What do you do when you discover that your partner has betrayed you? Who do you tell? Who do you lean on for support, advice and a reality check? Where do you turn when you are hurt, enraged and devastated? On whom do you lean for urgent comfort with the burden of secrecy during this traumatic experience?
As you journey through this very painful time you may experience shame, humiliation, rage, devastation, resentment, contempt, guilt, anger, uncertainty and fear. You should not be alone. Isolation is a deserted path to depression. That said, what do you do with all your feelings? And, since it’s not something that goes away overnight but lives within you 24/7, what do you do with that gut-wrenching pain? To whom do you reach, if not your hurtful partner?
Having worked with a few hundred couples during the last 30 years, I have painfully witnessed that for most victims of betrayal reaching out for support can be a quandary. In fact, it is quite complicated. You need a space to process what you can and allow someone close to you hold some of your pain. But it is challenging that you, like your dishonest spouse, do not want to repeat the process of holding a secret.
When we have pain, actually too much of it, we need someone to hold a piece of it so that we are left with just the right amount in order to work through or master our emotional excess. That is what mastery is about; in fact it occurs throughout our lives starting with infancy. As a child, we typically have the opportunity to reach for an adult with issues like how to master the anxiety of leaving behind one’s bottle, diapers and bed.
So where do we go as adults? Who will hold some of our pain while we work on what we can? The concept of community, despite social media, has closed the gates some on connection. When confronted with an issue like adultery, where do you turn? In the crisis or immediate stage of discovery, you might be tempted to react and reach for anyone and everything to get as much information as you can to assuage your anxiety, to direct your sorrows and to ultimately secure validation for your suspicions. I don’t recommend this. Perhaps finding out if others in your close circle know can be useful or validating, but it can also be humiliating. You don’t want to look like the hysterical crisis-driven victim; you are not a powerless victim.
Remember that you are sharing information that is not just yours. It belongs to other people as well. It belongs to your partner, both of you as a couple, and anyone else possibly involved as well. Information often leaks out to others who might be affected, like children, families, co-workers, etc. So asking first “to whom does the information belong?” is critical. But, at the end of the day, it is still your information and you’re the one who needs support from someone other than your partner who betrayed you.
In the middle of this painful crisis you should have at least two confidants, so that when one is unavailable you have someone else to turn to. Your confidants should be people who value you unconditionally. It could be a friend, mentor, parent, sibling, or other relative. You need someone to honor your pain, grief and experience. Someone able to listen with a clear and supportive ear and be free of judgment — of you or your partner. And you don’t want to create a burdensome, one-sided relationship. Listen to them, rather than making them simply a receptacle for your pain. They also need to respect your boundaries and not share what you’ve told them with others.
They will not be there to rescue you — they can’t take all your pain because without pain you will not have the opportunity to mourn, grieve, and grow.
There certainly are those with whom we should not share. Under no circumstance should you share your experience with children. Reaching for siblings or other family members could be a good choice. However they may choose to protect and shield you, rather than allow you to grow from your experience.
Parents may or may not be a good choice. It all depends upon the relationship you have with them — and the relationship your partner may have with them. Parents can potentially be highly judgmental and unable to carry the pain for their child. They might also struggle with their own shame and worry about how the community will respond to this situation.
There is no substitute for a non-judgmental safe relationship with a psychotherapist who can help you navigate the waters after the storm — because it is your journey and not anyone else’s.
Remember, as you move through this process, the pain and the story of the pain will shift. Those who support you will walk that path with you.