Surviving Betrayal

“It was like I couldn’t breathe. Like I was punched in the stomach and couldn’t get a breath” she said with hands clenching the arms of the chair while speaking of learning of her husband's affair. There are few people who have escaped the pain of betrayal. It is a terribly common experience but none so brutal than the betrayal of a spouse. When one becomes aware of their partners infidelity it is massively crushing - like a blow to the solar plexus; one is overwhelmed by raw, intense emotion. Not unlike a ship abashed in the fury of a storm, one is assailed from every direction. Horror, fear, anger, rage, insecurity, guilt and shame combine for a toxic brew coursing through one's whole being.

This kind of betrayal is a very profound violation because it occurs at the very center of who we are, at a heart level, often well behind the typical fortifications we use to protect ourselves from being hurt. This betrayal is so painful and violating because the person who betrays us have become safe to us - we have allowed ourselves to be vulnerable at a very deep level to them. The emotions are similar to grieving the death of a spouse, and many people say:

  • They experience a deep and profound sense of loss.
  • They often experience a great deal of anxiety about the future.
  • They wrestle with ebbs and flows of strong emotion through various times. Fear, anger, rage, bitterness, depressed, lonely and so forth.
  • They often experience a loss of personal identity.
  • They feel abandoned by their spouse.
  • They feel isolated in their grief.
  • They feel guilty and wonder what they could have done to prevent it.
  • They feel like a ‘hot topic’ in the gossip circle.
  • They often feel estranged from friends they shared as a couple.

Though catastrophic and seemingly unrecoverable, the tempest of betrayal can be navigated, and while things have changed, one can regain a sense of peace and wholeness within ourselves and even with our spouse in time with courage and hard work.  This is a process, and there are no shortcuts through.  It will be different for everyone, but there are some general things that can help one navigate the pain. 

Steps to help Navigate through the Storms of Betrayal 

1.  Accept your feelings. Emotions are natural.  It is natural to experience the pain of betrayal and the fear, sorrow and anger.  Don’t feel bad for having these feeling.  Be honest about them and look for healthy ways to deal with them.

2. Take care of yourself - eat well, exercise and get some rest.

3.  Share your feelings with your spouse. You may be able to speak to your partner face to face or via telephone and be able to share your feelings about how their actions have hurt you.  If not, consider writing a letter - even if you don’t send it - it can be a good way of processing your feelings.

4. Don’t paint everyone with the same brush - It will be difficult to trust people but try to avoid being suspicious of everyone.  Take small steps as you learn to trust again.

5. Trust your gut but don’t be rash. In the storm of emotion them temptation to make some dramatic life changes - move, quit a job, run to another relationship - these may be appropriate steps at appropriate times, but one should try to avoid emotionally charged, significant decisions.  It is also natural to want to lash out, to punish the person who has hurt us, but this rarely makes us feel better in the end.

6. Make a choice to move forward through the process of healing.  This will take effort and courage as there are no short cuts.  Lean on a faithful, forgiving friend who can be a supportive and healthy voice of support.

8. Choose to forgive yourself and your partner, and keep choosing to.  Remember, forgiveness is not saying what happened is okay, rather it frees you from bitterness and makes a way for you to move forward in health.

9. Guarantees?  If you decide to forgive your spouse and ‘try again,' understand your partner will not be able to offer you a satisfying 100% guarantee they will not betray you again.  Nothing they say or do can bring that comfort.  You can proceed slowly and look for an indication that they have grasped the degree of pain and anguish they have caused.  In doing so, this will motivate them to take the steps personally to deal with their own issues.  This will be demonstrated over the long-term, and their commitment to doing what is necessary will be revealed.   Be clear about you expectations and reasonable at the same time.

10. Move forward - don’t get stuck. Find someone to help you through the process.  Seek a qualified, mature counselor to help you through the tough spots.  Make sure the friends who are supporting you are doing so in ways which lead to healthy life and not to bitterness, short-circuiting the healing process or a partner for a pity party.

Life is not as easy as 10 points.  The Pastor in me is aching and so wants to support and comfort you.  I don't want to trivialize this experience into a neat, one-size fits all format, rather these are intended as general steps and things to consider.   It is also a good idea to find a community of people who can walk alongside you and support you as you heal, and can also provide practical support like child-care, etc.  Healthy faith communities can be a great place to find this support and also provide the soul care necessary for healing and moving on.   Remember, there is a loving God who is for you, and while he/she didn’t cause this pain, he/she is very present through it, and you can rely on God for the grace and strength for each moment of each day.  God is closest to the broken hearted.

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