The Marriage Podcast for Smart People

How To Work With Your Spouse’s Betrayal Trauma

June 19, 2019

It finally happened. Maybe it was the first time, maybe the twentieth. You betrayed your spouse, and they know what you did. And now you feel awful. You want to make it right, to go back to how things used to be before you did the unthinkable. But even after some time, you don’t seem to be making any progress. Your spouse reacts very strongly to minor things and even things seemingly unrelated to the betrayal. Clearly, they haven’t gotten over it. What is happening? When your spouse experiences a significant betrayal, it often leaves lasting trauma. And helping your spouse get over an affair is going to take work and effort from you. When dealing with that trauma, you want to make sure that you that the words you say and the actions you take to contribute to their healing and wellbeing, rather than adding to the problem. One of the most common struggles for a spouse who has betrayed their love one is to be somewhat (or very) defensive when discussing the betrayal. Why Defensiveness Doesn’t Work As the offending spouse, it’s very easy to be defensive. You admitted that you were at fault; what more can you do? You’re working on changing yourself to make sure it doesn’t reoccur, so why can’t they realize that and get on with their life? Many times that defensiveness comes from a good place. You might be trying to calm down your spouse to create an environment more conducive to healing. So you downplay what you did in an attempt to minimize the hurt your spouse is feeling. “It wasn’t so bad,” you say. “There’s still hope for our marriage!” This defensiveness and minimization is an automatic response, but at the end of the day, it perpetuates the problem. It tells your spouse that you don’t understand their pain, and inadvertently sends a signal that this betrayal may happen again. It’s a genuine but misguided effort at taking care of your spouse’s pain. Sometimes this response happens due to ongoing addiction, the very same addiction that led to the betrayal in the first place. And you are still stuck in the first step to recovery. You haven’t accepted your addiction; you are still in denial. Regardless of why you are defensive, your spouse sees your reaction as proof that you don’t understand the gravity of the situation. In the case of addiction, it communicates that you don’t know how out of control you are, so they are pressured to increase the volume of their accusations to break through your denial. And the more you deny, the more you minimize, the louder they must become. Even apart from an addiction, your defensiveness sends the signal that you aren’t willing to see the pain your betrayal caused. This cycle can be extremely distressing to both of you and very difficult to stop. To break the cycle, you need to do three things to help you move forward: 1. Admit Your Guilt Your defensiveness can show up in a few ways. In some cases, it is just a brazen denial of guilt (to the point of lying). In this case, you may hope that by denying all that happened your spouse may not be hurt as badly. That’s nice: but your spouse already knows you’re lying so this approach is not going to work. In other cases, it’s not about lying but about trying to talk your spouse out of the negative feelings they have around the betrayal. Again, there’s a sincere attempt to help your spouse overcome the profound distress of the betrayal. The difficulty is that this approach also comes across as if you’re actually denying your guilt. It won’t work. And in other cases, you may be pushing some of the blame back on your spouse: perhaps even going as far as to say if s/he was more sexually available, you wouldn’t have gone looking outside your marriage. Of course, this also comes across as a denial of your own guilt because of the blame shifting involved. It also won’t work. You have to admit the full extent of your responsibility instead of denying it or blaming the other person for your choices.

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