Working with Betrayals

While I was weeding my driveway this morning, it struck me that it is not dissimilar to the process of working through a betrayal with couples in therapy.

The driveway looked awful. It’s one of those criss-cross ones where there are lots of gaps where weeds can bed in. It felt overwhelming at first.

I began working on one area at a time. Firstly, scraping out the worst of the overgrown moss and sweeping it away. Then moving to another area and working through that.

It was hard work. One pass was not enough. It needed going over again with some treatment to prevent it coming back.

But the job is not done. It never is. The driveway needs attending to on a regular basis, keeping it maintained, in order that the weeds don’t root again and get comfortable. I know the weeds will always come back. But I want to remain on top of them.

This is an analogy, of course, for relationships. They too need work, attention and maintenance.

When there has been a betrayal, often it can be because the relationship has not been attended to sufficiently. There is work to be done to rescue, recover and re-build. Betrayals can be different things for different people – it varies depending on values and principles. Anything that violates these may be felt as betrayal.

At first, couples will likely find coming to therapy for this kind of work daunting, maybe overwhelming. There is often pain, shame, guilt, jealousy, anger, resentment, sadness and loss, to name a few of the common emotions.

The betrayal needs to be addressed. As a couple, you need to decide if you want to engage with this process. What would it mean to you individually and together? Even if you don’t know what the outcome will be, are you prepared to commit to the work to find out? Whether or not you manage to overcome what has happened, the therapy will help you learn a lot about yourselves and perhaps not take patterns of behaviour into future relationships.

Excavation

The beginning of the work is usually fact finding: not a witch hunt, not a blame game, not a judgemental process, but a gaining of understanding about what happened. This can be painful for both parties. Asking for and receiving information about what took place without “gory details” is important.

Opening up with honesty is also essential in this phase to gain the meaning of the events that took place when it can otherwise appear hopelessly meaning-less. Difficult and risky as this might feel, it can be a relief to get things out in the open and to be heard and understood.

Then we get to looking at the roots of the relationship. What was it like before? Was it always like this, did it change? What life events happened? What was missed along the way or lost? What was the motivation / gain for the betrayal? What needs or desires were being met outside that were not fulfilled inside? (Yes, that sounds like an obvious question, but usually it is not an obvious answer, or you would have realised this before).

This is also a painful phase. Hard work. Lots of reflection and challenging. And learning and growing. We can begin working out what might change or be improved upon to heal the wounds and to build the necessary tools to enable problems to be worked out together in future.

Prevention is better than cure

Sometimes we need to learn how to communicate well all over again: how to express emotions, especially the hard, negative and risky ones. Learning how to get your needs met. If you can conquer these challenges, approach conflict and differences constructively together, you can get through most things.

In this phase, we can develop ways to revitalise and enhance the new foundations you have created. This is about carving out time and space for each other, knowing what your romantic and sexual needs are and how you can attend to these. Also, paradoxically perhaps, making sure you are serving your “selves” so you can show up as the best version of you.

A relationship can never go back to how it was before after a betrayal but like the Japanese practice of “Kintsugi” – the art of mending a cracked vase with gold – it can come out stronger and more beautiful, with a long future.