Understanding Infidelity

“Double Betrayal” Makes it Worse
Dr. William Bumberry

With the central pillar of relationships  based on trust and connection, it’s not surprising that infidelity changes everything … in a flash. 

While betrayals come in many shapes and sizes, the betrayal of infidelity may be the most painful of all.  The dual components of emotional, as well as sexual dishonesty make it particularly devastating.  Shirley Glass, in her wise and brilliant  book, “Not Just Friends”, describes infidelity as a traumatic event.  This type of deception is more than upsetting, it’s traumatizing.  In treating couples reeling from an affair, this is a crucial distinction to make.  The idea of trauma has profound implications for understanding the intensity of the initial reaction to the discovery of the affair.  It has even more profound implications for the healing process that must follow.

While every person, every couple and every story is unique, there is a destructive theme that enters the picture for many couples as they attempt to traverse the labyrinth to healing.  That theme is “double betrayal”. 

The discovery/revelation of the initial betrayal is shocking, it shatters our world.  Nothing is as we thought it was.  What’s real? How could this happen? How could you? Why?  These thoughts fill our senses as we struggle to wrap our heads around this new world that has replaced the old.

It is typical that some combination of classic PTSD symptoms have entered the picture.  Many people experience intrusive thoughts or images, flashbacks, hyperarousal or psychological numbing.  Sleep disturbance and hyper-vigilance abound.  When you factor in the whirling, roiling flood of anger, rage, shock, sadness, fear, panic and hopelessness … it’s difficult to establish any sense of stability.  It seems impossible to build a solid foundation.  Even when you feel you’re beginning to regain your balance and maybe a bit of connection … the floor again drops and you’re once again in a free fall.

This turbulence disturbs, disrupts and disappoints.  Both partners, the betrayer and the betrayed, pray for it to stop. They long for smoother waters.

The  upheaval can come from many different sources.  Common external triggers can be as unexpected as an infidelity scene suddenly in your living room, as you watch a sitcom together. Infidelity is in the news, the media, in the conversation of everyday America.  The sound of a text message arriving, the scheduling of a business trip or any of a million stimuli that are associated with the betrayal can be triggers.

But there’s another source of triggering, one that is more personal and more pernicious,  one that not only disrupts the moment … but casts doubt on the very possibility of ever being whole again.  This is the trigger of “double  betrayal”. 

“Double  betrayals” come in many forms but they all contain another lie, deception, omission or partial truth.  This lack of complete disclosure, full transparency,  or simple honesty … when discovered, drops the betrayed partner back into a swirl of chaos and pain.  Progress that had been made, wounds that had begun to heal, trust that was beginning to develop are destroyed.

The deepest fear that accompanies all profound betrayals … “can I count on you, do I matter to you?” reopens. It leaves the horrifying feeling that no matter what,  trust is gone, never to return.  

At best, a double betrayal is an effort to protect or shield the betrayed partner … to spare them even more hurt.  At worst, it’s a conscious, intentional effort to deceive .  It might even be in the service of creating an atmosphere where the affair can continue.  This time undetected. 

The betrayed partners need for truth and certainty are pushed aside in deference to the betrayers preference for comfort or personal gratification.  Whether rooted in avoidance or of malicious intent, there’s a commonality …  one partners well being is being sacrificed for the others comfort.

The initial “double betrayal” typically happens early in the struggle.  Perhaps at the time of suspicion, certainly by the time of the first confrontation/accusation.  The seemingly automatic denial by the betrayer is the first step.  To the extent that the betraying partner appears to be sincere in their denial… to the degree that their words and emotions are convincing, the eventual wound is deeper, the path to recovery more complex.  This is even more damaging to the bond when the betraying partner, in the midst of the denial, turns on the betrayed partner by accusing them of being crazy, controlling or paranoid. The injury now also includes the realization that under duress, your partner will sacrifice you to save themselves.  Trust shatters.

This pattern then can resurface at any time or in any situation in the future.  With each repetition of the dance, the cycle deepens.  Desperation intensifies.

The betrayed partner finds relief only in the truth.  It’s not a relief that creates joy and happiness. It’s a relief that says “we’re finally beginning on the path that is our only hope”.  Without truth there is nothing.  Only when able to once again count on what their partner says, can they begin to trust.  This is a attempt to re-discover hope.  Hope that, if they reengage and truly invest, the relationship can once again be real. 

Truth telling needs to become a habit, a way of being, not something that happens only when caught or confronted.  It becomes a matter of character, not of convenience.

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