Sandy discovered that Alex was messing around from the first day they met and throughout their 24 years of marriage. She prepared for the disclosure with her individual therapist. The experience felt worse than she could ever imagine. Alex worked hard to make sure that he did not omit important details under the tutelage of his individual therapist. Every disclosure is hell. Alex’s thorough confession of infidelity was no different. Afterward, Sandy suffered flashback memories from the disclosure vomit. Alex was relieved that the secrets had been lanced but fearful and empty with fragile hope that the coupleship would survive the onslaught of admitted betrayal. Frequently, Sandy felt a numbing sensation. She told herself this could not be happening to her. The gamut of emotional responses raced through her mind. The reality of hurt would rivet through her body like a lightning bolt. She would scream out in pain. She lived her life fearful that he would leave and frightened that he would stay. Constantly, she thumbed through the rolodex in her mind of relationship memories with Alex, but nothing made sense. It was all crazy making! All she wanted to do was run away from this nightmare of reality!
Alex thought he would never get through the disclosure. Afterwards, he could not tolerate watching his wife uncontrollably sob and would do anything to fix her pain, which actually made it all worse. Sandy began to lambast Alex for anything and everything. Her anger was laced with vitriol and even physical violence, something she never exhibited prior to the disclosure of infidelity. Alex did not want to admit, but there were times he was afraid for his safety. He, too, wanted to run away from this nightmare of reality. Over time, Alex gave up that he would ever see the loving, trusting side of Sandy again. He wallowed in shame, and after enduring her verbal and physical attacks began to think that the relationship was permanently damaged. He knew that he loved his wife but how could he say he loved her when he felt like running away?
Therapists who treat couples broken from infidelity work with painful shattered trust that includes various responses of reactivity and sadness. Approaches to treatment vary depending upon treatment philosophy and orientation. It is common for a partner to resist treatment with thoughts expressed to the addict that “it is your problem, you fix yourself and we will just fine. I don’t need the help, you do!” This would be like someone being run over by a big mac truck and the paramedics bringing the truck driver to the emergency room for treatment while leaving the one who got run over on the street. Throughout the many years that I have worked with couples who have suffered from betrayal, I have preferred that couples see their healing similar to a three-legged stool. Each leg must be sturdy in order for the stool to be safe to sit. Therefore, I prefer that the addict, the partner, and the coupleship be treated concomitantly. There are exceptions, for example, when a couple is stuck in reactivity toward each other to the degree that it is counterproductive for them to do work together. There are many options for an experienced therapist to consider and administer when this is true.
This blog will focus on the healing response of the addict to his partner. I will offer a response to the question “How do I say I love you, when I feel like running away?”
After you have completed a thorough disclosure, accept the role of validating your partner’s pain. Recognize that what you have confessed is traumatic to your partner. Expect a season of time for your partner to ask the same question repeatedly. Stunned with shock, your partner may want to review what you disclosed in an attempt to grapple with the reality of what you confessed. Simply answer the question as if it were the first time you were asked. The second time is less about right answers and more about validation of truth. It takes time to swallow the reality of betrayal. Don’t try to fix the emotional response, just validate. Trying to tell your partner you understand won’t work. You likely will never understand how they feel. But, you can validate with statements like “you are right” — “how can I support you”. Statements like this may seem helpless in the moment but in time will open your heart to hold your partner’s pain which is healing.
In all the years I have treated addiction, I have never known an addict who did not traumatize their own inner child when acting out. While it is important to prioritize validating your partner’s broken heart, you will not heal unless you validate your own brokenness and find support for that validation away from your partner with an informed support group. Needless to say, it is hurtful to seek that validation from the one you offended.
It is never easy to stand alone after disclosing partner infidelity and do the next right thing. You must learn to champion yourself. At times, you will feel alone and without support. These are the moments to draw from the leadership within you. Grace Lee Boggs is an erudite educator who preached “you are the leader that you are looking for.” I have learned this to be true in my own recovery. You will not stand true to your values within the toil and strain of recovering from your betrayal toward healing your broken relationship unless you reach out and build a cocoon of support to help you stand the test of times when your partner is not available.
Once you have turned over every stone and have left no secrets in your disclosure, you must clarify to your partner how you pulled off your infidelity. Most partners who have been victimized blame themselves at some level for your betrayal. Some think that they should have been more alert, affectionate and caring, or more sexual. Others are self-critical with thoughts about their “picker” being broken to choose someone who would hurt them as you did. At any rate, this can become a subtle but powerful form of brainwashing. You’re clarifying how you did what you did when you betrayed becomes a way of unbrainwashing your partner and helping him/her to know that you’re acting out is not about them but simply a reflection of you wanting what you wanted when you wanted it. Identifying the special moments that have been sullied, your lies, excuses, addiction rationale, and the way you set up smoke screens of anger, busyness, depression etc to avoid their questions or confrontations is a way of breaking down the gaslighting that destroyed trust and accelerated crazy-making. Clarification is not saying I am sorry; it is helping your partner heal his/her broken heart.
Because you have broken trust with your addictive acting out does not mean you cannot stop. When you work a reasonable recovery program you will stop. Yet, because you stop does not mean your partner will believe you have. This is the rub. So, you must establish internal boundaries so that when your partner emotionally melts down, accusing you of doing something you have not done, like lying, you are able to detach without judgment of you or your partner and without defense. This takes conditioning. You must also establish external boundaries. While it is common for an addict to take in the verbally unleashed venom from a partner who has heard for the first time about your betrayal, it is not sustainable for the addict to become the pin cushion for a partner’s verbal attack. Effective external boundaries require consequences. Without a consequence a boundary is weakened to a request. So, you must be willing to face the results that you dread when you set a boundary. Then, you can come back to the here and now and address the consequences of external boundaries. Ongoing partner rage, verbal, physical, and property abuse is not sustainable for long term healing. It will not be helpful for an addict to regularly absorb and endure demeaning behavior and abuse. Consequences can include ending a conversation, leaving the space with your partner with prior announcement, therapeutic separation and even divorce. These boundaries are best clarified and implemented with the help of a professional counselor trained in treating betrayal behaviors.
When faced with the immense pain and hurt derived from relationship betrayal, an addict does not have to run away. Love is deeper than whispering sweet nothings and promises in the ear of the partner betrayed. There is a way to say “I love you” in the presence of immense pain by staying the course of healing through validation and clarification of hurtful behaviors while heroically maintaining internal and external boundaries in relationship.
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