What to Do After Betrayal
Betrayal by someone who is supposed to love you and with whom you have committed to have a faithful, exclusive relationship can be devastating. It can even bring up past feelings of pain and rejection from childhood or a previous relationship. Signs of trauma caused by a betrayal can include:
- loss of self-esteem and self-worth
- emotional numbness
- anger, even rage
- guilt for being vulnerable
- inability to appropriately express emotions
- obsession with the affair details
- inability to trust anyone
- PTSD – suspicion and hypervigilance
- mental health concerns – depression, anxiety, etc.
- physical symptoms – insomnia, digestive distress, pain in muscles and joints, etc.
Surviving and Healing from Betrayal
How can you survive this betrayal and move past it to rebuild your future? While the dynamics of your relationship and the betrayal of it are unique in some ways, there are some common actions that you can take to help you begin to heal.
- Acknowledge what has happened. You may have thought that this could never happen to you, or you may be thinking that this could not be happening to you again. Denial, in either case, is not productive. The first step in healing and moving past it is to accept that it has happened and acknowledge that your life has changed.
- Accept difficult emotions. Don’t deny or stuff the emotions that you are feeling. Your feelings, whatever they are, are valid, and it is helpful to put a name to them – abandoned, angry, rejected, ashamed, guilty, etc.
- Don’t blame yourself. While things in your relationship weren’t perfect, and you may not have been the ideal spouse, this is not your fault. Your partner chose to be unfaithful to you. I repeat, this is not your fault. If you decide to start over with your partner, then you can address what may have contributed to the affair, but again, it is not your fault that your spouse cheated.
- Get space from your partner. You need time and space to catch your breath, sort out your emotions, and think and reflect on your next steps. Assure your partner that this does not mean that you have decided to leave them and that you will be in touch with them when you are ready. Of course, if you have decided to leave them, particularly if this is not the first time they have cheated, then that is what you would communicate to them.
- Grieve the loss of what was. It is appropriate to grieve the loss of the relationship that you knew. Trust has become a casualty and may or may not be rebuilt. In some ways, things will never be the same. It doesn’t mean your relationship can’t be rebuilt, but it will not be easy.
- Don’t try to “get even.” Retaliation to make your spouse pay or to attempt to bring them pain so that they will feel what you are feeling only complicates things and lowers your self-esteem in the long run. Furthermore, revenge demeans you and makes it even more difficult to recover from betrayal.
- Get support from others. A trusted person can help you get through some rough patches, particularly if they have healed from a similar situation. Caution: Someone bitter about being betrayed or who might view this as an opportunity to “hook up” with you is not a good choice! A therapist or clergyperson could be of help in addition to a good friend.
- Be honest and objective about your relationship. Evaluate in your own mind what you feel was good and what wasn’t. Take ownership of your shortcomings, and credit yourself for what you did well. Then, even if you don’t reunite with your partner, you will be better prepared for a good relationship in the future.
- Focus on what you need. You may have focused on your spouse and neglected yourself. Regardless, now is the time to focus on YOU. Do the emotional work of healing. Take care of yourself physically and focus on diet, exercise, and sleep habits. Don’t neglect your spirituality and engage in practices that feed your soul.
- Communicate with your partner. If there is a chance that you will want to rebuild your life and relationship with your partner, keep the lines of communication open. Be honest about how you feel and how their actions have affected you.
- Forgive without trusting. A fundamental truth about forgiving someone is that your forgiveness of them is for you. Forgiving someone else sets you free from toxic anger, bitterness, and resentment. Another principle of forgiveness is that you do not have to trust someone or reconcile with them to forgive them. Trust and reconciliation are issues that are separate from forgiveness. You can forgive someone and never trust them again. After forgiving someone, you can move forward with your life and never reconcile. If you have children together, through forgiveness, you can find peace to co-parent your children and be friends, even if you are no longer lovers.
- Declare it “over” and move on. If this is not the first time they have been unfaithful to you, you may only enable their behavior if you stay with them. There are no real consequences of their actions, and they will likely continue to cheat.
- Don’t build a wall around your heart. Instead, little by little, begin to trust again. If you have decided to work it out with your partner, allow them opportunities to build trust incrementally, not all at once. Be careful not to become cynical and suspicious of others and shut them out as well. Guard your heart, but let in those who are safe and trustworthy. Go slowly and build healthy relationships.
- Get help! Your relationship can be saved and may become even stronger than before the betrayal if you are both willing to do what it takes. A qualified therapist can help you deal with feelings of self-blame, assist you in rebuilding self-esteem, and guide you in developing healthy strategies for coping.