The Myths & Realities of Divorce After Betrayal
Generally, we can all conjure up some compassion for someone going through a divorce after betrayal (i.e. Divorcing due to an affair or uncovering a sex/porn addiction). We can usually connect with the grief and loss that the partner may be experiencing, or the pain that the children may endure, or we can understand the fear of forging a new path as a single parent/person. Beyond those empathetic sentiments, most of us fall painfully short in our ability to understand and support the complicated dynamics that a betrayed partner experiences. This gap in understanding can lead betrayed partners to feel misunderstood and may contribute to further hurt, shame, or confusion. It may also lead them to isolate or internalize their struggles instead of reaching out to others for help and support. That is all counterproductive to the healing process. This article is written for those deep in the trenches of betrayal trauma along with those who interact with them during their struggle. It is meant to shed light on the complicated dynamics involved in a betrayed partner’s experience. It is also meant to challenge and dispel the stigmas and mischaracterizations that often harm the betrayed partner’s path toward healing.
While neither partner is ever blame-free for marital woes, acts of deception and betrayal can be severely abusive and damaging to any relationship. A divorce catalyzed by lying, cheating, and betrayal is not one where both spouses have expressed their TRUE and COMPLETE motivations behind their marital unhappiness and desire to divorce. Instead, a betrayed partner often describes the cheating spouse as “changing overnight”, becoming intensely angry and critical with them and the state of their marriage, causing the relationship to implode for unknown, deeply confusing reasons. Betrayed partners often experience an “out of control” feeling as they feel they make “every effort” to save the marriage only to have it continue to deteriorate. The omission of an affair or addiction can be considered abusive to the betrayed partner as the knowledge of such a betrayal would have provided clarity, understanding, and—most importantly—a FULL PICTURE of the reality of (and motivations behind) the marital crisis.
Its common for our culture to negatively judge betrayed spouse’s actions. They've been described as jaded and emotionally unstable. Some are portrayed as vengeful and blamed for the high cost of divorce. They've been accused of “playing the victim card” as an excuse to remain bitter and angry. While some of these characterizations may be true, they fail to consider the months or years leading up to the divorce when the cheating partner was lying, gaslighting, acting out-of-the-ordinary, and being an over-all emotionless robot with the betrayed spouse. All of these traumas and abuses contribute to the betrayed partner’s behaviors in the ensuing divorce.
The following are a few real-life examples of the challenges betrayed partners experienced during the marital crisis and divorce proceedings.
When a cheating spouse is hiding an affair or secret addiction, they often become hyper-critical and may gaslight the betrayed partner in the process. Gaslighting is manipulating someone into believing that their reality is not their reality (For example: Betrayed partner: “You’ve been really angry and distant lately. Are you having an affair?” Cheating Spouse: “No, I’m not having an affair. Maybe if you’d have sex with me more often and you weren’t so jealous/psycho we wouldn’t be having these problems.” The reality is, however, that the betrayed partner’s instincts are correct.)
Gaslighting and hyper-criticism can deeply confuse betrayed partners, often making them feel “crazy” or unsure what they should believe anymore. It destroys someone’s instincts and intuition.
During the course of the affair, the betrayed spouse will have incident after incident where the cheating spouse demonstrates a keen ability to lie, manipulate, appear emotionless, and act only in his/her self-interest.
These behaviors eat away at a betrayed partner’s ability to trust the cheating spouse’s words, sentiments, and behaviors. It can lead the betrayed partner to feel the cheating spouse has no concern for the betrayed partner’s well-being, especially during a divorce process. A betrayed partner may even feel like the cheating spouse (and maybe the affair partner) is “out to get” the betrayed partner. This total lack of trust and sometimes fear makes any kind of negotiations, custody arrangements, financial agreements, etc. extremely difficult during the settlement of a divorce.
Sometimes a cheating spouse attempts to deter a betrayed partner from telling their friends and loved one’s about their marital crises. They will often go to the extreme of telling the betrayed partner, “If you tell your friends or family that we’re having problems right now, then I’ll just leave and that’ll be the end of it.” This behavior can sometimes be driven by shame of his/her betrayal and/or the desire to prevent the betrayed partner from finding about the affair or addiction. Or a betrayed partner may isolate his/her self during the crisis out of confusion and a desire to not publically “air their dirty laundry”.
Whatever the motivation is behind this behavior, the end result is the betrayed partner becoming more isolated with their confusion and pain.
Once betrayed partner’s discover the affair or hidden addiction, they often feel embarrassed and ashamed of the failed marriage and may choose to further isolate versus seek support during a deeply challenging time.
Being “left” for another person along with the months of gaslighting, emotional abuse, lies, confusion, and conflict, can leave someone with extremely low self-worth, extreme PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms, and anger, making the discord and conflict involved in divorce intense, overwhelming, and extra strenuous.
I’ve had clients spend months searching through the cheating spouse’s email, hire detectives, upload spyware, looking for any clues to prove that their partner has been lying to them and validate what their gut has been telling them. This shows how unsafe the betrayed partner has felt in the marriage and how they are desperately seeking safety by trying to find answers. This behavior is also a result of the gaslighting.
If the betrayed partner is male there is also culturally perpetuated shame along with messages that the betrayed male should remain “stoic”, unemotional. Or a betrayed male may only feel comfortable with accessing one emotion: angry rage.
During the course of an affair, the cheating spouse has had ample time to frame life without his/her spouse and prepare for what that might look like. However, it is often not until the divorce proceedings begin when a betrayed spouse actually starts wrapping his/her head around the idea of losing his/her “life partner”, enter into the “singles world”, becoming a single parent, etc.
When the married couple moves toward divorce, the cheating spouse often has the affair partner to act as his/her confidant and support system. The cheating spouse sometimes doesn’t have to experience the discomfort of being alone or returning to the dating world, or raising the kids on his/her own. The betrayed partner may also have to deal with the affair partner quickly integrating into the estranged spouse’s life, family, and their children’s lives.
Divorce proceedings often involve a lot of disclosure, compromise, and negotiations. It's understandable that the betrayed partner has little to no trust to encourage compromise and negotiation. There’s a very unsafe, untrusting, and unsettling feeling when breaking up your assets, sharing custody of your children, and making life-altering decisions post-divorce. If the cheating partner demonstrated the ability to come up with lies when a blocked call came in or reasons to quickly get out of the house to rendezvous with the affair partner, the non-cheating partner would, of course, struggle with trusting the cheating spouse with financial disclosures and asset sharing.
Betrayed partners have every right to be angry about the discovery of his/her spouse’s betrayal. While I never condone violence or verbal mud-slinging, I do believe the betrayed partner should have the opportunity to express his/her anger, hurt, and frustration in a safe, productive manner. While it pains me to witness adversarial divorces where the family law attorneys profit heavily, I understand—to some extent—the need for a betrayed spouse to try to take some power back during the divorce proceedings after feeling powerless in the relationship for so long. Although, I’d prefer they do this in a therapy office, not a courtroom.
If you are currently going through a divorce (or even reconciling) after betrayal, I’d strongly encourage you to get help from a professional who specializes in betrayal trauma. My experience has shown me that betrayal is intensely painful and deeply confusing. It can destroy your self-worth, your intuition, and it is extremely traumatizing. All facets and nuisances of the traumatic events should be SAFELY explored, identified, discussed, processed, and validated. In addition, a lot of healing comes from sharpening your intuition and feeling safe again. Your ex-partner and his/her affair partner (and many others) can feel deeply threatening. Connect with those feelings and communicate that. You are in pain. Your life has been turned upside down. While violence or verbal berating is never productive, it is understandable for your to feel hurt, furious, sad, embarrassed, humiliated, value-less, and more. Find a safe person and a safe place to experience all of that.
We often don’t realize all the emotional abuse and trauma that occurrs during the break down of a marriage and ensuing affair or hidden addiction. It has long lasting effects that can sometimes outlast the grief and loss of the marriage and all the life-altering things that come with an end of a marriage. If we understand the pain and what’s causing it, we can feel empowered to learn from the pain, heal from the trauma, and, hopefully, shorten the suffering involved.