Amy Daves specializes in helping couples recover from betrayal. She simplifies this painful process into bite-sized pieces.
Years ago, before I opened my private practice as a marriage therapist and while I had my hands full with three toddlers in tow, I was sitting with a girlfriend one afternoon discussing the complexities of marriage. Somehow we got on the subject of divorce – neither of us had experienced it but both of us were married long enough to have strong opinions on it. I remember distinctly stating that if my husband were to ever be unfaithful, that this would undoubtedly and obviously be the end of my marriage. My friend surprised me with her response: “You would be surprised at what you would be capable of handling.” I didn’t know how to reply, but assumed that she must have had some worldly experience that taught her about her own resilience. I gave her polite space and didn’t press with questions, but her comment has remained with me over time.
Ten years past that point, and six years into private practice, having watched couples navigate the waters of infidelity, betrayal, disappointment, hurts, and unimaginable pain, her words resonate fully and with validity. Being a witness to my own strengths as well as being an intimate witness to the strengths of those around me professionally creates a vision of what is capable between people in terms of forgiveness and repairing wounds. While there are several recipes that promise healing, there are two required ingredients for the success of the process: two (or more)humans willing to commit and work towards a newly defined relationship.
Ingredient #1: Committed partners
This is always the first thing I ask when a friend or a client asks for help repairing a relationship following a betrayal. “Is your partner committed to the process?” If the answer is yes, then I can offer significant hope that chances are, this betrayal, be it emotional, sexual, financial, physical, whatever – can heal.
One of the signs of a partner being committed to the process is a total and complete abandonment of the behavior that led to the betrayal. In the case of an affair, it’s crucial that all contact with the third party be eliminated completely. In addition, the person who was betrayed must feel comfortable that this has occurred.
Ingredient #2: Elimination of the harmful behavior (contact with lover)
Different couples agree on different methods of eliminating the third party contact. The key is that both partners agree to the mode, and that the betrayed partner has evidence that this has occurred. One way is to send an email stating that no more contact will be welcomed or reciprocated, read by both partners. One way is to make a phone call with the betrayed partner listening in silently. Another way is to arrange a meeting with the betrayed partner along side or observing from afar. The mode is not as important as the agreement between both partners that the mode is acceptable and allows the betrayed to feel as emotionally safe as possible.
At the point that both partners are clear that each is committed to healing the relationship, I like to paint a picture to serve as imagery for a goal in their relationship. Imagine a fortress, like a castle. Inside the castle are two people – you, and the person who hurt you. Outside of the castle is the dragon that threatens to destroy you. If at any point you perceive that your partner is outside feeding the dragon, you will not feel safe. You must perceive that your partner is, at all times, inside the castle with you. If at any point you worry where your partner is, you must ask your partner for information. Here is where things often get tricky….
Anyone who has had an affair and later decides that it was a mistake, and they wish to repair their primary relationship, holds a deep fear. What if my partner never forgives me? At the root of this fear is shame, and fear of rejection. It is terrifically painful to watch your partner suffer, and when you have made the decision to end the affair and move on, you wish your partner could trust your resolve immediately. It does not work that way. You hold ALL the information, while your partner holds only a small portion of information. In fact, it is likely that your partner feels that they know nothing – that the world they once knew is now a virtual stranger and they do not know what is real and what is not.
Ironically, the same person who created the pain via betrayal, be that an affair or otherwise, holds the same key that unlocks freedom from the pain. That key is “information” – and lots of it. While the betrayer wants to naturally stop talking about it all and move on, the betrayed needs loads and loads of information. So in the recipe of healing, one partner typically wants to offer a dash of info, while the other partner desperately needs a dish.
Ingredient #3: Dishes and dishes of information (I call this “transparency”).
Note that often, for this recipe to be successful, this ingredient will need to be doubled, quadrupled and multiplied to the satisfaction of the betrayed partner. While this can feel intimidating and threatening to the betrayer, the truth is that the process of sharing even difficult information is what starts the process of rebuilding trust. It’s less about the content of the information and more about the process of sharing painful truths.
Typical information needed for this recipe includes what happened in the affair, and what is going on in the present. The betrayer may often feel restricted and controlled – but it would be unfair to characterize the betrayed partner as being “too controlling” during the early phase of affair repair.
Finally, one of the most crucial ingredients of a successful repair story is patience.
Ingredient #4: Patience
The process of repairing an affair is an epic roller coaster experience – get in, sit down, strap in, and prepare to hurl your guts out. This is not a ride anyone stands in line to experience….nor is it a meal anyone would order for any reason. Interestingly enough though, in my experience, my dear friend was right – you might be surprised of what you are capable of doing. Done correctly, the final outcome of this recipe can be more magnificent than even the innocence of “how it was before.” While revenge is a dish best served cold, true healing can be the ultimate in comfort food – food for the soul.
Photo: Josh James/ Flickr