Managing Microbursts that Bubble from Betrayal

By Ken Wells - 01/08/2021


Alex raced down the freeway in an attempt to get his son Trevor to the airport in time for his flight back to university. Kelly, his wife, was all over his case on the way to the airport for waiting too late to leave the house.  Everything needed to line up in order for Trevor to catch his flight. It was looking good until they arrived at the TSA counter when Trevor accidentally packed his driver’s license in his baggage which was just checked in a few minutes before. In panic, Trevor rushed to the baggage check to see if they could retrieve his bag in time, only to learn that it would take too long and he would miss his flight. Disappointed and at a tipping point, Kelly, swung into a verbal meltdown toward the airline ticket representative and then screamed at Alex that he had let down their son just like he had let down her for years with his sexual acting out. Dumbfounded, Alex felt unfairly attacked and became acutely defensive in his attempt to fend off the accusations from Kelly. 

Shamed and embarrassed, Alex walked out of the airport to let Kelly and Trevor figure out how they were going to address the missed flight, which they did. The ticket agent sprang into action with Trevor’s university identification and his social security number and was able to create a way for Trevor to board the plane. 

On the way home Alex and Kelly were at each other’s throat about who was at fault and who was hurting the most. Kelly argued that this last minute rush was another example of inconsideration to pile on top of the hurt that already existed with Alex’s sexual infidelity. Alex felt attacked.  Kelly felt dismissed and off to the races the two went with accelerated accusations that really had nothing to do with the flight that was almost missed. 

What just occurred in Kelly and Alex’s life is called a microburst, an explosion of emotional debris that had been stuffed and stored from past betrayal and infidelity. It was the result of a build-up of resentment, deep hurt and excruciating pain from chicanery and cheating that was triggered by the anxiety of an almost missed flight. On a scale of 1 to 10, a 5 became a 10X that ignited the emotional fireworks that reached deep into the night. 

In weather terms, a microburst is an approaching thunderstorm that has water and hail suspended within the updraft. When the air cools it begins to sink, weakening the updraft. As a result, the core of rain and hail plummets to the ground with mighty winds as high as 100 MPH, causing significant tornado-like damage. In betrayal, the plummet of emotions can have a similar microburst impact upon a relationship.

Relational microbursts are not sustainable for long-term healing. Often, these microbursts include physical and verbal abuse. The collateral damage when witnessed by children sends a rippling influence of shame and anxiety into the next generation. The monsoon season in the desert of the Southwest creates the conditions ripe for microbursts to occur. Double-life living and relational treason create the predicament for emotional microbursts between two in a committed relationship. The challenge remains how to work through the carnage and manage the expected monsoon of feelings when there is betrayal. Here are some beginning suggestions:

1. Take a deep breath, practice calm detachment from the reactive response.

Most react to this suggestion as “easier said than done”. For sure, reading the words of instruction is always easier than carrying out the action. That does not mean that the written instructions cannot be helpful. There are no quick cookbook answers in healing broken trust. However, practicing slowing your breathing is time tested toward assisting people to be less reactive and finding calm. So practice it. Step back and simply work with letting go of the reactive response from your partner. Cognitively, work toward understanding that his/her response is not about you. When you give your power away in thinking that your partner’s response is about you, you will lose yourself in the reactivity of the moment. All will be lost. If you were unfaithful, then you might conclude that if I was unfaithful then how could my partner’s reactive response not be about me? The answer is that it is your behavior that might trigger your partner. Yet, it is your partner who is unable to stop personalizing their response that continues the reactivity. Only when your partner can step back and realize that your behavior is not about them nor their responsibility to fix, will their reactivity subside. Often, this takes time. In the heat of the moment, it feels like an eternity for both in the relationship. 

This observation is relevant for healing for both sides of the street in a betrayed relationship. The betrayed partner can be reactive and so can the one who has betrayed. If you and your partner will not/cannot find a way to ground yourself around reactivity toward the other, then it will be necessary to reach out for individual help to work through the traumatic experience to help detach from personalizing the other’s behavior. This would be the only reason that I would not engage couple’s work with a presentation of betrayal. When either one of them cannot detach from other’s behavior without personalizing, then the couples’ work is stymied. Ideally, individual and couples work engaged concomitantly is most helpful.

2. Create Connection through “circle back”.

Betrayal trauma creates tenuous minefields for the entire family. If the family system is likened to the mobile of butterflies over a child’s bed, then all the butterflies are jolted with the betrayal behavior. Watching a movie, reading a text from your phone, a song from Spotify, staring off into space, almost anything can trigger a betrayed partner into reactivity. I have heard enough stories to know that it is also applicable about the hyper vigilant behavior of the betrayer who is trying to avoid triggering the minefield. There are days when it seems that just breathing triggers the minefield. Walking on eggshells doesn’t work in attempts to dodge betrayal response.

But, validating the pain in the response can calm the waters and can create connection. This is identified as a practice of circle back. You may not achieve this in one attempt. Yet, it is proven to be very successful toward healing reactivity and cooling the waters of emotional boiling characteristic of partnerships damaged by betrayal. Circle back simply means that not if but when your words or actions have been received as offensive, you simply apologize and ask “how can I support you now”. It is not the time to sift and sort whether your intention was to be hurtful. It only involves a genuine apology that what you said or did hurt your partner. It is getting beyond justifying your words or action or defining intent. It is simple. On tough days, you may need to apologize multiple times even when your intentions were pure. Circle back is a powerful way to create connection.

3. Clear up the gaslight grease with clarification.

Minimizing moments of high risk, hiding feelings and actions under a cloak of vagueness, defensiveness, verbal attacks and physical posturing are all examples of smokescreens that fuel gaslighting and keep a partner stuck in all the crazy making experiences involved in betrayal behavior. I call all of these behaviors and more “gaslight grease”. You clean up gaslight grease by telling on yourself. First, you disclose. You tell on yourself about your secretive hurtful behaviors. Then you describe the cycle of addiction that ignites the destructive action because your partner never knew that part of you and certainly did not sign up for it. Then you unravel the crazy making by clarifying how you took advantage of their position of vulnerability with behavior that sullied the sacred trust in the relationship. You simply tell how you pulled off what you did when you broke trust with infidelity. This is an “unbrainwashing” experience for your hurt partner.

When you have been victimized it is common to blame yourself at some level. Clarification helps to wash away the gaslight grease. I have written an entire booklet about this powerful healing experience. It is my conviction that in time it will be helpful for both partners to embrace this exercise toward the other. While no other person is responsible for betrayal behavior except the one who engages it, everyone offends in a relationship; ultimate in-depth healing will require both partners to own and clarify ways in which they hurt the other for healing intimacy to go deep in the relationship.

4. Validate your partner’s painful flashback with conciliatory “carefrontation”

One of the most devastating experiences in life is to be lied to, manipulated and then be told it didn’t happen and that you should get your act together and quit whining. These are common shared experiences for partners who have been betrayed. Addicts also share this common story of experience in behavior perpetrated by their partners who feel justified because of the addict’s betrayal behavior. Gaslighting is damaging period, whether perpetrated by an addict or in blowback from a partner who rationalizes that their addict partner deserves it.

A disarming response of compassion and concern always cools and soothes painful flashback memories and experience. Minimizing and defending creates distance.  Two people will never heal or find connection with this approach. David Augsburger, in his book Caring Enough to Confront, utilizes the word “carefrontation,” meaning to care enough to say it straight, even when it is jeopardizing or hurtful, because you love the person enough to risk abandonment or disapproval. So when the painful flashback includes a piss-and-vinegar response laced with spite, a conciliatory response in carefrontation may look like “I know I have hurt you with my behavior. When you lash out I can’t get close to your heart. I can be closer and more supportive when I don’t feel attacked.”  A response of this kind doesn’t mean that you will immediately kiss and make up but it does provide and pathway toward healing and connection.

Microbursts are common among partnerships healing from betrayal. Like monsoon microbursts that can be identified and understood, relationship microbursts must also be recognized if they are to be regulated with powerful healing intervention.

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