Todd is frustrated with his wife Erin’s “doom and gloom” attitude about their marital future and with the emotional distance he feels she’s created between them. He says, “I recently messed up big time. I’ve acknowledged that and I’m really trying to make things better, but nothing seems to work. She’s gotta cut me some slack, or honestly, I’m going to give up.”
Todd and Erin’s story isn’t uncommon: a couple trying to rebuild their relationship after infidelity or a significant marital crisis of some sort.
And while marriage and relationship problems are often a complicated amalgam of both parties consciously and unconsciously contributing to a break-down of a relationship (though this isn’t always the case), there are many circumstances where one partner has betrayed the other with devastating fallout.
In this situation, you have the wounder and the wounded, the betrayer and betrayed, a victimizer and victim.
Let’s look at the healing process when this occurs.
Step one in the healing process
The recipe for healing usually involves one spouse/partner acknowledging what s/he’s done to injure the other partner. Taking ownership for his/her actions that have wounded the other has the potential to be a significant reparative event.
Reactions that get in the way of this step include denial (failure to take ownership), minimizing the other’s hurt (“It wasn’t that big of a deal”; “Can’t you get over it already?”), projecting blame (“If you weren’t so hard to deal with, I wouldn’t have cheated”).
Taking ownership is a humbling experience that involves tolerating difficult emotions, the reality that you hurt someone you love, feelings of shame and embarrassment for acting in ways that violate your own values and ideals, anger at yourself. Without the ability to experience and tolerate these intense feelings, you’re likely to move back into denial or projecting blame as a way to undo the distress that comes with taking ownership.
Taking ownership for your actions can also make you feel liberated and free from the debilitating effects of secrecy and self-denial. Self-healing (as well as relationship healing) can result from full ownership.
Step Two in the Healing Process
This involves showing and not just telling: Saying you’re sorry is one thing; Acting like you’re sorry is a totally different ballgame.
The worse thing couples can do at this point is go back to the pre-crisis status quo of the marriage/relationship. Rather, they must build (or partly build) a new relationship that corrects whatever contributed to the previous marriage/relationship problem(s).
What is the betrayed looking for from his/her partner?
Total transparency, since s/he cannot currently trust your motives.
The betrayed is suspicious, anticipating further hurt, and s/he is in self-protective mode (e.g., keeping you at an emotional distance by being aloof), but the betrayed is also very vigilant of any attempts on your part to make amends. Setbacks occur when the betrayed partner perceives that anything is being kept from him/her. Secrecy and hiddenness are toxins to the healing process.
Consistency and predictability.
When the betrayer changes for the better after taking ownership, the betrayed is monitoring how reliable and trustworthy these changes are. S/he may anticipate only a transient change and fears that at some point, things will go back to the way they were. Because of these fears (which the betrayed cannot help struggle with), one slip-up can undo weeks or even months of hard work and “good behavior” on the part of the betrayer.
Too frequently this level of scrutiny makes the betrayer feel hopeless about the relationship ever improving, and it makes him/her feel that the positive attempts don’t really matter in their partner’s eyes. A real danger exists that s/he will give up at this point. The rule of thumb here is persistence and understanding of the betrayed’s uncontrollable fears—fears that can go from zero to ninety in a split second. In the above quote from Todd, he doesn’t realize that his wife is a victim of her own fears, that she cannot (or is not ready to) let go of her defensiveness for fear of getting hurt again. She’s not sure if she can fully trust the changes she’s seeing in Todd.
Todd needs to remain consistent in order to help slowly erode Erin’s fears.
Step Three in the Healing Process
This should actually be part of the healing process throughout: Open communication and structured time to process the events that led to the marital/relationship crisis. The injured may need to repeatedly talk about his/her feelings about what happened for some time. Repetition helps with the “working through” process—here the need is to make psychological sense of the upheaval that has occurred.
This can be a very frustrating experience for both partners: The injured partner desperately searching for that nugget of information that will help him/her reach emotional closure so that s/he can finally put things to rest—only to hear a story or explanation that feels incomplete at best; the injurer feeling badgered, thinking, “We’ve been over this a thousand times already!”, wondering if the injured will ever be able to move on.
In this regard, the healing process may always feel incomplete because at some point a leap of faith must occur on the part of the injured, and while s/he is looking for a soft place to land (which the injurer must provide), the guarantees of total security may never be realized. No relationships, even the best, offer such guarantees.
It is at this point in the healing process where a conscious decision must be made to move toward the other partner with more emotional openness—this doesn’t have to be an enormous leap, but at least a step is required so that the new relationship can be tested, so that new interactions and ways of being with one another can be realized.
Marriage/Relationship Help Resources
I’ve created two resources that can help couples move past emotional wounding and back to emotional connection.
1. Check out my workbook on how to make effective couples communication a reality;
I’ve also created a workbook that helps couples make forgiveness a regular part of their marriage/relationship.
2. Check out my workbook on forgiveness in marriage.
Dr. Rich Nicastro