“Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” C.S. Lewis
To those who have felt betrayed by your spouse, specifically through an affair:
You could be anywhere on this journey of betrayal. Maybe the waves of shock have passed, leaving remnants of confusion and pain. Maybe numbness has set in – the stale, suffocating rhythm of moving emotion-less through each day. I wonder if for many of you, the most potent, and most isolating, feeling of all is the sense of abandonment. Even if you and your partner have chosen to stay, to repair, you may feel deeply alone.
You may be grieving. Grieving what your relationship, your home, your life once was. You are grieving what it could’ve been, what you wished and hoped it would be. You are grieving your connection to your spouse as you try to make sense of what went wrong.
You may be scared. Scared of what happens next. How do you move forward with this? How do you heal? How do you approach the throne of God in the midst of anger and hurt and fear?
Betrayal and Trauma
I know that this post, and this series, does not apply to everyone reading. And at the same time, we face betrayals in our relationships constantly – where there is trust and connection, there is a risk for injury. We are broken people who choose to make a life-long commitment with another broken person: whether subtle or overt, relational wounds happen. There is a continual need for forgiveness and healing.
A betrayal, of any kind, is a relational trauma. According to Judith Herman of Harvard Medical School, traumatic wounds are severe when they involve a violation of human connection. An affair violates the very core of connection. It shakes the foundation of trust in a relationship, leaving the injured partner to doubt any sense of security and safety.
Especially in long-term affairs, the injuring partner begins to become unfamiliar and unknown to us. In a sense, they become strangers. And we have been taught at an early age not to trust strangers.
Our bodies, minds, and spirits are amazingly resilient. When they sense danger or a threat to safety, they react by protecting us from further danger. This protection often comes in the form of defenses – our walls come up physically, emotionally, mentally, and sexually. Our brain signals danger to our system, and we often respond in fight, flight, or freeze. In a relationship, fight can look like anger, defensiveness, criticism, or aggression towards our spouse. Flight often means avoiding contact, walking away from conversations, disengaging, and eventually separation. Finally, freeze is often more of an internal shift, where you remain in the relationship physically but become emotionally detached, as if you are an empty shell that cannot tolerate intimacy and connection. Particularly if the wound is a sexual affair, we physiologically tense up when our partner attempts to engage us. Our bodies feel violated, and where there was once “one-ness” between us, their bodies now feel alien to us. We do not welcome a stranger’s body into ours.
I share these things because I want to first validate the natural response to an affair. Particularly in the Christian realm, there is a pull towards immediate forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes, that can inadvertently mean forgoing the hard, long work of inner healing. When the goal (of both partners) is reconciliation, it must first start with acknowledging the graveness of this betrayal, and the normal, human reactions that you experience after such an event.
Where renewed trust is the ultimate goal, a basic safety must be re-established in the relationship before true healing can happen. This safety takes recognizing where you feel unsafe, acknowledging the pain, and taking the time to process through it with your spouse. Burying the wound only serves to foster resentment and disconnection in the long run.
Forgiveness is possible, even when it feels unbearably distant. Here are some practical steps:
- The first step is acknowledging your pain and current phase of the grieving process. Even if you remain in the relationship, there is still a need to grieve what the relationship once was. Each stage – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – will take time to walk through. Don’t rush through the stages.
- Focus on process questions versus content-oriented questions towards your spouse. Knowing the details of the affair can be helpful in initially uncovering lies and and laying a groundwork of clarity and openness. But continually returning to these details is not beneficial and even harmful. Knowing why, how it began, what was going on in your relationship at the time, etc. are more beneficial for healing.
- Speak your pain openly and simply. Stay focused on describing the pain and feelings surrounding the affair and its impact on you. Accusatory, defensive, and blaming comments about your partner and the specifics of the affair will not be helpful.
- Begin to identify what you need from your partner and directly ask for these needs to be met. Using “I” statements can be transformative when stating needs: “I feel _________ because __________ and I need _______________.” This step is tough; it requires a sense of ‘receiving’ from your partner when you would rather feel in control.
- Surround yourself with trusted people. I am a firm believer that we are both broken and healed in relationship. When your once-trusted partner feels unsafe to you, it is imperative to surround yourself with safe people as you walk through affair recovery.
Affair recovery is long, hard work. But when both partners are committed and active participants in the process, reconciliation can happen.
Ultimately, I believe that affair recovery is best done in the context of a therapeutic relationship. If you are struggling through an affair alone, I encourage you to find a therapist to walk with you on this journey of healing.