Sexual betrayal threatens the most sacred aspect of a couple’s relationship. All other aspects of the partnership may overlap with other relationships: recreation, exercise, work, intellectual pursuits, and even spiritual growth. But the sexual relationship is the safe harbor that is supposed to be “our exclusive place… just for us.”
Sexual betrayal is felt as deep rejection and even abandonment. The feeling is, “By that behavior you demonstrate that you can’t possibly love me.” But couples show up in therapy because there is still a shred of hope that a life together is possible. Often, the betrayed partner enters therapy emotionally devastated by sexual betrayal but believing they must do whatever possible to keep the family together for the sake of the children.
An initial couple’s session gives the therapist an opportunity to see how the couple is processing the pain in the marriage. Does the betraying partner take responsibility for the behavior or get defensive or blaming? Can the betraying person demonstrate empathy for the partner’s pain and anger? Can the betrayed partner express the pain of the betrayal or simply attack the partner or, still worse, melt into self-recrimination? Can the betrayed person begin to express what he/she needs from the partner?
Recovery from sexual betrayal involves growth in the following six dimensions:
1. The betraying person needs to address the reasons for the sexual betrayal. If there was only one affair or a minor foray into using porn, then couples therapy may be able to address the needs for change. But if the sexual betraying behavior is part of a larger pattern, then that person needs to meet individually with a therapist and answer the two questions, “What is my problem?” and “What do I need to do about it?” If a sex or love addiction is present, then that person needs to develop a written recovery plan that will show the path toward sexual sobriety and faithfulness in the partnership.
2. The couple needs to rebuild trust. Sexual betrayal has shattered trust. Sexual betrayal was possible because deception was used to portray one picture to the partner while living a secret life. Very commonly the betrayed partner feels more traumatized by the lies and deception than by the actual sexual betrayal. This is because deception cuts at the very root of the relationship and threatens the existence of trust in the relationship.
Trust can be rebuilt in a number of ways, including: developing a clear plan for overcoming the deeper causes of the unfaithful behavior, demonstrating diligent efforts to work that plan of recovery, sharing passwords to email accounts and phone records, responding to requests for information in a non-defensive tone, demonstrating empathy for the partner’s pain of the betrayal, and living a life of integrity where actions match words. Rebuilding trust takes time and necessitates an ongoing negotiation of what is needed from both partners. Rebuilding trust cannot go more quickly than the unfaithful partner’s growth in addressing the underlying causes of the infidelity.
3. The betrayed partner needs to heal from the trauma. Even if the unfaithful partner didn’t intend to send this message, the betrayed partner received the message, “Your feelings and needs for safety don’t matter.” This causes a deep wound. The betrayed partner will need to grieve the losses that the betrayal caused: the sense that I would always be safe with you, the belief that you are the one person who would never deeply hurt me, the fantasy that our relationship was sacred and no one would ever take my place. These lost ideals must be grieved, and the unfaithful partner needs to support the betrayed spouse in expressing the sadness and pain of losing these ideals.
But healing involves more than grieving the losses. Healing involves replacing a traumatized experience of being rejected and mistreated with a new experience of being cared about and loved. The irony here is that the person who did the damage is the one who is being called upon to be the healer. This is a difficult job. It necessitates the unfaithful partner do several things including: take full responsibility for the unfaithful behavior, acknowledge that the unfaithful behavior was a deep betrayal of the vulnerability gifted by the betrayed partner, validate the excruciating pain felt by the betrayed partner as a direct result of the misbehavior, and express one’s own sorrow for causing the betrayed partner such deep pain.
4. The betrayed partner needs to forgive his/her spouse. Forgiveness is the process of one person choosing not to exact revenge on the offending person. Forgiveness stops the bloodshed. Forgiveness offers grace to the offending person and invites the offending partner into a relationship of mutual respect. But forgiveness is different from healing and building trust. The retort of “But you said you forgave me and now you’re bringing that issue up again?” misses the point that forgiveness does not accomplish either healing or the rebuilding of trust. Forgiveness is also not a “once and for all” action. Forgiveness must be chosen each time one is tempted to “throw it back in their face” out of anger, hurt, or fear.
5. The betrayed partner needs to be on his/her own path of personal growth. The betrayed partner needs to get to the place where the unfaithful partner can express his or her own dissatisfactions in the relationship that contributed to the unfaithful behavior as well as dissatisfactions in the current relationship. Then the betrayed partner needs to express willingness to work to make the relationship better for both parties’ sake. A relationship that gets stuck in “perpetrator and victim” stances is toxic for both people and prevents progress in the other areas of the relationship. It is hugely helpful for the betrayed partner to be discovering his or her own “shadow” and working to grow personally.
6. The couple needs to deepen their intimacy (attachment). This piece of couple recovery from betrayal typically occurs later in the process. Early on, it can be too frightening to be so vulnerable to one’s partner. Early on, most of the resources of the relationship are consumed by rebuilding trust and creating healing in the relationship. Of course, this can create a certain kind of emotional intimacy too. But as the wounds heal and as the relationship begins to feel safer once again, the couple can embark on a variety of ways to deepen the intimacy in the relationship: recreationally, spiritually, and sexually. It helps to talk out what each person needs from the other. This is about creating win-win experiences in which love given is love created. “You are my beloved and I treasure you more the more I give to you.”
The human spirit reflects the miracle of the resurrection. The phoenix can rise from the ashes. That which is broken and painful becomes the impetus for growth, truth, forgiveness, healing, and love. Deep attachment between two people who love each other, or have deeply loved each other in the past, can be the foundation for, not only the rebirth of the relationship after a betrayal, but also the blossoming of two individuals who finally learn what it means to truly love and be loved.