by Dr. Luke Durain
1. Offer Compassion.
An affair, or any major breach in trust, causes an emotional wound in the ‘wounded partner.’ Many people describe their feelings of betrayal as similar to symptoms of PTSD and anxiety. “It feels like my world is shattered.” “I have so much tension; I can’t relax.” “I’m hurt, scared, and angry all at the same time.” “Everything triggers me.”
Just like wounds in the medical field, a psychological wound requires the proper medicine and time to heal. Even more powerful than an apology or a promise to ‘never do it again,’ is a dose of compassion and validation. Compassion can be expressed through sincere phrases like, “I might never fully understand what you’re going through, but I want to try to.” “I imagine that when I did that, it made you question everything.” “I know you must be hurting so much right now. You have a right to feel angry.” “I will sit with you in the pain. I want to know what you’re feeling right now.” Compassion will not heal a wound overnight―apply as needed.
2. Avoid Unintentionally Causing More Pain.
When the person we love is in pain, it’s tempting to try to help them see the silver lining or glimpse a ray of hope. We might give advice like, “I know it was bad, but remember that nothing physical happened.” “It’s been a whole year. You’ll feel better if we move on.” “We can’t move forward when you focus on the past.” These types of comments above are often intended to help the wounded part stop feeling the pain caused by negative emotions. However, these types of comments have the opposite effect. When the wounded partner is told to “move on,” “it’s not as bad as it could be,” or “stop being irrational,” then they will feel dismissed and minimized. This in turn causes another layer of anger on top of the original wound.
3. Show Trustworthy Behavior.
Betrayal shatters trust. Therefore, the wounding partner must be patiently work with the wounded partner’s fears, triggers, and suspicions. Actions speak louder than words. Ask your partner to identify which behaviors help them to feel greater trust and which behaviors cause greater suspicion. Rebuilding trust usually requires the wounding partner to make some inconvenient changes, such as allowing phone access, showing video proof of the current location, or interacting with certain people only when the wounded partner is present.
Bonus Tip for the Wounded Partner:
Deciding When to Trust Again. After trust is broken, suspicion and distrust are natural self-protective defense mechanisms. Feelings of anxiety and suspicion will show up, no matter whether the wounding partner acts in a completely trustworthy manner (green light), acts a way that could or might be a sign of betrayal (yellow light), or acts in a blatantly untrusty manner (red light). Confrontations and accusations (e.g., “You don’t love me,” “You’re lying,” “I can’t trust you.”) usually result in a defensive response. Instead, try inviting the wounding partner to empathize with your pain by vulnerably sharing your emotions (e.g., “When you did that, all of my fears came to the surface. Can you understand why it is hard for me right now?”). There’s no way to guarantee what the future holds, however, trustworthy behavior and empathic responses allow the wounded partner to eventually gain a sense of healing and reconnection.
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