This segment seeks to help couples who struggle with trust after an affair. It especially offers guidance for the offending partner. Specifically, the solution rests on the offending spouse’s ability to listen, accept and understand his/her partner’s anger. Indeed, defensiveness by the betraying spouse toward his partner’s pain is often a major obstacle which blocks the offended spouse from regaining trust. Here are some observations which can help explain why rebuilding trust is so difficult as well as some tips for how it can be done.
Empathy is defined as the ability to experience another person’s pain. It is distinguished from sympathy which is merely the ability to understand another person’s pain. Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference? • Six Seconds (6seconds.org) Marriage partners express empathy by emotionally supporting and caring for one another. Love is the basis for feeling and caring about the pain and the suffering of our partner.
The Problem: Our Brain
Most of the time married folks can understand and feel for each other’s pain. However, when one is the cause of the other’s pain, defensiveness may replace empathy. Indeed, for many, maintaining empathy under fire seems almost impossible. Neurologically, when the offended spouse expresses his/her anger, the one who cheated feels threatened and loses access to the part of the brain that feels empathy. That leaves the selfish part of the brain (the amygdale) in charge and its only reactions are fight or flight . As a result, productive communication between the couple stops. Intimate Listening: The Key to Re-Building Marital Trust after Betrayal. | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)
Sadly, it is at this critical juncture , when empathy is most desperately needed by the wounded partner, that is often unavailable. For couples who are trying to recover from betrayal and build a new and better marriage, it is absolutely necessary for one who betrayed to not only promise not to do it again but also to understand the level of pain his/her loved one still experiences because of what happened. In order for healing to occur, the sense of threat experienced by the betraying spouse must be calmed and access to the cortex must be reestablished.
The Problem : Unrealistic Expectations
Other complicating factors which impair rebuilding trust are impatience and unrealistic expectations. Most offending partners want, after their offense has been discovered and after apologies are made, the issue to be over . They often expect that their partner should quickly “get over it ” and not “hang on to the past”. This expectation is unrealistic. Thus when the betraying spouse discovers that this expectation is not fulfilled, many often become resentful and impatient. Neurologically , these feelings block the experience of empathy for their mate. For the couple to progress, it is necessary that the offending spouse develop patience and more accurate expectations of the healing process.
The good news:
Fortunately , with a little help and practice, it is possible for the offending partner to learn and to calm his panic. Here are some tips to help the offending partner sustain empathy under fire:
1) Agree on some ground rules for difficult and emotionally laden conversations.
It is possible to discuss painful thoughts and feelings connected to to an affair. Learning about I-statements is good way to talk with one another about difficult issues. Communication Tools: Using “I- Statements” When Making Requests in Relationships — Dr. Astray (tatianaastray.com)
2) In Case of Fire … withdraw !
Sometimes, despite having these agreements, emotions can be unpredictable following the disclosure of an affair long after the incident. Intense outbursts can occur. When they do, it is important to have a mutual agreement that neither will try to pursue a conversation when either one is emotionally out of control or in attack mode. While it is impossible to completely eliminate these encounters, keeping them to a minimum is best.
3) Learn to Calm Yourself.
When one withdraws to avoid unpleasant arguments, it is important to understand that this strategic move is not the same as “running away”. The difference is significant. Physically withdrawing from a threatening situation when combined with stress relieving breathing techniques and meditation allows the brain to dissipate stress hormones and regain access to its cortex. When the cortical connection is re-established, rational thought and empathy are possible. When a sense of calm is attained, a civil and constructive conversation can proceed.
4) Examine your expectations.
Understand that regaining trust after a betrayal is a difficult and complex process and may require many conversations after the initial admission of guilt and the apology . Although the offender may not want to revisit the details of his/her behavior, the betrayed spouse needs to talk about them. In addition, it is not realistic to assume that trust is regained quickly. A promise not to re-offend is not sufficient to allay the offended spouse’s fears. Patience is required for the long process that is needed for the offended spouse to heal emotionally.
5) Decide whose needs to which you will pay attention. Besides time, regaining trust requires that real change to take place on the part of the offender. One significant change that an offender can make is to choose to pay attention to his partner’s emotional needs over his own. If the offender can remember that s/he loves the person who is angry at him/her, it will be easier to attend to his/her needs over his/her own. Further, re-building trust after an affair takes more than words . It requires actually making the effort to accomplish the necessary changes.
6) Be Aware: The betrayal may be only the tip of the iceberg.
It is important to understand that sometimes affairs are symptoms of deeper problems. Thus, a successful reconciliation may require professional help to help the couple fully heal the wounds and to address other underlying problems.
Although the pain caused by an affair is devastating, it need not be fatal to the relationship. Actually, if both partners sincerely want to reconcile and are willing to do the work, the process can lead to a deeper and more satisfying relationship.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC May 31, 2020