Even if it feels impossible at this moment, I want you to know that it is possible to rebuilt trust, to create safety and to restore intimacy to your marriage. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy or simple. I can’t even promise that your trust will never be broken again. But I am saying that it is possible.
In every human relationship, probably without exception, there are moments of betrayal. This has been happening for millennia: think even of the words of King David in Psalm 41:9, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”
Jesus Christ himself was betrayed, so know that you’re not alone. He understands, he’s been there. It happens to everyone.
As common as it is though, there may be no blow as severe as a betrayal – we feel it keenly. The good news though, is that it doesn’t have to be fatal to your marriage.
If you are the injured party, this post is especially for you. We hope it will be a comfort to you as well as help you figure out how to move forward after a betrayal.
FREE RECORDING: For the Betrayer
This special recording speaks directly to the one who has injured their spouse. If you want to make things right, Caleb recorded these specific strategies to help you reconcile things with the spouse you’ve betrayed.
If you have been betrayed, there is a process you’re going to go through. Of course, your own journey is always unique but here’s typically what we see when working with couples in distress following the disclosure of an extramarital affair, perceived abandonment, disclosure of a pornography addiction, or even major changes of lifestyle and values and even religion.
Generally there are three phases:[i]
- Roller Coaster
- Trust building
Stage 1: Roller Coaster
This is no surprise here. Researchers wrote that “initial responses to a partner’s disclosure of infidelity were often intensely emotionally charged” which makes perfect sense.
We see folks swinging between severe grief and numbness to thoughts of murder and escape. There is often a lot of confrontation and anger being expressed and a flood of conflicting emotions going on.
These conflictions emotions are wanting to get past the offense but at the same time refusing to. Or, wanting revenge by doing the same thing, but hating what has been done, etc. No matter what feelings are going on here, they are very strong. You can see why it is called the roller coaster stage.
The important part here is being willing to express the strong emotions to trusted confidante’s: a counsellor, a church leader you can trust, and to your spouse who has injured you. He/she needs to see your pain.
Stage 2: Moratorium
When the emotional reactivity slows down and you find yourself trying to make meaning of the betrayal, you’ve moved into the moratorium stage. This period typically involves quite a bit of obsessing about details, retreating or pulling back from your spouse physically and emotionally, and recruiting the support of others to try to make meaning of the betrayal.
As a cautionary note: If this was a sexual betrayal, obsessing about details is not always healthy. You need enough to make you feel safe, but if you start getting all sorts of voyeuristic details, they’ll create memories and images that will be very difficult for you to overcome.
According to the researchers, here’s what you probably should know in the case of an affair:[ii]
- Who the extramarital partner was
- How long the affair lasted
- How often they met
- Where they met.
If you find yourself on an endless search for facts, it may be because it is easier to talk about facts than feelings. When you feel yourself going down this pathway, as the betrayed spouse, stop and think about what you are feeling and what you need. You are probably needing reassurance that your spouse wants to work on the marriage and still finds you attractive and loveable. Learn to be more vocal about this and focus on feelings, not facts.
Stage 3: Trust Building
Trust-building takes a while. It is a long and difficult process, depending on the nature and extent of the betrayal.
The first part of trust-building Is re-engaging. There is isolation brought about between each spouse due to the moratorium, but if the couple is open to rebuilding their marriage, this aspect of reengaging comes out where they start experiencing greater dialogue and openness in the relationship. This is not just dialogue about the betrayal or whatever broke the trust, but about relationship problems that led up to the breach of trust.
The second part is ownership and remorsefulness. The injurer is typically expressing more remorsefulness during this stage and accepting responsibility for how their actions impacted their spouse.
You might think that the apologies are needed much earlier on. Ironically, they are, but they are not really believable until this stage. Often the injured party will see early apologies are cheap attempts to patch over the depth of the injury or even to sort of ‘buy off’ the offended spouse.
As in, “You want me to get over it just like that???”
There is too much anger to really accept the remorse early on, but once the initial anger has passed and the couple is starting to make meaning, behaviours are starting to change and be maintained, then the offended spouse is in a better place to hear and internalize the apology.
The third part of trust-building is for the offending partner to start showing behaviours that demonstrate commitment to the relationship. There is usually a return of loving behaviours during this trust-building stage also.
The fourth aspect of building trust is increased couples communication. This understands leads to greater intimacy.
The final aspect of this trust-building stage is forgiveness. If you’ve been offended and betrayed and have lost faith in your spouse, this is not something you can rush. It is a very necessary part of your own recovery as the betrayed spouse to find ways to forgive the betrayer.
Forgiveness is important for your own healing but also very difficult to master. It is usually not just one decision, although it may be catalyzed by a crisis decision on your part, but something that needs revisited. Think of it as a process over time where you are exchanging hard, bitter feelings (eg. anger or bitterness) for softer, deeper feelings (eg. sadness over loss).[iii]
It may be helpful for you as a betrayed spouse to write a letter saying you are in the process of resolving, forgiving, and letting go of the hurt and anger towards your spouse. This letter is a snapshot in time of your process going through all this. Express what you do not forgive, or are unable to let go of, and why it is difficult for them to resolve the injury. It is OK to feel those feelings!
In this letter, also express what you presently need from your spouse to help you let go of the hurt and anger and to forgive them. If you have already let go of the hurt and anger or forgiven your spouse, then write about where you are emotionally around the injury and whether you feel you are able to reconcile. This letter writing really helps you identify where you are in your own process of forgiving as part of rebuilding that trust.[iv]
As you can see, rebuilding trust really is a process. It takes time, goes through stages, and can also be very, very difficult at times. We can’t empathize the forgiveness component enough. If you are reading this right at the start of your crisis, right after possibility a major betrayal, then forgiveness probably seems so ridiculous to even consider.
Maybe you even have well-meaning people pressure you to forgive. Well, we will NOT add to that pressure. Most people come to want to offer forgiveness on their own, but if they never get there, we are not going to persuade them otherwise.
Take the time you need, but remember that forgiveness is super valuable in serving to rebuild trust and rebalancing power in your couple relationship. It is clinked closely to increases in marital satisfaction and psychological closeness. It is worth doing if you want to rebuild trust.[v]
[i] Michael M. Olson et al., “Emotional Processes Following Disclosure of an Extramarital Affair,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 28, no. 4 (October 2002): 423–34.
[ii] Gerald Weeks and Stephen Treat, Couples in Treatment, 2 edition (Philadelphia, PA: Routledge, 2001).
[iii] Olson et al., “Emotional Processes Following Disclosure of an Extramarital Affair.”
[iv] Leslie Greenberg, Serine Warwar, and Wanda Malcolm, “Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy and the Facilitation of Forgiveness,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 36, no. 1 (January 2010): 28–42.