Betrayal is such a ground-shaking event. Probably because it so deeply challenges your beliefs about someone incredibly significant in your life, and that, in turn, challenges your beliefs about yourself. So: what does the road forward, after betrayal, look like?

Unfortunately, betrayal is a journey that every couple goes through at one time or another. It is sometimes something as severe as an affair but other times, it can just be that we’ve let our spouse down in the every-day-living of life. If you’re in this place as either the betrayer or betrayed, you’ll definitely benefit from this article today.

If the betrayal in your life is a recent event, the pain you’re experiencing may be so fresh and raw that this information will be difficult for you to process. If that’s the case, after you read this, bookmark this page and come back to it in a little while. Give yourself permission to grieve and hurt and heal.

The Three Stages of Recovery from a Marital Betrayal

Betrayal is defined as “the perceived violation of an implicit or explicit relationship-relevant norm.”[i] It may not be that you, as a couple, have ever spoken about this “norm”, but the fact is you perceive it to be in place, and when your spouse violates it or crosses that line, you feel violated.

When a spouse “knowingly departs from the norms of decency and fairness that are assumed to govern a relationship, thereby causing harm,”[ii] betrayal has taken place. This can be something as simple as secrecy. Sometimes we think that there is no harm if our spouse doesn’t know what we’re doing, but in fact, secrecy is more damaging than most things.

I have heard wives of porn-addicts say over and over that the porn use hurt, but it was the secrecy and lies that were the most damaging. “If he lied/hid this, how do I know if I can ever trust him again?” is a question I hear a lot of.

The definitions of betrayal (above) may sound rather technical, but don’t let that take away from the severity of the experience. I know, for example, that over half of the spouses who find out their spouse has had a secret porn addiction develop most of the symptoms of PTSD. Betrayal can be a very, very traumatic experience.

What makes is even more difficult is that betrayal is something we don’t want to disclose to our support network – really, it would be a betrayal for them too – and so we carry it alone.

How can a marriage recover from something like this?

Recovery from a marital betrayal is a process that goes through three stages.[iii]

In the First Stage couples must grapple with the effects of the betrayal on themselves and the relationship. This is the Impact Stage of Recovery, and it is characterized by the following responses:

  • The betrayed spouse realizes that important assumptions about their marriage have been disrupted.[iv]
  • The betrayed spouse must process various violated assumptions including: (1) “beliefs that one’s spouse can be trusted, (2) that the relationship is safe, (3) that one can predict how one’s spouse will behave, (4) that one has reasonable control over one’s own relationship, and so on”[v]
  • Injured spouses no longer can trust their assumptions to guide their daily interactions or to predict future events.[vi]

During the impact stage, the injured spouse often withdraws from the relationship to protect themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it may help the betrayer seek proper help and recovery as they grasp the significance of what they have done.

Betrayal has a huge impact on a relationship, and the betrayed spouse’s ability to think about their marriage as well as their personal life. Everything they thought was truth, has been turned upside down. The effect is traumatic.

To move forward, both partners must move through the next two stages of recovery. Stage Two is called the Meaning Stage of Recovery in which the injured spouse seeks to “discover why the betrayal occurred in order to make the partner’s behavior more understandable and predictable.”[vii]

This is also the stage in which amends and forgiveness begin to occur. This requires that the betrayed spouse cease withdrawing from the relationship and move towards the perpetrating partner. The hard part about this though is that the explaining of why (by the betrayer) often looks like defensiveness.

It is also difficult because when you find out that some of the why ties back to the betrayers own difficult experiences in the marriage, it’s hard not to go to a bitter “poor you” position. The betrayed spouse gets the pain of the consequence but is being challenged to show empathy for how the betrayer got to a place where he/she could do this.

Nevertheless, meaning-making is a vital component of recovery. The reason why we pursue the Why question is that we want to establish predictability as the betrayed spouse. The betrayed one wants to know if or how or when this might happen again – so they seek meaning.

The Third Stage of the recovery process is called the Moving On Stage of Recovery.[viii]

In this stage, the “injured person must re-evaluate the relationship and make a decision regarding whether or not he or she wishes to continue with the relationship.”[ix]

Remember, forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Forgiveness and individual recovery from betrayal can happen without the couple reconciling. In fact, “there is no guarantee that amends and forgiveness will necessarily yield successful betrayal resolution and the recovery of couple functioning. Even when a perpetrator offers sincere amends and a victim genuinely forgives, partners may find that they cannot forget the incident or fully relegate it to the past.”[x]

So this is the stage where folks, assuming they decide to stay together, put things behind them, rebuild and recreate a new relationship that integrates what happened, gives that meaning, and takes responsibility for their part/role in the circumstances that made this betrayal possible.

The Importance of the Perpetrating Spouse Making Amends

There are a couple key things that we want to look at in these latter stages: the betrayer making amends and the betrayed spouse offering forgiveness.

Although amends and forgiveness are not a guarantee of reconciliation, they do make reconciliation and recovery from the betrayal more likely. When the perpetrating partner makes amends, this creates an environment that promotes forgiveness, resolution of the betrayal and increased relationship quality following the betrayal.[xi]

By the way, making amends just means “accepting responsibility for an act of betrayal, and offering genuine atonement for one’s actions. Importantly, amends must be sincere.”[xii] If the betrayer is perceived to be insincere, it tends to backfire, inhibiting forgiveness and resolution.

Three small studies completed in 2010 observed married and dating couples discussing unresolved betrayal incidents that had occurred through the course of their relationship. The researchers coded the discussions, looking for instances of the perpetrator making amends, the victim offering forgiveness, and whether or not the betrayal was resolved.

Results showed that victims were more likely to forgive when the perpetrator made amends, and the betrayal was more likely to be resolved when the perpetrator made amends.[xiii]

Start Making Amends

If you’re the betrayer, we’ve got a worksheet for you to help you make amends. It takes you through four key questions that you have to process to make sure you’re doing your part to make things right. Download it now!

The Importance of the Injured Spouse Offering Forgiveness

Results of the same study cited above also showed the importance of a combination of making amends and offering forgiveness. They found that spouses “who offer amends and forgiveness experience greater betrayal resolution and more positive relational outcomes than those who do not.”[xiv]

In other words, making amends helps you resolve and find closure with regards to what went wrong, and lead you to a better relationship than if you just decide to not talk about it anymore.

So, beyond speaking the words “I forgive you”, what does forgiveness actually look like?

Forgiveness means to grant a pardon or to cancel a debt or payment. It is a willingness to abandon your right to resentment, condemnation or even subtle revenge towards your offending spouse who acted unjustly. It also means doing this while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love towards him/her.[xv]

If you’ve truly forgiven or canceled, a debt, you can no longer go back and ask for it to be paid. In the same way, if you’ve truly forgiven an offense against you, you can no longer go back and dig it up to throw in your spouse’s face. Learn from the offense, grow from it, then let it go.

In terms of behaviours, individuals who have forgiven their spouse following a betrayal share the following characteristics:

  • A realistic, non-distorted, balanced view of the relationship
  • A release from being controlled by negative affect (angry feelings) toward the perpetrating partner
  • A lessened desire to punish the perpetrating partner.[xvi]

That’s a great summary, as people often want to know, “How will I know when I’m over this?” There are some insightful thoughts for you as you contemplate that question.

Again, if your betrayal is recent, this information may be too much for you to absorb and think about. My heart goes out to you in your pain. To give you a glimmer of hope though – many betrayed relationships end up stronger after the betrayal than they ever were before! Both spouses realize that what they were doing previously wasn’t working, so they are both committed to making changes and improvements.

So take heart. Give yourself permission to hurt. And heal. And come back here again when the pain isn’t quite so raw.

And please, if you need to talk, reach out!

[i] Peggy A. Hannon et al., “In the Wake of Betrayal: Amends, Forgiveness, and the Resolution of Betrayal,” Personal Relationships 17, no. 2 (June 2010): 253–78, doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01275.x.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Kristina Coop Gordon, “Forgiveness and Marriage: Preliminary Support for a Measure Based on a Model of Recovery from a Marital Betrayal,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 31, no. 3 (June 2003): 179–99.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Hannon et al., “In the Wake of Betrayal.”

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Eli J. Finkel et al., “Dealing with Betrayal in Close Relationships: Does Commitment Promote Forgiveness?,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82, no. 6 (June 2002): 956–74.

[xvi] K. C. Gordon and D. H. Baucom, “Understanding Betrayals in Marriage: A Synthesized Model of Forgiveness,” Family Process 37, no. 4 (1998): 425–49.