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Betrayal in Intimate Relationships

Adele Wilde

Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

Learning that your intimate other has been, or is, unfaithful in some significant way can be experienced as a betrayal. A betrayal can be deeply shocking and traumatizing, leaving you wounded, struggling in pain and disbelief. The one you thought you knew and trusted is not the person you believed them to be. You question who is this person and how could they do this. The pain of the betrayal makes it difficult to go on with everyday life. Disorientation, confusion, and overwhelming emotion are the hallmarks of the early stages of having to deal with a new painful reality.

"A trauma is a major negative event or set of events that destroys important assumptions or fundamental beliefs about the world or specific people-in this case, your partner and your relationship. Traumatic events disrupt all parts of your life-your thoughts, feelings and behaviours."

Becoming aware of a betrayal, such as an affair, or other form of sexual infidelity or romantic infidelity, involves the loss of a reality. This loss, like any significant loss, can lead to depression and anxiety states. The losses brought about by the discovery of an infidelity include loss of innocence, loss of safety and predictability, loss of trust, loss of hopes for your relationship and for your future, the loss of exclusivity, loss of romance, friendship, sex, and a myriad of daily experiences.

At an early stage in the exposure of infidelity your normal emotional state may be thrown into disarray. Your feelings and thoughts might swing moment by moment, or they might be so jumbled that you don't know what you're feeling. If you are numb, you may think there's something wrong with you because you're not feeling.

Following a trauma an initial sense of numbness is a way of protecting ourselves from overwhelming intense pain. These feelings will usually surface at some later time; people react differently to traumatic events.

Although the meaning of an infidelity will vary between people, and personal reactions differ, generally a partner's affair or secret life involves violations of core assumptions about your life together, and about yourself. We ask ourselves questions such as, can trust ever be restored, will this pain ever go away; when will I cease feeling so angry, hurt, lost, broken, scared and vulnerable? You may start questioning your assumptions about yourself, wondering, "how could I be such a fool? I can't trust my own judgement anymore." Our relationships are built upon the fragile agreement that those about whom we care most deeply, will behave in large part so as not to hurt us. A betrayal can shatter that belief, and open the door to the possibility that things in one's small, intimate world, are not as safe as we believed.

Possible reactions to betrayal

  • You feel profoundly vulnerable and unsafe.
  • You're uncertain about your own worth or attractiveness.
  • You feel as though your emotions can overwhelm you or are out of your control. You find that you have little control of your tears, which can well at any time and in any place.
  • Your feelings are unpredictable, possibly changing daily or hourly.
  • Your beliefs about the relationship are shattered - you no longer view your relationship as a source of support or fulfilment.
  • You retreat emotionally or physically perhaps by withdrawing into prolonged silence or avoiding interaction and seeking separate space.
  • You feel strong overwhelming emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety.
  • You have periods of numbness when you don't feel much of anything at all.
  • You try to reassure yourself by initiating frequent and intense sexual encounters with your partner, in order to make up for what may have been missing together previously in the bedroom.
  • You are confused about what you feel and about what you want either now or in the future.
  • You fear that there have been more betrayals that were not revealed, and that there may be more in the future.
  • You wonder if you will ever be able to trust your partner again, or any other future partner should you decide to leave this relationship.
  • You have doubts about the future of your relationship.
  • You seek revenge, attacking your partner verbally or physically, harming your partner's relationships with others, or destroying your partner's property.
  • You start to believe through extreme negative thinking, that your partner wanted to hurt you so deeply.
  • You wonder what you did to be lied to and treated with such disrespect and disregard.
  • You act disoriented, staring at nothing in particular, or wandering about with no apparent purpose or direction.

The initial task when a betrayal is exposed, is learning how to cope with the emotional tumult and distress caused. Recovery from relationship betrayal is a process that you can go through in a healthy manner. The early awful hurt and painful feelings are a normal reaction to a traumatic experience, and they won't remain as strong or as overwhelming as they are right now. It can and should get better with time. A betrayal puts us in a position where we need to discern what's best for us. The process of grieving requires us to be kinder toward our pain, allowing ourselves time to heal and understand ourselves, and perhaps our partner, in a more mature way.

In the aftermath of the immediate crisis brought on when a betrayal is revealed it becomes difficult to address practical matters. It is important to not rush into life changing decisions immediately. The issue of whether to stay together (distinct from a temporary moving-out) or not is usually best delayed. Profound emotional pain does not make for clear thinking. An exception to this might be when the revelation creates "a last straw" situation that clarifies to either or both partners that the relationship is now over.

In reaching any decision, it is important to understand what was happening for both of you that set the stage for an affair. Rather than acting impulsively, you and your partner will gain greater clarity by taking time to sort out your feelings, and then working at understanding why the affair happened.

In order to determine whether you should work to restore trust in your partner, ask yourself; Is this a new behaviour, or part of an ongoing pattern of untrustworthiness? If it is not part of an ongoing pattern, there may be good reason to take the risk of working with your partner to heal the betrayal.

Most people, who have betrayed someone they love, feel plagued by feelings of guilt, sadness, shame, or remorse. Your own capacity to hurt a loved one may also damage your own self- esteem and identity.

After a romantic betrayal, it is common for people to avoid reaching out to their usual support system, because they don't want to share their shame or humiliation. If you have been betrayed, you might need help to control the damage caused to your individual identity, your self- esteem, and your feelings of security in the world.

Not every betrayal is caused by a problem in the union, sometimes one of the partners has psychological issues or intimacy issues that are expressed through behaviour that hurts the relationship. The betrayed person could seek to better understand his or her partner, and this understanding can allow one to assess the probability that the problem behaviour will occur again - a vital step to restoring trust. The most important predictor of rebuilding trust after an affair, other than love, is the capacity of both members of the couple to look at their part in creating what happened.

Rebuilding trust after a betrayal isn't easy and is rarely a quick process. But most couples that succeed find that their relationships are much stronger for the effort. "Success in repairing" does not mean papering over the betrayal out of a desperate need to not be left, or be disapproved of, or of fear of facing up to and dealing with painful realities.

If you need help to make sense of a betrayal in your relationship, either individually or as a couple, Adele is available to assist you in that process.

Adele can be contacted by email or phone:

Phone: 0439 324 703


Adele Wilde
Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Mt Lawley Counselling Centre
13 Alvan Street
Mt Lawley Western Australia 6050

Main Source: Getting Past the Affair by Snyder, Baucom, Coop Gordon 2007

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