13. Trauma & Trust - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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13. Trauma & Trust

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

Sorry is not Enough, Infidelity and Betrayal in Couples and Couple Therapy
Chapter 13: TRAUMA & TRUST
by Ronald Mah

The offended partner’s obsession with the details of the infidelity often comes from trauma.  Getting information moreover is in itself often re-traumatizing.  His or her world has turned upside down and everything that was taken as real has become questionable.  An individual is likely to become traumatized when something occurs that breaks his or her fundamental assumptions about life processes and interactions with others.  Trauma can be caused by a horrific event that threatens physical safety, but can also be caused by an emotional assault.  In particular, the individual has expectations that the intimate monogamous relationship is a place, involves a person, and is comprised of interactions that are safe and worthy of trust.  The individual assumes that he or she has a sanctuary where there is no need for vigilance and he or she can be vulnerable and let down guard.  When the emotional sanctuary of the committed intimate relationship is shattered by infidelity, the offended individual also finds the predictability of his or her future and a secure sense of control horrifically violated.  Shaken foundational belief systems assuring safety, security, and stability from emotional harm can be as or more traumatic than the potential loss of the relationship.  The offended partner may cry out, “I thought I knew who you were.  I thought we were doing good.  But you’re not the person I fell in love with.  You’re not the person you claimed to be.  This was a good relationship… I thought, but now I don’t know if anything was for real.  I trusted you… I trusted us!”  “Given this unpredictability and ruptured trust, the injured person typically cannot move forward with the relationship, even if the affair has ended.  As long as injured partners do not have a clear sense of why the affair occurred, they cannot trust their partners not to hurt them again; in the absence of this understanding, the participating partners are likely to be seen as malicious people whose very faces or voices may serve” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 376).

“For trust to flourish, you have to believe that you know your partner's character and conduct intimately.  The two should match and be consistent over a significant period of time.  Trust isn't an investment blindly made but, rather, is a natural response to another's trustworthiness.  Trust follows trustworthiness—not the other way around.  Doling out your trust before it's earned is often a recipe for disaster” (Elmore, 2005, page 162).  The affair violates trust fundamentally.  The pattern and consistency of trustworthiness over the extended period is broken with infidelity.  The belief and intimate confidence in the partner’s character and conduct is shattered.  The offended partner may have trusted based on prior experience and history of the partner’s trustworthiness, but may also have trusted despite prior deceptions, indications of lies, and even affairs.  He or she “doled” out trust not only before it was earned, but also when the unfaithful partner should have been discredited.  An over-willingness to trust when it has not been warranted must be explored.  Ready unmerited trust subsequent to the infidelity would not be indicative of recovery and healing, but of continued avoidance against dealing with difficult underlying issues.  The offended partner may have been unable to confront the other partner about previous misdeeds and indications of infidelity.  This inability to confront may be assumed by default to be trust.  The consequence to the individual would be long-held shame and guilt for not speaking up and distain or disrespect from others.

Conceptualizing the offended partner’s experience as traumatic, suggests principles of trauma treatment or recovery as critical to the process.  Trauma treatment helps the individual focus on the trauma and retrieves memories of the trauma.  It aids the individual rebuild his or her fundamental templates about how things and people are supposed to function in his or her life.  Part of recovery from trauma involves telling the story over and over until it no longer triggers overwhelming and devastating emotional arousal.  Finding the story enables one to eventually to have control over subsequent aspects of the story- that is, ones future life and relationship.  Key to the process is developing a greater sense of control over what occurs, including distinguishing between realistic and idealistic possibilities.  “…new trust will be a function of a greater degree of understanding of self, a more sophisticated view of other, and a more mature perspective on the systemic balance in the relationship” (Moultrup, 2003, page 272).  Examination of who the unfaithful partner really is includes who he or she had always been.  The offended partner who recognizes that the other partner had problematic traits and behaviors from early in the relationship may be able to acknowledge that the roots of infidelity were always present.  The offended partner may find that his or her world-view had been idealistic and perhaps, purposefully ignorant of early indications within the relationship that could have been red flags for acting out.  While the therapist does not allow the unfaithful partner to shirk responsibility, the offended partner may find that his or her trauma is at least in part due to unrealistic expectations and denial of clear warning indications throughout the relationship.

These realizations may enable the offended partner to forgive or accept the transgressions of the unfaithful partner through acknowledging his or her own share of culpability.  Wanting and needing to trust or to hold the relationship and partner in an idealized manner and having that shattered by an affair is both traumatic and humbling.  The offended partner may be able to truthfully say, “I wanted it so badly.  I needed this to be the happily-ever-after relationship.  I ran the red lights and the stop and yield signs that should have warned me that my partner had warts… had issues.  I didn’t want to see them, much less be blocked by them.  I can’t blame my partner for being who he/she is… and was.  I should have known… I did know at some level what I was getting.  It’s not all on him/her… It’s me too.”  The aspirations or dreams that the individual holds for the intimate partnership may be profoundly glorious and dear.  How the world and the relationship should be may have defined how it was perceived to the offended partner despite contradictory evidence.  Compatible and complementary to seeing the affair as causing trauma is viewing uncovering of infidelity as causing loss.  In order for the offended partner to continue trying to recover and heal, he or she has to grieve the loss or multiple layers of loss.  Attempting to move forward without addressing and allowing mourning of losses, can frustrate the process.  The therapist may need to educate both partners about loss and the grieving process and its necessity in the overall recovery and healing.

The offended partner’s loss includes a loss of a sense of the partner, relationship, life, and the world as being benevolent, of having important meaning, and of being worthwhile to the unfaithful partner.  Such beliefs may have been illusionary, but were compelling nevertheless.  The loss becomes about his or her sense of self.  “…one's loss of faith is dramatic, one's illusions are torn, and one's world is turned upside down.  It is within this context of the loss of illusions that we consider the issue of sexual infidelity and, more widely, extrarelationship involvements.  The impact of infidelity suggests that much of our emotional and psychological well-being depends on a committed relationship with a significant other.  People in committed relationships (exclusive dating, cohabitation, and marriage) expect to have certain needs (e.g., emotional and sexual intimacy) fulfilled by their relationship partner, and they expect these needs to be met exclusively within the relational bond” (Boekhout et al., 1999, page 98).  Viewing this from the lens of attachment theory is instructive.

“In the context of an extramarital affair, the spouse is without emotional support and is most vulnerable without the ability to properly regulate emotions.  This results in emotional unresponsiveness at times of need.  Even when a change in the relationship is possible and both parties are seriously working to make the marriage better, memories of the affair may linger for one or both parties and interfere with daily life.  This form of betrayal can develop into an ‘attachment injury.’”  Secure attachment style is a consequence of trusting in the proximity of the intimate other person to soothe and care for one when needed.  An affair is a betrayal of the trust that the other person will be available and caring.  Rather than being available to attend to and nurture, the other person is the person causing the pain.  “In experiential therapy for trauma, the emphasis is on the creation of new meaning rather than simple habitation by learning that the pain can be tolerated (Greenberg, 1998).  By living through the painful experience, individuals face their own existential death and are reborn” (Winek and Craven, 2003, page 254).  Understanding where the pain comes from is often not enough.  Healing and change comes instead from owning and letting the pain and other emotions course through oneself, experiencing and re-experiencing them, including through expressing them repeatedly.  The partners need to not get pass the emotions but to allow them to evolve and develop their place in their lives.  This reaches a subjective completion or more realistically, a resolution that is probably never complete.  The emotions however can be processed, resolved, or completed enough for the partners to bear and to continue.  The therapist directs and supports the partners in cognitive, experiential, spiritual, and any other potentially productive activities and behaviors to gain understanding, perspective, and depth.

Ongoing and compulsive vigilant monitoring by the offended partner and being monitored as the unfaithful partner takes excessive and unfulfilling emotional, spiritual, and psychic energy.  It becomes debilitating.  How long it takes to get to a point of exhaustion for the offended partner varies.  As frustrating as it may be, it is a necessary transitional period as part of a process to recover and rebuild the relationship.  The offended partner often needs expend the energy to try to monitor perfectly to prevent infidelity.  Often only with the failure to sustain hypervigilance, the offended partner comes to face the reality that he or she cannot continue to do this indefinitely without both partners suffering irreparable damage.  The therapist needs to get the offended partner to eventually realize that despite extreme monitoring behaviors that the unfaithful partner can cheat again if he or she really wants to.  As a result, the offended partner must make a choice whether to take a big step to risk trusting the unfaithful partner and stop the hypervigilant behavior.  Intrinsic to taking such a risky step is accepting that the unfaithful partner might never be securely faithful and may leave the relationship anyway.  Uncertainty about fidelity may persist in the relationship for a long time.  Over time through the process of therapy, but much more so through a longer process of consistently accrued reparative experiences trusting the previously unfaithful partner is required.  It eventually can feel and become functionally less risky, as the viability and continuity of the relationship become stable.  The partners may gain the security about fidelity or the changes they desire.  To get to that point however involves the leap of faith and willingness to risk failure.  Not everyone can nor should everyone take such a leap of faith.  Not every unfaithful partner deserves to gain the offended partner’s willing to risk again.

If there are not sufficient reparative experiences or confidence in each other’s commitment and quality of character to take such a risk, then one or both partners may terminate the relationship.  Potential reparative experiences that facilitate risking trust can be making and seeing through agreements or contracts for behavior.  Specific issues that are sensational and have caused and may once again cause problems have been identified and addressed.  With the therapist’s assistance, the partners anticipate scenarios that may trigger insecurities and work out concrete behaviors to deal with them.  This may include specific communication when the unfaithful partner is away from the home, in transit, or other ways to reassure the offended partner of his or her whereabouts, who he or she is with, and most importantly, of his or her willingness to be transparent.  The willingness is itself an important sign of commitment to change and growth.  “The more the unfaithful spouse lives up to the agreements negotiated in therapy, the more the offended spouse will be likely to see him/her as a faithful, predictable and dependable partner worthy of being trusted again” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 14).

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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