7 Ways to Love Your Partner When She’s Hurting After a Betrayal
If you’re reading this, perhaps you’re going through a very difficult time in your relationship or marriage. You’ve betrayed your partner in some way, whether it was infidelity, sex addiction, or watching pornography.
In other words, you got caught cheating. Now you’re in the doghouse, and you don’t know what to do. You want to work on the relationship, but you’re not sure how.
You love your partner, but when she’s overwhelmed with her pain about what’s happened, you feel stuck. Maybe she’s raging at you. Maybe she’s flooded by anxiety. Maybe she’s sobbing uncontrollably.
How do you respond in a loving way that helps rebuild intimacy and restore trust in the relationship?
As a sex addiction therapist who works with sex addicts, their partners, and couples, I’ve seen my fair share of betrayal and I get this question all the time. Here are seven ways to love your partner when she’s hurting after a betrayal.
1 – UNDERSTAND THAT YOUR PARTNER HAS BEEN TRAUMATIZED
If you cheated on your spouse, that is, if you somehow violated the verbal or nonverbal agreements about what constitutes acceptable behavior in the relationship, she has experienced what therapists call a specific form of relational trauma called betrayal trauma.
Betrayal trauma is worth devoting an entire blog post to, but for now, let’s simply say that betrayal trauma occurs when one partner acts outside of the norms and boundaries in a committed relationship.
That this has happened for your wife means that her entire world has been annihilated.
The safe haven of your marriage, the place where she sought refuge, love, and comfort, has now become fraught with danger and pain.
Just as the symptoms of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) function in part to protect victims of car crashes, plane wrecks, terrorist attacks, and other forms of physical trauma from further injury, your wife’s trauma symptoms are doing the same thing.
In other words, she’s reacting in ways that she can’t fully control in order to mitigate her own pain. You will need to understand her raging, sobbing, anxiety, etc., as an expression of her trauma WITHOUT trying to change her behavior.
2 – ACCEPT THAT HER TRAUMA WILL MAKE YOU FEEL ASHAMED
When she’s angry with you, when she’s depressed, or when she does what she understandably does when she’s in her pain about the betrayal, you will most likely feel shame.
Not just any shame, though. This isn’t your garden-variety, ho-hum embarrassment one might feel after spilling milk.
This is withering shame, that shame that eats at you. You know the feeling. It’s the shame that says you’re no good, that you’re worthless, that she will never love you again because you don’t deserve it. It’s the same shame that perpetuated your sex addiction, if you’re in recovery, and that you’re just now learning how to handle without acting out.
Here’s the truth: You’re not a bad guy. But you did make some bad choices, and now you’re trying to make things right.
So, when the shame comes, let it come. Chances are you’ve run from it for most of your life. Maybe running from your shame is what got you into the doghouse in the first place.
Allowing yourself to feel that shame is one of the hardest things to do right now, but if your wife can see your vulnerability in your shame—that how you’ve hurt her hurts YOU—she’ll know you’re being real.
3 – SHOW UP ANYWAY
Your first instinct when you notice that another wave of pain is starting to wash over her may be to get the hell out of there. Whether that’s physically withdrawing or emotionally retreating, you need to be there for her.
So show up, and not just physically, of course. Put down your phone. Turn off the laptop and the TV. Set your work, your emails, your texts aside.
When she’s hurting, the world has to stop. Give her your full attention and bring all of yourself you can muster to her, however weak, ashamed, and uncertain you might feel.
4 – DROP YOUR DEFENSIVENESS
When she’s in the pain of her betrayal trauma, what’s your first instinct? What do you usually do to defend yourself in your shame?
If you’re like most partners, when faced with your wife’s emotional pain while knowing that it’s caused by something you did, you’ll want to do one of a few things:
- Do anything to calm her the f— down (because her pain is causing you feel shame, and you want that feeling to go away)
- Become defensively angry (because her pain is probably opening a narcissistic wound in you, making you feel worthless, and who wants to feel like that?)
- Withdraw, either by leaving or pulling away emotionally (most likely because you want to soothe your shame)
All of these defensives are understandable. In fact, I’d bet that somewhere along the line, you learned to do one of the above in response to a loved one’s anger, sadness, or pain. I get it. You’re doing what you’ve learned to do, often without even thinking about it.
But Yoda said it best: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Defensiveness is going to get you nowhere. In fact, it’s going to continue to erode trust, intimacy, and lessen the chances that your relationship will pull back from the brink.
Instead, take a deep breath, let your shame come, be aware of what you reactively want to do or say, and . . .
5 – PRACTICE EMPATHY
Empathy? What’s that?
Empathy is the ability and practice of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. You need to take your wife’s perspective and try to understand how she feels.
Really hear me on this, okay? If you’ve got one job in all of this, it’s being an empathetic, listening ear to your wife.
While there’s no panacea to your current in-the-doghouse circumstances, empathy—when appropriately paired with undefended honesty—is the closest thing to it.
So how should you practice empathy? In a nutshell . . .
- Recognize the feelings that your partner is experiencing. The trick here is to look behind the complaint for her feelings. She’s going to hurl some pretty hurtful things your way, which makes sense because she’s hurting, but put yourself in her shoes: How would YOU feel if the love of your life betrayed you?
- Be empathically curious about how she’s feeling. Once you’ve recognized how she’s feeling, learn all you can about her pain. Listen. Ask questions. Clarify with her what you hear her saying. If you don’t get it, read a book about betrayal trauma; ask your therapist or your sponsor to recommend one.
6 – ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR LIMITATIONS
I chose the word “practice” when discussing empathy because there’s a good chance you don’t know how to do it very well. And that’s okay. After all, how could you? If you’re like many of the sex addicts I’ve met, you grew up in a family with parents that weren’t exactly empathetic with you.
So go easy on yourself, but practice. Keep trying.
When you don’t know what to do or how to respond, let her know. If you’re being genuine, she’ll see that, and that’ll be enough.
Try something like, “Honey, I can see how much I’ve hurt you, and I want to understand. I don’t know what do to or what to say, but I want to learn.”
7 – BE PATIENT
If you’re in the doghouse, it’s going to take time for you to rebuild trust in the relationship. Moreover, your wife has suffered what’s probably one of the most devastating traumas of her life. Her wounds aren’t going to heal overnight.
Most of the partners in the doghouse I’ve worked with know this, at least cognitively. A partner may understand that he’s got a long road ahead of him, and most of the time they are at peace with that.
But sometimes, usually after a month or two after the initial discovery, a fight will erupt because she’s still heartbroken, still sobbing, still having panic attacks, or still overwhelmed by her trauma.
Intellectually, he knows she is still in a process of recovery of her own as her trauma wounds are healing. Emotionally, though, her trauma triggers his shame, which overwhelms him and activates his usual arsenal of defenses.
Hang in there. Keep at it. It may be six months, eight months, a year, but keep trying. Be honest. Be present. Be vulnerable. Be empathetic. Be patient.
There are many ways to love your partner when she’s hurting after a betrayal. The wonderful, hidden joy is that if you truly do your work to get out of the doghouse, you’ll not only find your wife, perhaps for the first time, you will also find yourself.