maintaining your boundaries, you will create the best opportunity to restore trust and harmony in the relationship.

2. Strive to be impeccable with your word: (The Four Agreements, Ruiz) Misusing your word by not following through may have created hell for you in the past, and when you are impeccable with follow through you create beauty and heaven on earth. Honesty is crucial to healing betrayal. Disclosure is the most difficult task in betrayal recovery. Impeccability of your word is destroyed when you piecemeal and dribble out the truth. The power of honesty heals. Make up your mind that regardless of cost you will say it straight, whether you are disclosing betrayal or responding to what has broken your heart.

3. Embrace “white water thinking.”  When you go rafting or kayaking, white water requires you to focus and be present in the here and now. To successfully navigate you must pay attention to where you are and what you must do presently. When you are going through the tumult and chaos of betrayal, it is easy to get lost in awfulizing the past and catastrophizing the future. You want to tell yourself that all is lost past, present, and future. To successfully navigate the white water of betrayal, you must focus on the here and now and be determined to do the next right thing. It is critical that you not give in to the temptation to believe it will never be better. White water thinking requires that you trust a process that if you remain present in the moment it will take me to where I need to be.

4. Manage the shame of the behavior by affirming your sense of self while putting the shame on the destructive behavior. No matter what you have done or has been done to you, you are not a piece of shit. You can feel shitty and not be one. All parties of betrayal feel shitty, unless you are sociopathic. Yet, even sociopathic people who heal must embrace this discomfort at some point in their healing. It will require disciplined training to hold your feet to the fire of keeping the shame off your sense of self and onto the behavior. This demands community support and management whether you are the betrayer or the betrayed.

5. Embrace the person, behavior, and relationship you believe is meant to be part of your destiny, and step by step walk in that direction. Betrayal triggers people to think it is over. The relationship may be over, but you don’t have to be done with yourself. In your deepest despair focus on the vision of what you believe is your destiny and act it into being in the here and now. Betrayal does not mean the relationship must be done. You may want it that way and this is your right to conclude. Yet, if you are not done, you have the right to move toward the relationship healing you desire. What you think about will expand. If you believe that you are flawed and that your flaws have produced the results that you suffer in betrayed behavior, you will take what is and make it less. However, if you focus on the power of healing and forgiveness, then this is what you will give yourself and others. You can send love in response to hate. This doesn’t mean you must stay in a hurtful relationship. You can cultivate forgiveness as an act of self-love and send love toward others. No amount of guilt will change anything. Embrace guilt and let it go.  You can make a personal commitment to be what you love. You do not have to allow betrayal to dominate who you are or what you think. You can find meaningfulness in your painful experience if you are willing to do whatever it takes.