Dealing with Betrayal? What to do if you've hurt someone you love.
We all screw up in our relationships. We make big and little mistakes. We keep repeating the same bad behavior over and over. We apologize and often we recover and grow. But, sometimes, we do something so serious that the relationship is ruptured. Maybe you are in a monogamous relationship and admit to infidelity. Or you're in an open relationship but have a history of not honoring the rules of the relationship and this last time was one time too many for your partner.
You feel awful, You know what you did is wrong. You have tried apologizing in many different ways. Maybe you have tried giving gifts and flowers and being extra nice as means of asking forgiveness but nothing is happening. Often this is the point where I see a couple in therapy - they are at an impasse. The betrayer feels helpless and remorseful and sad and a million other feelings and thinks "I don't know what else to do?!?" The betrayed feels hurt, angry, sad, and a million other feelings and thinks "not again!" The betrayer offers yet another apology to the betrayed and looks at me helplessly. The betrayed looks down with set jaw and shakes his head. It is an unenviable and painful situation.
If you are the betrayer, how do you seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing? How do you repair what you did if your goal is to heal the relationship and recover?
Yes, you've probably already apologized over and over. But this is an opportunity to carefully consider what you are saying. In order to apologize effectively you need to own your behavior and the effect it has on your partner. Very clearly identify the behavior that you engaged in and note the effect it has had. "I'm sorry you feel this way" or "I'm sorry about what this has done to you" is not an effective apology. "I'm sorry that I lied to you and had sex with another man when we agreed to be monogamous and I am sorry for how much this has hurt you" is more effective. Note that I am spelling out the behavior clearly and owning all of it. Do not expect forgiveness after you make this statement. Instead, expect to listen.
Listen, Really Listen
The apology example above clearly talks about the behavior. It will probably elicit a strong emotional response in your partner. At that moment, your job is to really, truly hear your partner. Imagine being in his shoes, imagine what this must be like for him. Do not offer any explanations, do not offer any rebuttals. If your partner says he is feeling humiliated, then try to understand just how that might feel. It is OK to respond back and acknowledge how humiliated he feels. There are lots of guides available on how to be a better active listener. Give him an opportunity to express what this is like for him and what your behavior did to him. Expect to have to do this again and again whenever strong feelings come up for your partner around this issue.
Listening alone won't fix this. Trust has been damaged and your job at this point is to attempt to rebuild it. There is room for dialog here with your partner - you can ask for feedback about how trust can be rebuilt, but ultimately, one magic behavior change won't make forgiveness happen and the rupture heal. Rather, you will need to begin the slow process of building trust through your actions. This is your opportunity to try new behaviors, try new communication, and move in a different direction. It is an opportunity to try new dialog with your partner about what would be healthy for the relationship.
This takes time. Your partner may find himself once again flooded with the same level of difficult feelings as before. While you may think "haven't we been through this?" or "why is he still stuck on this?" your job is to listen even more and continue working to build trust and to hold some patience around this issue.
So then what? By really witnessing what your behavior did to your partner and giving him an opportunity to express himself and also by attempting to build back trust you are moving toward repairing the relationship. Things may become less volatile and communication may resume. Or you may enlist the support of a couple therapist to help navigate this process. There is no guarantee that anything you do will repair the rupture but you can take steps toward healing.
One More Point
Regardless of outcome, the above actions are good practices for any relationship, whether or not there is a betrayal. Taking responsibility in an apology, actively listening and practicing empathy with your partner, and working to build trust will grow and enhance a relationship, even if there hasn't been a rupture.
Next week I'll talk about what to do if you are the betrayed.