Even if you have never been in a relationship that involved an affair, the word itself invokes a deep feeling of betrayal in most people.  Being betrayed is a universal human experience, so on some level the Petraeus story resonates with all of us.  We all know what it’s like to have a knife jammed in our back, to feel the deep wounds of broken trust, to be blindsided and victimized by someone we thought we knew.

Betrayals come in all shapes and sizes, but the deeper the love bond, the deeper the wound of betrayal.  We often think of an affair as the only form of betrayal in intimate relationships, but according to Dr. John Gottman, breaches of trust occur in many disguises.  Can you trust your partner to listen to you when you are upset or anxious?  Can you trust that your partner will place a priority on your relationship, above his mother, friends, work?  Can you trust that your partner won’t abuse alcohol or drugs?  Can you trust that your partner is an involved parent?

But trust is not only important for love relationships.  We want to feel a sense of trust in schools, the workplace, our cities and nations.  A few months ago I experienced one such betrayal that left my head spinning.   Not only did I feel the weight of the injustice that was thrust upon me, I felt the negative feelings that follow any betrayal . . . anger, blame, self-pity and desire for revenge.   At the same time I had a strong desire to move towards forgiveness, because I knew that harboring that mountain of resentment was getting in my way of healing.  To add salt to my already festering wound, my seemingly guilt-free betrayer was happily moving forward, dismissing all of my feelings.

It was at this point that I knew I needed a survival plan.  No, not a survival plan, but a plan to thrive.   Here’s my six-step betrayal recovery plan:

  1. Allow yourself to fully feel your feelings.  You have been violated and trying to jump to forgiveness too soon won’t work.  Betrayal usually equates to loss of some sort.  No matter how scared you are of moving in a new direction, do not try to bypass the stages of grief.
  2. Find a healthy level of detachment from the situation.  If you need space from your betrayer, take it.  If you need self-soothing, do it.  Now more than ever you need to take care of yourself.
  3. Do not be more of a victim than you need to be.  Of course that other person wronged you in unimaginable ways, but identifying too much with your Poor Pitiful Pearl story will keep you stuck in your pain.
  4. Be careful who you talk to about your betrayal.  Some people will dismiss your feelings and side with the enemy, so they are not good confidants.  But neither are people who encourage you to wallow in your pain.  Finding a therapist may be your best option if your family and friends are favoring one side or another.
  5. Do not idealize the past.  Accept that there were troubles in that relationship.  Betrayals often arise because of conflict avoidance, meaning the betrayer (and possibly the betrayed) was having deep feelings they were not sharing.  This emotional distance is anything but ideal.
  6. Channel the energy of your painful feelings into self-growth.  Time does not heal all wounds, so don’t take a passive approach to healing.  While you are not responsible in any way, shape or form for the betrayal that occurred, you might be able to see how you participated in the damaged relationship that lead up to that event.  Work on becoming a better, stronger, more empowered version of you.  Create a better future for yourself, whether it is with or without your betrayer.

As the knife wounds start to scab over you may be vacillating between negative and positive feelings.  One minute you may feel better about the situation, the next you may get great joy out of envisioning bad things happening to your betrayer.  This is normal on the road to recovery.  While living through betrayal is a terrible feeling, try not to look backwards, as that is not the direction you are going.  You can choose to inch (or run) towards empowerment and then, and only then, will you feel healed and truly ready to forgive.

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC