30 Sep Recovering From Betrayal: The 35 Part Series by Greg Binns, LMFT
This is the first installment of a 35-part series on recovering from betrayal.
I jest, but 35 installments might give us a good start on talking about a very, very complex topic. To be clear, I’m talking specifically about betrayals of trust in love relationships – one person breaking implicit or explicit commitments they’ve made to their partner related to emotional or sexual boundaries. Because of our clinical focus at Recovery Help Now, the most common betrayal milieu I treat is the case where a sex addict’s acting out behavior is discovered by his or her partner. This can happen between men loving men, women loving women, non-dyadic relationships …..
At the outset, I want to emphasize my use of the gerund form of the verb above, because recovering from betrayal is a process as opposed to an event. And it’s a repetitive, circuitous process rather than a linear, monotonic progression. My experience has been that partners who choose to stay together following a betrayal and work at putting their relationship on a foundation of health and sustainability are often dismayed to see different versions of the same kinds of hurts and conflicts coming up again and again. This shouldn’t be that surprising, given that the psyche is relatively conservative, which is another way of saying that old habits die hard. But it can cause a lot of consternation as well, so the joke at the beginning of this blog is again quite apropos – pack a lunch and be prepared to see your shit and your partner’s shit come up again and again and again in a dazzling array of guises, each of which turn out to be “oh, that again.”
I want to focus my comments today on some aspects of the experience of the person who committed the act of betrayal, i.e. the recovering addict, and I want to try to make a general suggestion that might be helpful for the person in this role. Waking up from addiction is shocking and terrifying. Seeing how completely checked out you were from the web of human love and cooperation is incredibly jolting, and experiencing how close you came to losing the relationships you now realize you depend on is terrifying. Since addicts in early recovery are still largely allergic to feelings of dependency and yet have committed to feeling their feelings without going to the most familiar old responses, (i.e. acting out), this phase of the work can be excrutiating much of the time. And this puts you at a bit of an emotional disadvantage when your partner wants to talk about their feelings, wants to work through being triggered by some trauma reminder, has other questions and more questions about why you did what you did, needs reassurance, is distrustful of you, is still holding out on letting you feel close to them, etc. They want to work through the conflict, and you want to feel secure. This can be the cause of a lot of feelings of impatience and frustration in the recovering addict. You may find yourself wondering how long it’s going to take for your partner to start trusting you again, to stop regarding you with suspicion, to stop bringing every conversation back to the betrayal. And unfortunately, most of our habitual reactions to these kinds of feelings look to the partner just like your old responses to conflict – collapsing into guilt, exploing into a counterattack, blaming the betrayed person for their feelings, derailing the conversation in one way or another. Sound familiar?
So this is the irony: under duress, the recovering addict usually resorts to the same sorts of bad communication strategies that characterized your interactions prior to recovery. This gives the partner the very-hard-to-shake conviction that it’s too soon to start trusting again. And then we’re off to the races. While you as the recovering addict may be certain that you are NOT acting out, that you ARE attending meetings, that you’re participating in treatment, etc., none of that seems to make an impact on your partner in moments like this. You know that your behavior in the rest of your life is different from the behavior that constituted your betrayal of your partner in the past. But you can’t force your partner to recognize that and trust you in the moment.
The shift toward health in those moments for you, the recovering addict, is to find a way to respond to your partner that communicates a basic respect for their experience, AND that is somehow different from how you typically responded before. This is part of the paradox: the point is not to get your partner to respond differently to you, the point is to just demonstrate different behavior. Demonstrate different behvior. And do it repeatedly. Trying to placate or seduce or browbeat or logic or guilt or counterattack your partner into feeling differently than they do is tantamount to seeking control of your partner and of your bad feelings, and that is exactly how you related to them and yourself prior to recovery. In my addiction, when I feel bad, it’s must be someone else’s fault, so for me to feel better I have to change someone else. Or get loaded or act out. But in the life I’m trying to live now, those assumptions are a disastser and they turn out to get me exactly to the place I don’t want to end up.
There are as many different specific ways of demonstrating different behavior in the moment as there are defensive maneuvers, so I’ll leave that part of the discussion for a future blog. The main thing I want you to think about for now is that your partner is going to feel untrusting for awhile because you were an untrustworthy person for awhile. (That’s a descriptive statement, not a normative one.) So when you feel impatient about the pace of healing from betrayal, pause and reflect on the logic of that. Then make sure you take a breath, and then ask yourself, “How can I respond to my partner right now that’s different from how I used to? How can I demonstrate that I’m holding him with a different kind of regard?” And let’s take up some specific ways to do that in a future blog.