In my four decades of being a relationship therapist, over half of the couples who come in to see me do so because of some kind of broken trust. Most of them want to rebuild their relationship, and many do stay together. Sadly, that doesn’t mean that they have truly healed that anguishing breach.
There is a marked difference between preserving an existing relationship and committing to build a new one out of the rubble. The pain and sorrow that accompanies an anguishing rift in trust does not easily dissipate. Both partners must be fully committed to whatever it takes to learn from what has happened and turn towards a believable future.
Even when there are strong feelings of guilt, fear, anger, hurt, insecurity, self-doubt, and humiliation, many intimate partners may still have a bond that they do not want to end. Their relationship may still be deeply connected to friends, family, religious or spiritual ideals, financial stability, and their mutual, important history. They may also abhor facing social judgments that can span from support to shame. Both partners struggle to balance between continuing a besieged relationship and experiencing the grief of splitting up.
Betrayals come in many forms. When couples look back in time, they realize that some might have been predictable. Others seem to have crept up, without the partners realizing that an inevitable breach was about to occur. Even when a relationship seems healthy and unassailable, they can fall prey to a betrayal that cannot be easily predicted or explained.
Most people hold the word betrayal as synonymous with infidelity. Perhaps that is because it is the most common form of broken trust in an intimate relationship, and represents the most basic elements that destroy faith between intimate partners. Committed partners traditionally promise one another that they will remain faithful for the duration of their relationship and they use that sacred agreement as the foundation of all other trusts between them. When one breaks that promise, the fallout from that deception infiltrates the sexual, emotional, mental, and spiritual bond that couple have based their love upon.
Though both men and women share many overlapping emotional responses to being betrayed by a partner, the men I see often experience the loss differently. They tell me that they feel not only betrayed, but also robbed by a “brother” who has taken what was rightfully theirs. Even if they initially try to see their partner as having been taken advantage of by that other man, they eventually come to the realization that their deceiving partner had to have had a part in her decision, making it harder for them to forgive her.
Many women whom I have treated are wounded and angry by their partner’s betrayals, but their underlying programming often makes them feel in some way responsible. Perhaps they feel that they have not been sexually satisfying or that men have a harder time being committed to just one woman. Even though they know that their partners made the decision to deceive, but still wonder what they might have done wrong. The sting of being replaced and the fear of loss often eclipse their legitimate feelings of betrayal. Those confusing contradictions are most often manifested in alternate feelings of rage and grief.
Though infidelity encompasses areas that are familiar to most, there are other breaches of trust that can be as equally destructive to a relationship. They produce similar feelings and reactions, and the same challenges for couples to overcome. For example, the repeated patterns of people caught up in addictions can slowly erode the trust of any intimate partner. Those trying-hard-to-keep-believing partners often come to me riddled with the anguish of multiple broken promises from partners who have vowed to give up compulsive and destructive patterns of self-abuse. They want to believe each new set of promises, but wear thin over time being unable to compete with the demons that pull their partners away.
Why, then, if betrayal is so destructive to most relationships, do couples find themselves so often enmeshed in them, and what do they need to understand to not only make them less likely to happen but possible to overcome?
When couples commit to a relationship, they agree to follow the ethics, values, and behaviors that will ensure that their relationship continues to thrive. Depending on how well they know themselves and each other, they make those agreements in good faith, and trust that each will live by them.
However, in many long-term relationships, most people’s needs, desires, and dreams change over time. What each partner was very willing to commit to at the beginning of the relationship often needs reevaluation and revision as the relationship matures. If intimate partners are open and authentic with each other from the start, they let one another know right away if the original agreements need to be re-examined. They then work hard at renegotiating them to keep the partnership up-to-date and alive. They find no need to keep their thoughts and feelings from one another even if they are hard to express. In that kind of atmosphere of openness and authenticity, they do not allow secrecy to take root.
Unfortunately, that level of courageous and heroic openness is not typical for most partners. In many committed relationships, one or both partners may, over time, not feel as comfortable with his or her initial commitments and fear reprisal or loss if they confess them. Understandably reticent to share those potentially threatening feelings, that partner may keep them silent, hoping the thoughts or feelings are just a passing fancy and will hopefully dissipate over time. Sometimes, they do. But, at other times, they begin to take on a life of their own, becoming more difficult to ignore or confess. As those experiences grow stronger, they become the drivers that push that partner into acting upon them.
Here is an illustration. Many years ago, I was working with a couple whose relationship was on the brink of disaster. There had been no infidelity, no addiction, no unspoken redistribution of funds, or any breaking of the bonds of devotion to family. Yet, what happened between them made reconciliation and healing impossible.
John and Mary (fictitious names) had grown up in the same town and known each other since the fourth grade. They attended the same Catholic Church and schools together and their parents were devoted to each other and to their God. Their marriage was witnessed by over three hundred people who had known them since childhood, and blessed them for a charmed life of commitments to their religion and to each other.
When John was accepted at a prestigious college in Boston, Mary and their 1-year-old daughter dutifully followed. They found a compatible church close by their modest apartment. They quickly made friends within the church and began their mutual devotion in the new parish.
John had a style of kindness and openness that easily blended with other students and professors in his new academic environment. He began hanging out with people who had different social, economic, and religious points of view. As he learned about their new ways of looking at social, political, and religious ideas, he began to doubt some of the religious doctrines he had unerringly and willingly followed all of his life.
At first, he felt like he was committing a sin to doubt his lifetime path to God. He didn’t have the heart to tell his wife of his conflict for fear that she would not be able to handle the situation. Yet, his desire to understand how his Catholicism fit into the greater picture of multiple religious devotions began to deepen and grow. Pretending to study at school, he began attending meetings at a Buddhist temple with the new friends he had grown to love and admire. The teachings felt freeing to him and more similar to the way he currently felt about his personal devotion to God.
After a few months, Mary noticed that he seemed fidgety at church and uncomfortable in the presence of the priest. She suggested he go talk to him if he was struggling with something. She was sure he could help.
Fortunately, the priest was gentle and supportive. He encouraged John to find the best in both of those paths and to search for a way to God that felt right for him. That night, emboldened by the priest’s kindness and understanding, he confessed his feelings to Mary, hoping she would understand. Sadly, his worst fears came to be. Aghast, angry, and frightened, Mary threatened to leave him if he did not immediately change his mind and his behavior. She felt not only betrayed, but humiliated that he had been “carrying on” with this “anti-Christ” behavior behind her back. She believed that her husband had perpetrated a terrible sin and that God would only forgive him if he immediately returned to their professed faith. Issuing him a final ultimatum, she would take their child and leave him forever were he to make any other decision.
From Mary’s point of view, this was a case of unforgivable betrayal. John’s feelings of self-doubt and guilt combined with her understandable feelings of being deceived were no different from what I had witnessed many times in dealing with couples undergoing the betrayal of sexual infidelity. They had agreed to live by the same rules and ethics and he had knowingly deceived her by committing to another belief. She could not forgive him his act of betrayal and could not grow into a new agreement that would allow him to be authentic. Both were suffering the terrible loss of each other, but neither could give up the competitive commitments that were crucial to each. Sadly, their situation was irreconcilable. The agonizing breach eclipsed whatever bond they had carefully established and nurtured.
But not all betrayals, even at this level of heartache, are beyond hope. I have seen other relationships where the partners so value one another that the concept that they will never be together again is simply unacceptable to both. They become committed to the possibility that the betrayal will somehow become the foundation for a deeper and more devoted relationship and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to make that happen.
If a couple suffering the agony of broken trust is committed to transforming their relationship, they must both be willing to follow some clear guidelines for this kind of miraculous outcome to happen.
The partner who has clearly betrayed the other must be able to witness and admit his or her intentional breaking of the emotional, physical, spiritual, or intellectual faith they once shared. That remorse must be absolute and the deception must not be excused by the situation at hand. People who have made self-serving decisions to act in a way that causes irreparable harm to their partners must be willingly accountable for what they have done. They cannot blame, make excuses, dismiss or minimize the action, nor expect their partners to heal before they are ready. They must also be willing to do whatever is necessary to put in the energy, time, and caring required to build a new relationship.
The betrayed partners have their own path. Yes, they have had their world turned upside down and have undergone severe damage to their sense of trust, self-worth, and faith in the other partner. But, they must still be willing to fight for resolution despite their legitimate pain. If love and other sacred attachments are still present, those betrayed partners must be open to examine their own participation in what has happened and work hard to get through the understandable need to express their wounds and desires to retaliate. When the couples I’ve known who have been fully willing to commit to this hazardous journey, they look back at the betrayal as the wake-up call that preceded a new level of commitment and depth in their relationship.
Every relationship is unique and each story is different. No one should feel guilty if he or she cannot get beyond the aftermath of a severe breach of trust. By the same token, no partner who still loves the other should run from a potentially quality relationship that has temporarily lost its moorings. Though the path to a thriving reconciliation can be difficult and long, many intimate partners who have fallen into the chasm of broken trust not only can find their way back to each other, but can do so with a new and deeper faith in themselves and their new relationship.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.