Coupleworks’ counsellors frequently witness the acute distress of a couple dealing with the aftermath of a betrayal when there have been secrets and lies and boundaries breached. Trust has gone, the relationship no longer feels safe, and there is the possibility of separation.
At the beginning of a relationship there can be explicit discussions, or sometimes just unspoken understandings, about what a committed relationship means to both. For some this will mean monogamy. For others polyamory is accepted. Each relationship will contain its own set of expectations about loyalty, values, needs, hopes, dreams which coalesce to form the couple’s contract with one another. This may evolve into co-habiting, or engagement, or marriage/civil partnership (with the very public declaration of vows and promises). Having children together links the couple in an extra dimension of commitment: co-parenting.
So it can feel devastating when one partner unilaterally does not adhere to the agreed promises and understandings. Affairs, online sexual addictions, gambling and risking financial security, alcohol or drug addictions, can shatter the stability of a relationship and a sudden loss of trust can create profound feelings of shock, grief and rage.
Pia Mellody in ‘The Intimacy Factor’ describes boundaries as protective not punitive; with the relationship boundaries created by a couple felt to be a comfort and not a limiting straight-jacket. It may seem paradoxical, but relaxing into the safe place of a ‘couple bubble’ can be liberating. A soothing relational security can encourage openness, the sharing of vulnerabilities, and the confidence to drop masks. Feeling the true ‘you’ is accepted and understood lessens the need for a false self. The connection is with a ‘soulmate’ and a relationship becomes life-enhancing not restricting or suffocating.
However, problems arise when one partner, for whatever reason, chafes against the boundaries and acts out (with sex, alcohol, drugs, money) – rather than engage in renegotiating the terms of the relationship.
The relationship is no longer a safe and even playing field when one person is in the dark about the reality and there is often a feeling that ‘something is wrong’. They may have been feeling anxious, confused and uncertain but when a betrayal is eventually exposed it can still come as such a blow that the distress is experienced as an actual physical reaction of shock (feeling faint, nausea, disorientated, breathless).
A couple coming to counselling at this point have an urgent shared need for containment and reassurance, but it is possible that each has a very different agenda. The betrayed partner, driven mad by not-knowing, is desperate to understand what has gone on. They seek facts, truth, and detailed information in order to regain a sense of control.
However, sometimes the offending partner is frozen. Having lived a double life for so long, they cannot see a way of giving up either existence. Particularly if there is an addiction, the dilemma is acute. There is a simultaneous attachment to both worlds and the loss of one or other cannot be faced.
The partner’s distress can lead to an abrupt reckoning and a concomitant terror of losing the relationship. But while there is real remorse and abject apology, there can also be an attempt to diffuse the situation. A desperate need to minimise the damage leads to a continuation of the lies and fudging. Wrongly, it is reasoned that deception lessens the impact and protects the partner from further distress: ‘What you don’t know can’t hurt you.’ They fear the full truth would mean they would lose the love and respect of those closest to them. It could mean public humiliation and everything falling apart. The prospect encourages obfuscation and the keeping of secrets.
With trust shattered, the hurt partner is disorientated and disempowered. The ground has given way. They require honesty, openness and truth from the other in order to gain understanding and insights into what has happened. However, this can come up against the betrayer’s reluctance to disclose and their stifling shame, guilt, and panic manifesting as denial, avoidance, and delusion.
What to do?
The counselling sessions will move through a number of stages involving painstaking exploration. At the beginning there is the need to work with ‘first order change’ in order to create new rules of engagement. It is essential that life regains a balance, terms are renegotiated, behaviours change, requests are respected, and a new pathway into the future is agreed.
However, new foundations need to be built on rock and not on sand and Michelle D Mays in ‘Partner Hope’ explains that this requires a move to ‘second order change’;
‘’Second order change is when we go below the structures and change the foundational beliefs, feelings and thinking that guide our behaviours…It is deep and long-lasting. It changes things at the core, and these changes then weave and wind through our lives, rising up to create all kinds of additional changes in different areas. Second order change takes time and is experiential… It is not a quick fix and it and requires us to leave our comfort zone.’’ Change is challenging.
When a couple despairs and all feels hopeless it is sometimes the counsellor who understands the possibility of recovery and who holds the hope of repair and regeneration. Counselling offers the time and space necessary for the couple to begin the process of reconciliation, but the possibility of rebuilding from the rubble comes only when there is an authentic intention to engage in change and growth. Discussions about accountability and the taking of responsibility will be necessary. Genuine regret, heartfelt apology, acknowledgement of the hurt, will be part of the step towards healing. The development of a new trust is not easy but loving reconnection can aid forgiveness.
Michelle D Mays describes ‘The Authentic Hope Process’ as a development:
1. Devastation (Feeling broken and in pieces)
2. Realisation (Surveying the damage, destruction and open wounds)
3. Stabilisation (Keeping afloat and clinging on to the wreckage)
4. Reimagining (Visualising the shape of a different relationship)
5. Creating (Working together to build a new future)