Emotional Restitution

Posted on November 16, 2020


Betrayals of trust and attachment injuries[1] in relationships come in many shapes and sizes.  Affairs are a common example of both, but there can be many other ways in which one partner feels that the trust has been breeched or that you were not there for me when I needed you. 

Often when couples come in for therapy after the discovery of an affair, the partner who had the affair is taking the position that “I will do anything if you will stay in this marriage.”  The partner who says this is generally sincere at the time.  But in the coming weeks when the betrayed partner is not getting over it, they may begin to resent their partner for hanging onto the hurt.  They may also see their partner as unreasonable in asking for boundaries and accountability.  Further, in Christian circles, the partner who broke the trust can see their partner as unforgiving (and therefore, not following Jesus’ mandate that we must forgive those who wrong us).  Forgiveness, healing, and restoration may have some overlap, but they are not one and the same.  But those are topics unto themselves. 

Couples do recover from affairs and other betrayals of trust, but they don’t usually do it within the first few weeks following discovery.  For the partner who was betrayed, the general wisdom is do have boundaries, but don’t make any life changing decisions in those first 6 months. 

Affairs do not happen in a vacuum (there is always a context, something happening for which you decided to let someone else in), but the affair is never the betrayed partner’s fault.  If you had the affair, there is a process that got you there, but it is still on you.  You caused some damage and if you want to heal it, you need to be prepared to make some emotional restitution. 

For the partner who broke the trust, there are things that you can do that slow the process down (or derail it all together) and things that you can do that speed it up.  I know you want things to be normal again, but trying to rush that process will only slow it down. 

Transparency.  For the time being, you have lost the benefit of the doubt.  That is going to hurt when you are being honest and your mate doesn’t believe you.  Expect that your mate will need more transparency from you.  You might want to relinquish some amount of autonomy to speed the healing.  When we are securely connected, we can be much more autonomous.  When there has been broken trust, there needs to be more accountability.

Triggers.  This has been traumatic for your partner.  As with most traumas, things will come up that will trigger a trauma response.  When your partner is in distress, your best defense (believe it or not) is empathy.  When your partner is angry[2], it is coming from a place of pain.  Recognize and care about your partner’s pain more than your hurt feelings. 

Congruence.  What you say and what you do need to line up.  No lying, fibbing, or shading truths. 

Engage.  This is a time to lean in rather than out in the relationship.  Less screen time; more connection time. 

Hope.  When your partner is feeling hopeless, it won’t help if you go there too.  Hang onto the hope that your partner and the relationship can heal from this.

All of this is not your punishment for breaking the trust.  It is your gift of love for your partner’s healing.  This is now, not forever.  But it isn’t just this week.  It requires perseverance. 

Finally, this is not a simple thing.  Most couples need professional help to guide them through it. 

[1] Attachment injuries are those incidents which damage the connection between you. 

[2] I always add the caveat that I would not expect anyone to submit to being on the receiving end of abuse.  Having said that, recognizing and caring about the underlying trauma can be healing. 

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