Empathy in a Relationship After a Betrayal

When people are dating, and everything is new and exciting in their relationships, they often think their new partner can do no wrong. They may spend quite a bit of time with their new partner, and they don’t disagree on much, if anything. This excited feeling is often referred to as New Relationship Energy (NRE), and can last for 3-6 months or longer.  However, once NRE wears off in a relationship, arguments will eventually occur, and disagreements will happen. Some people will break their relationship agreements, and one of the most difficult examples of this is having an affair. Even after an affair, many people will want to continue their relationship and work things out. How do you do this when you have been hurt, or when you have hurt your partner?

Many people jump straight to asking for forgiveness when they have hurt or betrayed  their partner. They often feel guilty and want to be forgiven and move forward as quickly as possible. However, when someone asks for forgiveness, it often does not turn out the way they would hope. The hurt partner may feel even more angry, especially if their partner has done something that really hurt them (such as having an extended affair).

The hurt partner may also immediately jump to thinking about forgiveness. They may think, “I have to forgive my partner or we’ll never move past this,” or “I just need to move on from this.” However, creating this pressure for themselves is also likely to backfire.

Rather than focusing on forgiveness, the first step in healing is to find some compassion and empathy for your partner, and to express that to them. The hurt partner needs to know that the person who hurt them understands that they have been hurt, and they need to hear a full, genuine apology [1]. On the other hand, the partner who has been betrayed also needs to be able to hear and accept this empathy and apology, and avoid blocking their partner when they are trying to give an apology.

Continuing to lie and be dishonest about something, like an affair, is the best way to ensure that healing will not occur. Often, lying is just as harmful to the relationship as the sexual/emotional affair was, and can even be more harmful than the affair. Even if you are fearful that your partner will leave you after finding out the truth, it is better to be honest about what occurred and why it occurred, so that your partner can make an informed decision about whether to continue the relationship. If they find out about an affair or other details about how you have hurt them in some other way, they are likely to continue to distrust you, and with good reason.

The partner that has been hurt also has a responsibility to move toward openness and empathy, if they want to move toward healing and forgiveness. If their goal is not to continue the relationship, and they would prefer to dissolve the relationship after a betrayal, that is also valid. However, if they continue to hold onto that anger and try to maintain the relationship, it will be nearly impossible for recovery to occur. Sustaining their anger toward their partner will cause healing to occur more slowly, and being able to discuss their painful feelings in a way that does not cause their spouse to get defensive is important. The person who has been hurt also has to be able to listen to their partner without criticism or judgment [2]. This may be difficult to do if this partner has not felt that the partner who hurt them really empathizes with them or understand how they have been hurt. However, once they begin to feel that empathy, the hurt partner can begin to tune into their own emotions more, and can also listen to what their partner has to say.

While absolutely no one can cause their partner to betray them, it is important to remember that all relationships interact with one another. The partner who betrayed you chose to do that, and you are not responsible for those choices. However, affairs and other betrayals do not happen in a vacuum. Eventually, it is important to recognize how the relationship overall needs to change, in order to ensure this kind of betrayal does not happen again [3].

Ideally, recovering from a betrayal will actually lead to a more gratifying relationship than before the affair, as the partners increase their ability to communicate effectively about difficult issues, how to listen more respectfully, and what they really need from their relationship with one another. They also may be better able to tune into their own needs in the relationship, so that they can express this to their partner(s).

Recovering from a betrayal takes time and hard work, from both people in the relationship. However, it is possible, if both people are willing to do this work. Finding a good couples therapist is the first step to trying to achieve these goals.

-Steph.

[1] Lerner, H. (2017). Why won’t you apologize?: Healing big betrayals and everyday hurts. New York, NY: Gallery Books.

[2] Heitler, S. (2011). Recovery from an affair. Psychology Today. Retrieved on March 18, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201111/recovery-affair

[3] Spring, J. A. & Spring, M. (2012). After the affair: Healing the pain and rebuilding trust when a partner has been unfaithful (2nd ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

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