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Attachment

Cheating and Infidelity Create Attachment Ambivalence

Can you love and hate someone at the same time?

Key points

  • Being deeply attached to a partner who betrays you can scar your soul.
  • The emotional instability and occasionally irrational behaviors betrayed partners display after learning about infidelity are relatively normal.
  • Betrayed partners typically experience rapidly alternating and occasionally simultaneous desires to connect and to run away.
Shutterstock, Duncan Andison
Source: Shutterstock, Duncan Andison

Being deeply attached to a partner who betrays you can scar your soul. The wounds caused when a loving attachment is torn apart by intimate betrayal are just as painful as those brought about by physical injury. When a deep and healthfully dependent connection is unexpectedly damaged, you are traumatized. How could you not be? Moreover, from a psychological perspective, the deeper the connection, the more profound the grief.

When hearts are broken by infidelity, betrayed partners experience a tsunami of emotions ranging from hopelessness and despair to loneliness and grief. In addition to hopelessness, anger, and grief, research tells us, betrayed partners often experience stress reactions characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—nightmares, obsessive thoughts, emotional insecurity, severe anxiety, hypervigilance, emotional lability (rapid mood swings), and more.[i] Other research finds such trauma is primarily linked to a loss of relationship trust and relationship safety (rather than any specific sexual or romantic acts).[ii]

Taken together, studies suggest that the emotional instability and occasionally irrational behaviors betrayed partners display after learning about infidelity are relatively normal (i.e., expected) reactions to interpersonal trauma and relational crisis rather than emotional shortcomings in the betrayed partner (as many people previously thought). Betrayed partners may at times look a little crazy, but that doesn’t mean they are. Instead, they are simply reacting to a profound relational crisis.

One of the more distressing issues that therapists must help betrayed partners work through is the relational push-pull of attachment ambivalence. Trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk describes this well: “Terror increases the need for attachment, even if the source of comfort is also the source of terror.”[iii] In other words, after learning about infidelity, betrayed partners naturally want to turn to their primary relationship for comfort—more so than ever—but they struggle to do so because that relationship is also the source of their pain.

Many betrayed partners find themselves in an emotional war with themselves. They look at their cheating partner and think:

  • I love you, but I hate you.
  • I need you close, but I can’t stand to be in the same room as you.
  • I want you to hold me and tell me everything is going to be OK, but if you did that, I wouldn’t believe you.

The simple human truth for people in long-term, committed relationships is that their partner is the person they are most likely to turn to when they are struggling. This is why betrayal trauma is so unbelievably painful. After betrayal, partners suddenly know that the one person they counted on to always have their backs both can and will do things that hurt them if it suits their purpose. The one person betrayed partners need to be able to trust in this moment of crisis can no longer be trusted.

It's a classic Catch-22. Because betrayed partners crave intimate attachment, feeling disconnected from their mate creates distress. But now, after learning about betrayal, feeling connected with their mate also creates distress. Either way, relationship trust and safety are lost.

This is why betrayed partners experience attachment ambivalence. One moment, betrayed partners see their spouse playing with the kids or helping them with their homework and are filled with warmth, love, and appreciation. The next moment, they see their partner glance at their phone, and they remember the betrayal. With that, they are overwhelmed with hurt, anger, and disappointment.

This rapidly alternating and occasionally simultaneous desire to connect and to run away feels (and looks) chaotic and confusing. But what else would we expect when betrayed partners are mired in fear without solution? About this, Dan Brown and David Elliot write:

This impossible dilemma, over time, results in contradictory attachment behaviors, such as moving toward and moving away from the primary attachment figure. In other words, … a contradictory pattern of using both deactivating and hyper-activating attachment strategies, either alternating or simultaneously.[iv]⁠

It is important to understand that this pattern of response is neither pathological nor intentional. Betrayed partners are not emotionally deficient in some way because they cannot decide for more than a few moments if they want to stay in or leave their relationship. They are simply responding in the ways that human beings are wired to respond to trauma and crisis.

Rather than treating these individuals as if there is something wrong with them that they need to correct, therapists can and should recognize and validate their whirlwind of feelings while helping them find healthy ways to cope (the new prodependence model of treatment).[v]

The good news is that attachment ambivalence does pass, especially if the cheating partner is actively working to restore relationship trust and safety. That said, the process is likely to take anywhere from six to 18 months, depending on the degree of trauma and mistrust wrought by the cheating. And that’s if the cheating partner is actively telling the truth and being transparent not just about relationship issues but in all aspects of life.

For more information about healing after infidelity, visit the free resource website SexandRelationshipHealing.com.

References

[i] Steffens, B. A., & Rennie, R. L. (2006). The traumatic nature of disclosure for wives of sexual addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13(2-3), 247-267; and, Steffens, B. A., & Means, M. (2010). Your sexually addicted spouse: How partners can cope and heal (p. 224). Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press.

[ii] Schneider, J. P., Weiss, R., & Samenow, C. (2012). Is it really cheating? Understanding the emotional reactions and clinical treatment of spouses and partners affected by cybersex infidelity. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19(1-2), 123-139.

[iii] Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

[iv] Brown, D. P., & Elliott, D. S. (2016). Attachment disturbances in adults: Treatment for comprehensive repair. WW Norton & Co.

[v] Weiss, R. & Buck, K. (2022). Practicing Prodependence: The Clinical Alternative to Codependency Treatment. Routledge.

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