Relationships: Betrayal can be an invitation for change
Restoring trust with your partner can be a powerful growth experience when you enrich your relationship’s life with valuable skills. Look beyond the crisis of betrayal and learn new ways of being in your relationship.
My father-in-law died unexpectedly in a hotel on a business trip. He had been married to my mother-in-law for 49 years at the time. On the day of his funeral, a package arrived from the hotel with his business suitcase and laptop, and my mother-in-law discovered that her husband had lived a double life. He was traditional at home, expecting a full cooked meal at 12.30 and 6.30 every day, yet lived a liberal life in another world.
Haven’t we all betrayed, or been betrayed, by someone at one point in time?
You might wonder why the person who loves you would lie to you. It feels inevitable that, if you have relationships, your trust is going to be betrayed. And, for this reason, the problems caused by betrayal, like distrust and feeling unsafe, are the ones I see most often in therapy. It’s no wonder that, during the past 21 years as a psychologist, the question I get asked most often is: how do we restore broken trust in the relationship.
But a break in trust might be an opportunity to teach us some valuable lessons and can be a critical moment. This is where our relationship is invited to make changes. During a crisis and difficult times, we often learn more about ourselves, our relationship, and the world around us. The uncertainty created by this kind of immersion is our opportunity to deepen our mutual connection, and grow… together.
Decide what kind of relationship you want to be in
Before you talk about the steps you want to take to restore trust, sketch a picture of a relationship that appeals to your sense of love, safety and well-being. Do you want a relationship built on honesty and transparency? Do you want to be in a partnership where you’re free to ask questions? The choice to deceive your partner might not comment on your love or commitment, as much as it shows the dominant belief systems surrounding your relationships, the unspoken gender and cultural roles that shape our lives. Therefore, the steps people take to restore trust often change their relationship, by challenging deep-seated beliefs that once dominated their relationship choices.
In practice, this means that if you gave yourself permission to hide important information from your partner, it can be uncomfortable being invited into a process of change where radical honesty and transparency are what you need. We live in a world where deceit and betrayal are becoming the norm, where we do what we want no matter the commitments we made and the boundaries we agreed upon.
In therapy, if I ask both parties if they believe in equality, honesty and transparency as the basic building blocks of their relationship, I often get a socially acceptable “yes”. What I see is that social expectations encourage us to speak a popular language, but in practice, we live very different lives. Restoring trust is often about changing the fundamental building blocks of our relationship. If, for instance, you want to be in an open relationship, one where you might explore sexual or intimate experiences outside your current commitment, now is a good time to speak about your relationship preferences.
If both parties are willing to honestly behave as if they’re on the same team, there’s an opportunity for growth and change, and the path of restoration can be surprisingly rich and meaningful.
Think how you’d like to talk about it
Decide on your preferred way of talking; a way of talking that tells you stories about who you really are as people. If you’re kind, gentle and understanding human beings, your path of recovery must reflect your true identities.
How you speak to each other shouldn’t only reflect who you are or want to be; it should show how committed you are. A lack of commitment to the work and the processes of truth and reconciliation speaks of a lack of commitment to your relationship.
You might be very hurt and angry and, of course, have the right to your emotions. It’s particularly difficult not to have a finger-pointing conversation if you feel betrayed, angry and hurt, but try avoiding the circular and repetitive blaming — you did; no, you did — talks. You can have honest conversations about where you’re both at — even if doing so is hurtful — without the need to continually judge and defend. Demonstrating your feelings rather than talking about them could simply cause further damage.
In therapy, the person whose trust has been broken is the one who often needs to speak more. I’ve also learned that listening to the person who broke the trust can be more healing because blaming and defending each other do not bring you closer to the primary intention: in-depth understanding.
Book specific times for talking
In the beginning, both parties might need to talk for extended periods to feel some sense of calm. But be careful not to exhaust your relationship through overtalking and don’t allow the problem to come into your every moment. This is difficult if you feel overwhelmed and hurt, and if you have a longstanding pattern of avoiding issues, rather than confronting things.
Over time, you may think of limiting your time for speaking as it can become a heavy weight to carry if you’re overloading your relationship with constant heavy content. Set in place boundaries by booking a specific time for talking, and sticking to it. If you struggle to contain your conversations, get someone who knows what they’re doing to facilitate this process.
Define the problem, see the person
The person hiding vital information and lying to you about it is most likely in some sort of personal crisis. As much as you need to understand the many dimensions of the betrayal, deceit or hiding, do not forget that behind every problem is a person in need of help.
The dominant problem does not always tell you something about a person. If you’ve already gained a clear understanding of the many dimensions of the problem/s that may lie between you, look at the person you’re in a relationship with. It’s essential to speak about the problems caused by the lies, but be careful not to let the problem/s define every aspect of your relationship.
We love someone for many reasons, so it’s key to recognise that you may have lost trust. Yet, this doesn’t, and shouldn’t, define the many dimensions and bonds of your love.
Decide if you need to talk about what happened
Both of you need to decide if you need to delve into the event that broke your trust. If that event is constantly resurfacing in, and upsetting to, your relationship, it speaks of the need to talk about it. Even if what happened is “nothing” for one party, but “big” for another, you both need to give it attention as it’s clearly significant to the well-being of your relationship. If your relationship principles believe in working together, if it matters to one partner, it should matter to the relationship.
Sure, you can certainly sweep the break in trust under the carpet and pretend it never happened, but you may never fully heal and will most likely keep circling back to that space of unanswered questions. Another way of looking at it is this: you cannot build a life on a lie — but you can try.
Share the difficult details
I often return to the lines from the hit song Drive by US New Wave rockers The Cars — “You can’t go on, thinking nothing’s wrong” — but maybe I’m still stuck in the Eighties.
Trust is about knowing where you stand — to move on to the same page, couples often want to know exactly what happened during the betrayal, otherwise it becomes an empty, nagging space that we fill with more questions than answers. These are questions about our relationship but, above all, ourselves, because a relationship that makes you doubt yourself is damaging to our sense of self. Sharing uncomfortable truths is your time to break away from old, destructive habits, like minimising problems and skirting over glaring issues.
In therapy, couples often bring a list of questions, especially when the hurt partner who failed to get answers at home feels that detailed responses will make them feel better.
Show a willingness to be open about any aspect of what happened
Even if the answers to your questions aren’t satisfying, I find the mere willingness to participate in the process is even more important than the answers themselves. The answers can bring relief, but the extent to which “the offender” tries to please their wounded partner is a critical step to restore trust, because that person is displaying commitment and, in particular, willingness, which is at the heart of trust. These are acts of respect and love in any context.
There’s a chance that the offending partner may feel that answering the questions will damage the relationship further, and refuse to participate. It is, of course, that person’s right to say no, but doing so often becomes a source of further hurt.
Talk about why it happened
You need to make sense of something you thought your partner would never do to you. You can’t walk away from this crisis without a clear, in-depth understanding of why you or your partner risked your relationship, trust or family for a secret. Superficial explanations like, “I was insecure,” or, “I don’t know why I did it,” and “I’m really sorry,” aren’t going to cut it.
If you committed the betrayal, have the courage to tell your partner how you make sense of your own behaviour. What’s your inner dialogue? What, in your most honest moments, have you told yourself that could shine the light of truth on the wounds? This process often requires some deep soul-searching. Look at your history of injuries, insecurities and the deep-seated relationship beliefs that motivated your decision to go against the boundaries of your relationship.
Be patient and kind to each other
You’ll both need to be very gentle and patient during this time of crisis. Patience with the person on the receiving end of the break in trust, as well as with the partner who broke the trust, is vital. Being patient with your partner’s hurt and anger means not retaliating in attack, not meeting anger with anger. It means staying calm about, and being gentle with, their emotions.
Never call your partner overly sensitive or emotional
Saying things like, “Maybe you’re just oversensitive,” trivialises and disregards your partner’s feelings — feelings that you’ve most likely caused. In fact, ban labels like “oversensitive” or “overemotional”, as they’re not constructive in any conversation, but more distracting from shared participation. At the same time, be careful not to generalise your partner as a “liar” or “cheat”, as we’re never one thing. Be specific about the context in which you feel distrust, as we seldom lose trust in all aspects of a relationship.
Sit with both parties’ emotions
Being hurt does not give you permission to add destruction to your relationship. This is often difficult. Lying to your partner is not only hurtful to you and your relationship, but also to the person telling the lies.
The fact that you’re shocked, hurt and broken does not give you the right to abuse your partner with your emotions. One partner starting to break the agreements of the relationship can tacitly permit the other partner to start doing so as well. On the other hand, it may be a good starting point to remember that the person who broke your trust hopefully already feels remorse, ashamed and hurt.
To see how you really feel about what happened, let both sides listen to each other without interrupting. A partner who feels no remorse lives in a world where s/he can do what s/he wants, where ego is more important than understanding and where change is less possible. Conversely, two people being devastated by the actions of one partner is a good sign: spoken shame is especially important on the journey of healing.
Explore some ego work
Your ego, that external but empty sense of being self-defined by how you look, who you know and what you do, can get so out of control that your ego’s need to be stroked can be higher than your need to protect your relationship. Stop the meaningless power games and look at the origins of your destructive egos. Feeling abandoned, not loved or chosen, rejected and pushed aside can fuel your ego’s desperate need to be accepted.
Learn to deal with triggers
Emotional wounds caused by deceit might start feeling less intense as you do the work, but you might still get triggered in future. Psychological injuries form memories and a small, innocent action can suddenly spin your relationship out of control. When you step on each other’s emotional landmines (triggers), try your best to be kind, patient and understanding. Speak about your preferred ways of dealing with triggers and support each other gently during these emotional explosions.
Offer constant affirmations and reassurances
If you’ve betrayed your partner with someone else, it’s evident your partner needs to be told that you want to stay in the relationship. Constant and never-ending reassurances are essential to the restoration process. As the “offender” you might offer, if it’s true and sincere, “I love you,” and “I want to be with you.” If you fight this, you’ve not yet learned to take responsibility for what you’ve done.
These affirmations and reassurances should be constant, sincere and repetitive. A one-off reassurance is often not enough… Remember, your best reassurance is only as good as your last one.
Ground your relationship with affection
During a time of insecurity, non-verbal gestures can be comforting beyond words. Touching and holding each other is a non-verbal acknowledgement that you see each other, and that you’re really sorry. Where there’s intense hurt, hold each other in a way that no conversation can.
Consider a period of complete transparency about the tools used for the deceit
Most people cheat on their partners through the use of technology; computers and phones are an easy pathway to a secret world. If you used your phone or laptop as a tool for breaking the trust in your relationship, consider trying a period of complete transparency about the tools used for deception. This means having full access to each other’s technology for a set period — for one month to a year, for example. During that time, all tablets, mobile phones, laptops and other screens are free for both partners to view — that means, no need for secret access codes or second e-mail addresses or phones. This step is controversial as transparency is not embraced in all cultures and threatens your right to privacy. At the same time, your right to privacy was abused through lying. If you genuinely have nothing to hide, and say you want to live honestly, this step needs no resistance.
Every time your partner’s phone pings, you might feel growing anxiety in your stomach and tension in your relationship; you might feel that the natural internal compass we call intuition or that sense of “knowing” is unsettled. Transparency as a new relationship process can provide both parties with immediate breathing space.
Couples who refuse to participate in this step often struggle to get past a vital point in the healing process. I feel this is necessary, even if it temporarily compromises your private space. The sooner you show a willingness to participate in the process and implement it, the sooner the need for such heightened exposure will go away.
Speak about your deeply rooted relationship beliefs and patterns
Double standards are at the heart of the epidemic of deceit, especially in terms of what’s allowed in relationships across the board, and around sex, intimacy and finances. What I see in therapy is that there are still two sets of rules, even if both parties support the belief in equality. No matter what your gender, race, culture or sexual orientation, I wonder why so often it’s true that one party lives by one set of rules, while the other lives by another set. It’s difficult to feel like a strong team when you don’t play by the same rulebook. Therefore, couples need to explore the theme of double standards and how their upbringing schooled them into a belief system that doesn’t encourage transparency, honesty and equal rights for all parties.
Show some appreciation
If your partner is fighting for the relationship, or you can see that they’re really trying to restore your trust, it’s essential to acknowledge what you see and show some appreciation and gratitude for their efforts. Thanking each other for working on your relationship, acknowledging your partner’s attempts and expressing gratitude can accelerate the healing process.
Relationship work is intimate work. If you’re used to manipulating the truth and controlling perceptions, you might feel some relief letting go of your old habits. On the other hand, you can try directing the choices of your partner in order to feel at peace, because then you’ve produced your own calm instead of working together to restore a sense of safety. Trust is about letting go of your need for control. Your trying to control every aspect of your partner’s behaviour could, in fact, leave you exhausted and undermine your trust over time.
If your partner has tried their best to answer your questions and show their commitment, let go of your need to control the outcome of this process. Share the load to carry the responsibility of trust. Focus, instead, on accepting each other’s attempts as truthful; we cannot make people do what we want them to do. Even if you achieve some results from the commitment or behaviour you wanted, it would likely feel like a hollow victory if it flowed from your control of the situation rather than your partner’s own initiative.
A new relationship with new commitments
After you’ve invested in the process of rebuilding trust, you could feel as if you’re entering into a completely new relationship, with real understandings or considerate rules of engagement.
Couples tell me that how they speak, disagree, make love and enjoy life feels different after they’ve worked on a break in trust.
Even so, it’s unrealistic to expect not to feel pain in the future. It also seems important to keep working on the pain that a break in trust can cause to avoid it returning to your relationship in the form of anger and resentment. An ultimate truth — that you’re responsible for the pain you feel, even if your partner caused it — is one of the most difficult, but essential, realities you have to face.
Take back your perceptions
A break in trust can damage your perceptions of your partner and your relationship. Once you’ve taken steps to restore trust, you also need to take back these perceptions. Reinstate the foundations of what you believed to be true about each other and your relationship and don’t let your problems define who you are.
Invite friends and family to join you
Embrace and surround yourself with relationships built on truth. After a break in trust, couples often update their friends and family on their progress. This can be done in person or in writing, by sharing your learnings and giving feedback on how you’re doing. This step symbolises the lessons learnt and commitment to the future. It can also be restorative for the friends and family who supported you through a difficult time.
Embrace your new ways of speaking and being
Instead of only focusing on your past losses, look at your relationship with new eyes. See how you had to learn to communicate anew about complicated and painful issues, how you can be vulnerable together, and how you’re safely together in the light of total honesty.
Even if, in future, you’ll process moments of getting triggered, you’re now in a relationship built on the power of speaking the truth and living the responsibilities that go with it, rather than deceit. It also bears remembering that it takes ongoing work to have a transparent, honest relationship — but at least you can be safe knowing where you stand with each other. Know with certainty that hiding takes a lot more energy than speaking the truth.
The day after I wrote this story, a couple walked into my room and told me that they didn’t want to talk about their challenges anymore. They said they were “more than 80% happy and isn’t that enough, Stefan?” True and authentic responsibility doesn’t discredit tried-and-tested wisdom about negotiating and healing through difficult spaces, but it does mean that everyone must, ultimately, choose their own steps to recovery. ML
Stefan Blom is a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships. He lives and works in Cape Town and is the author of The Truth About Relationships (translated into Afrikaans and Romanian) published by Human & Rousseau.
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