Maria thought she had a good marriage. While she and her husband didn’t have much of a sex life after they became parents, they enjoyed each other’s company and liked parenting their two young children. She believed their marriage was grounded in a solid love for one another.
But this all changed when she picked up Rick’s cell phone and saw a text message saying, “I can’t wait to see you again. Last night was amazing.”
She read through a series of texts revealing that he had been having an affair with a woman co-worker for at least several months. “I felt like someone hit me in the head with an axe,” said Maria,. “Really. I had to lie down on the bed because I felt like the floor was about to drop out below me. Everything I believed to be true was suddenly called into question.”
Discovering a partner’s affair can be devastating because it strikes at so many aspects of one’s identity. It can cause the betrayed person to doubt their own attractiveness or judgment in people, and it can raise fundamental questions about the inherent goodness of the world.
This is because our relationships are built upon the fragile agreement that those about whom we care most deeply will behave, in large part, as they have always behaved. A betrayal can shatter that trust and open the door to the possibility that things in one’s small, intimate world may not be as they appear.
The roots of these feelings stretch back to childhood, when we need predictability in the care we receive. A great deal of research suggests that when a baby’s need for predictability is not met, that baby can grow into an anxious and distrusting adult. As children, we will even irrationally blame problems on ourselves instead of our parents as a way to make the world feel more orderly and predictable.
And to a degree, trust always entails the suspension of disbelief. This is, in part, why betrayals can be so psychologically traumatizing. It’s as if one’s entire view of the world has been proven false. In fact, studies show that psychological traumas like discovering an affair have the capacity to affect brain functioning long after the event occurs. One of these changes is the development of a hyper-vigilance to further assaults. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, in that the hyper-vigilance may protect us from haplessly wandering into another psychological injury.
Unfortunately, hyper-vigilance is not a great discriminating device. It exists primarily to put the individual on global red alert that danger is afoot. It creates a suspicion of future betrayals and tempts us to look for lies elsewhere—in other family members, co-workers, or spiritual leaders. Indeed, studies reveal that going through a divorce reduces trust in other people as well as institutions.
Yet this distrust is often misplaced. What’s more, it limits the strength and the number of our social connections, often leaving us isolated from the rest of the world. This is why it is urgent for us to learn how to trust again, even if one’s relationship is destroyed. Trust isn’t just essential to relationships; it’s necessary for a happy, meaningful life.
If you are the person who has been betrayed—whether it’s by an affair, losing savings to your spouse’s gambling, or learning that your spouse spoke harshly about you behind your back—rebuilding trust can be staggeringly difficult. But it can also bring several rewards. While not every betrayal is caused by a problem in the marriage, the betrayed person can use the crisis of betrayal to better understand his or her partner, and this understanding can help reduce the probability that the traumatic behavior will occur again—a vital step toward rebuilding trust.
This isn’t just about maintaining a romantic tie. It’s also about friendship. I have found that couples who retain a strong friendship throughout their romantic relationship are the ones who have the most lasting partnerships. Friendship demands that partners be willing to understand each other’s inner world—their needs, desires, motivations, and sense of well-being.
A key part of marital friendship is taking responsibility when you make mistakes, whether those mistakes are small or huge. As a couples’ therapist, I have observed that the most important predictor of rebuilding trust after an affair, other than love, is the capacity for both members of the couple to take some responsibility for what happened. This can be a bitter pill to swallow if you are the person who was betrayed. Yet it is a step that must be taken if the relationship is to be saved.
This was illustrated by Maria and Rick’s behavior after she discovered his affair. It became clear that it wouldn’t be enough for Rick to end the affair with his co-worker, rededicate himself to Maria, and repair how hurt and humiliated she felt. It was also necessary for Janice to admit that she had shut down sexually since she had become a mother and had ignored Rick’s complaints about their sex life. Maria had to acknowledge that Rick, in his own way, felt hurt and betrayed by her turning away from him and neglecting what had been an important form of connection with her.
After establishing mutual responsibility, a big part of rebuilding trust is regaining a sense of control. It is based upon the principle that we are not hapless victims of our partner’s whims, nor are we victims of our own mistakes; we can actually do something to improve the relationship. Thus the betrayer must be willing to give the betrayed a sense of control, while the betrayed person must try to find that control.
Beyond these two key steps—sharing responsibility for what happened and regaining a sense of control—I’ve also found the following to be essential for the person who was betrayed.
Avoid humiliating your partner.
It will be tempting to watch your partner squirm at the end of a hook for making you suffer. However, at some point you have to decide whether you want revenge or a relationship. You can’t have both—at least not for very long. If you fail to allow your partner to make sincere amends, there’s a greater chance your relationship will end. I have found that when individuals don’t allow their partners to repair the damage caused by marital conflict, they increase the chance of divorce.