Building Boundaries Without Blowing Others Away

By Ken Wells - 05/25/2021


Series Two; Blog Thirty-Two

One of the most difficult experiences in life to repair is relationship betrayal. Most breeches of trust in relationships are never addressed. Someone takes advantage of you in a business relationship and you learn to never do business with that person again and you move on. If an entity egregiously breaks a contractual commitment you might sue the person and settle out of court. Mediators and arbitrators make a living brokering resolutions involving broken trust between two parties. Many people learn to mistrust the world around them because of broken trust spawned from deceit and lies they have experienced throughout their lives.

This blog is about how to navigate through broken trust in a personal committed relationship when you are the one who has cheated and lived a duplicitous life. I want to walk through the necessary steps of creating boundaries toward healing broken trust.

Stop the hurtful behavior. Most people who cheat try to ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. They present loyalty and fidelity while secretly living the opposite.  Hypocrisy spawns incongruence whereby you can say you value one thing, feel something very different, and then say and do something contrary to what you passionately say you believe. This becomes the breeding ground for addictive behavior. Step one requires that you stop the train (your cheating behavior) running out of control down the track. You will likely need help to stop. It takes a friend, a support group and a therapist to stop the train of destructive behavior and to kill the insatiable drive that fuels you to want to engage the forbidden other.

Be accountable.  There is tremendous power and energy involved with relational betrayal. Knowing that you have crossed the line of fidelity triggers adrenaline, excitement, fear of being caught, shame, and a host of other high octane feeling experiences. People who successfully end betrayal behavior live in consultation with others and navigate the treacherous waters of recovery with accountability.

Tell on yourself. Recovery from betrayal requires that you turn over every stone and say it straight to somebody. Does it require that you say it all to your betrayed partner? Over the years of helping others, I have learned that there is no one size that fits all. There are many considerations to take into account around the disclosure of your betrayal behavior. However, I would say that I have never walked alongside any betrayer who has benefited by keeping a secret. The likelihood of relapse is significant and the isolation and loneliness of bearing the burden of forbidden behavior is overwhelming.

Acceptance is key. Once betrayal has occurred, you cannot initiate change until you accept the reality of your behavior. It never helps to walk around the dead dog in the living room. Once the betrayed behavior has been exposed, many want to zip it up and move forward as if it never occurred. This kind of minimization only exacerbates healing for all involved. Acceptance includes embracing the reality of the pain you have created, grieving the loss of relationship, and facing the reality that there are those who loved you who no longer trust you. There is no getting around this. Grieving the loss of relationship includes the loss of your affair behavior or partner as well as trust from your committed partner relationship. You must accept that betrayal forfeits the past credibility that you enjoyed with those who have loved you.

You will rebuild trust by starting over. Like the first day on a new job, you will need to start over building trust; but unlike the new job, you come with a rap sheet of mistrust. So, you will need to begin demonstrating trusting behavior. It is not restored overnight. It will take many nights. Expecting your betrayed partner to pat you on the back for not engaging in destructive behaviors is like wanting credit for not slitting their throat. You simply won’t get it. So get over it!

Do the next right thing. This is a brave and courageous act. You will not be noticed, credited, or appreciated by anyone you want to support you. Usually, support will come from a new support group, therapist or mentor who is detached from the hurt your betrayal caused for others. The next right thing might include destroying all potential connections from an affair partner, or quitting a job–the list goes on and on. Clearly establishing internal and external boundaries is about doing the next right thing.

Validate your betrayed partner.  It’s crazy but many addicts who betray their partner with destructive behavior complain that their partner doesn’t appreciate everything they have to go through to recover. Well, duh? This is why you go to a support group and tell your story of shitty behavior again and again. That’s the place your heroic actions to stop can be validated by those whose trust has not been submarined by your deceit.  You, in turn, must validate how you have pulled the rug out from your trusted partner. So, when your partner screams in pain and goes through the litany of emotional responses that fit betrayal, your roll is to validate. Your position must be “I know you are in pain for all I did. What do you need from me now?” Or “How can I be supportive”. It seems so ineffective and at times it is, but validation of pain is what you must give your partner betrayed. It will be your most difficult task in relational recovery.

In recovery, set internal boundaries. No matter how bad you feel about your betrayal, you cannot heal your partner’s broken heart. As your partner roils in pain, there will be an overwhelming reaction to fix their pain by what you do or what you might say. As you know, it never works. Still you will keep trying. At some point, you will have to establish an internal boundary that you cannot fix h/her. Your partner is the only one who can heal their broken heart, not you. All you can do is to change your behavior and validate their pain. The rest is up to them. Internally, for you to heal you will need to implement this internal boundary which will require that you detach from responsibility for their healing. Easier said than done.

Establish external relationship boundaries. Healing from relationship betrayal requires external boundaries for both parties. Betrayal triggers enormous reactions. Managing them requires a lot of support from professional counselors and community group support. Individuals lose themselves in reactivity around betrayal. Destructive reactive behavior toward each other must stop. When you are stuck in hurtful response, you will need to step back and detach. Doing more of the same destructive behavior will never work toward healing. You must be willing to face the fear of where you do not want to be (divorced/abandoned?) and courageously face that possibility and then walk back to the here and now and follow through with a boundary that will empower follow-through in detaching from hurtful reactive response.

Cultivate Compassion and empathy.  Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk, wrote, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. Its a relationship between equals.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”  In order to connect with the deepest pain suffered by your betrayed partner or for your betrayed partner to connect with your deepest pain, it will require connecting with your own darkness. Healing will come from common shared brokenness. This can only begin when you connect your broken condition to your partner’s broken heart.

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