Managing Grief After a Betrayal: Stages of Change
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
All relationships come with betrayal. The severity of that betrayal and it's affect on us depends largely on our personal values, morals, expectations, and past experiences.
In this blog, I am talking specifically about the betrayal a person experiences in relationship with another that is life changing, sudden, shocking, and shifts their world upside down. Mega Betrayals. Lies. Falsities. Sometimes these include affairs, out of control sexual behavior, compulsive use of pornography, sexting, sex addiction, sex with others, emotional relationship with others, financial spending, drugs, and so much more.
But the list is not static, concrete or all inclusive. Actually, it is quiet varied and everyone has their own perspective on personal boundaries and what crosses those boundaries.
Keep in mind- "Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder"! In other worlds, it is you that decides if you have been betrayed. And it is you that the degree of the betrayal will affect your recovery from it.
Discovering a betrayal is the catalyst of sudden shock, anger, and ultimately grief. You see, all change comes with grief. And when your world has been turned upside down and your life as you knew it no longer is what you thought it was...grief will soon be knocking at your door. And, whew, is this one a difficult one.
You see, betrayal grief often means you are in isolation. When people discover, or are told by their spouse or long term partner, that the marriage or partnership has had an outside involvement (porn, lover, drugs, escorts) they suddenly find themselves alone. Maybe a friend, colleague or family member might lend a shoulder to cry on (if you're lucky to have someone you can trust that much). Or maybe you have a therapist that can support you. But, most likely, you are in this alone. Alone to pick up the pieces of the shattered life you had. Alone to make important decisions about your future and that of your family. Alone to find yourself and any resemblance of peace you might still have.
And, just like the stages of grief in losing a loved one, first- you are in shock/denial, next you might be angry and then, the roller coaster of grief, loss, depression...rinse and repeat over and over again.
All the while, you are changing. And that change is big...even if it feels microscopic.
Let's explore some of these Stages of Grief and their Tasks so that you can have a clearer idea of what you're experiencing.
Stage 1: The Reality of Loss
It's a hard and cold reality. You no longer are. Your partner no longer is. You are caught in a void of ambiguity, fear, confusion. You were walking along your life path, working things out, trying to make your life the best possible. And then, wham, you were suddenly pushed off a cliff. So suddenly, as a matter of fact, that it might even take you a while to realize it was your partner that pushed you. You are no longer on that path anymore. Can you get back to it? Maybe. Maybe not. That's something you won't know for a while yet. But what is certain, that path will never ever be the same again.
This is your new reality. This is you. Just you.
The first task in grieving relationship betrayal is to come full face to the reality that your previous experience of the relationship is dead.
Stage 2: Experiencing the Pain
This is a tricky one because many people are not taught to experience pain. Socially we are taught by society and our families that pain and grief are issues to get over, tuck away, move on from and forget about. We do not value mourning in our culture. We do not value the loss of productivity because of grief. Instead, we value "strength" which often translates to: "Get over it".
So, to actually let yourself experience the pain of the relationship betrayal can feel counter-intuitive. Especially if you have kids, previous traumas, or challenged self worth.
But, here is the thing...you were wounded. Your wounds are real. Just like a broken leg, when you fell off that cliff your bones fractured. You are in pain. You cannot will it away. And it will not follow your timeline. Pain has it's own timeline.
Many feelings during this time are normal: anger, loneliness, self loathing, depression, fear, confusion.
The next task in grieving relationship betrayal is to experience the pain of your loss. Recall for yourself the good times and the bad times. Hidden inside your pain is a nugget of you. A core of who you are, your values, your integrity. But the dust must settle for you to meet that part of you covered by pain.
Stage 3: Adjustment To The New Relationship
This means different things to different people and circumstances. That nugget of yourself buried in the pain begins to take shape and definition. With each step you take, you will define and redefine the new you, your lasting integrity and adjust to this new relationship. The emotions involved in letting go of how things were can be complex and profound. But slowly, you will adjust.
Your task in this phase is to define, attune to, and honor your boundaries. You cannot force the other person to conform, change, take lie detector or drug tests every week, or promise they will never hurt, betray or lie to you again. Adjusting to the fact that your partner's behavior is beyond your control requires you to take a long and enduring look at you. (I'll talk more about boundaries and mindfulness in another blog.)
Stage 4: The New Reality Integrated
This stage might include emotional withdrawal or investment in your partner. It might mean joining together and collaborating like you never have before. Full trust and full disclosure without lies can bring fulfillment to parts of your heart that you never knew were there. Conversely, you might sever bonds, resolve to guard yourself, or manage control of the relationship in ways that feel comfortable. Whatever the road is, it will integrate into a new reality.
The task in this stage is to rebuild your own ways of evolving your social, emotional, and practical needs. This is done by developing new or changed activities in and out of your romantic relationship. It also means creating new relationships. Maybe that is a support group for partners, or a new hobby, joining a hiking or biking group, sewing or book club. Integrating your new reality means integrating yourself into your new life and making it yours again.
Your grief will grow smaller with time. Your memory of the relationship betrayal will never go away. But how you act and the integrity of your steps and actions will stand out more to you in the long run than the pain and confusion you have now. Trust in that. Trust in yourself may very well be your final and lasting task as you manage the stages of grief after relationship betrayal.