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A deep bond with a partner who is cheating on you can hurt your soul. The wounds that result when a loving bond is torn apart by intimate betrayal are just as painful as those that result from physical injury. When a deep and health-dependent connection is unexpectedly damaged, you are traumatized. how could you not be Furthermore, from a psychological point of view, the deeper the connection, the deeper the grief.
When hearts are broken by infidelity, betrayed partners experience a tsunami of emotions ranging from hopelessness and despair to loneliness and sadness. In addition to hopelessness, anger, and sadness, research suggests, betrayed partners often experience stress reactions characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — nightmares, obsessive thoughts, emotional insecurity, severe anxiety, heightened alertness, emotional lability (rapid mood swings), and more.[i] Other research has found that such trauma is primarily associated with a loss of relationship trust and security (rather than specific sexual or romantic acts).[ii]
Taken together, studies suggest that the emotional instability and occasionally irrational behaviors that betrayed partners exhibit after learning of infidelity are relatively normal (i.e., expected) responses to interpersonal trauma and relationship crises, and not emotional deficiencies of the betrayed partner (like many people previously thought). . Cheating partners might look a little crazy at times, but that doesn’t mean they are. Instead, they are simply responding to a profound relationship crisis.
One of the more distressing issues therapists have to help cuckolded partners process is the relational push-pull of attachment ambivalence. Trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk describes this aptly: “Terror increases the need for attachment, even if the source of comfort is also the source of terror.”[iii] In other words, after learning about infidelity, betrayed partners naturally want to turn to their primary relationship for comfort more than ever, but they struggle to do so because that relationship is also the source of their pain.
Many cheating partners are at an emotional war with themselves. They look at their cheating partner and think:
- i love you but i hate you
- I need you around but I can’t stand being in the same room with you.
- I want you to hold me and tell me everything will be fine, but if you did, I wouldn’t believe you.
The simple human truth for people in long-term, committed relationships is that their partner is the person they are most likely to turn to when they have problems. This is why betrayal trauma is so incredibly painful. After betrayal, partners suddenly know that the one person they have counted on to always have their back can and will do things that will hurt them if it serves their purpose. The one person that betrayed partners must be able to trust in this moment of crisis can no longer be trusted.
It’s a classic catch-22. Because cheating partners crave intimate bonding, feeling separated from their partner creates stress. But now, after learning about betrayal, feeling connected to their partner also causes stress. Either way, relationship trust and security are lost.
Because of this, betrayed partners experience attachment ambivalence. At one moment cheating partners see their spouse playing with the kids or helping them with their homework and are filled with warmth, love and appreciation. The next moment they see their partner looking at their phone and they remember the betrayal. With this, they are overcome with pain, anger and disappointment.
This rapidly shifting and occasionally simultaneous desire to connect and run away feels (and looks) messy and confusing. But what else would we expect when cheating partners sink into fear with no solution? Dan Brown and David Elliot write:
This impossible dilemma leads to conflicting attachment behaviors over time, such as: In other words, … a contradictory pattern of using both deactivating and hyperactivating binding strategies, either alternately or simultaneously.[iv]
It is important to understand that this response pattern is neither pathological nor intentional. Cheating partners are in no way emotionally deficient because they can’t decide for more than a few moments whether to stay or leave their relationship. They simply respond the way humans are wired to respond to trauma and crisis.
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Rather than treating these individuals as if there is something wrong with them that they need to correct, therapists can and should recognize and validate their emotional maelstrom and help them find healthy ways to deal with it (the new prodependence model of treatment).[v]
The good news is that attachment ambivalence goes away, especially when the cheating partner is actively working to restore trust and security in the relationship. However, the process is likely to take anywhere from six to 18 months, depending on the level of trauma and distrust generated by the scam. And that’s when the cheating partner is actively telling the truth and being transparent, not just about relationship issues, but about all aspects of life.
For more information on infidelity healing, visit the free resource site SexandRelationshipHealing.com.