When people talk about infidelity -- whether in marriage or in committed relationships -- they talk about trauma.
I recently met a man whose wife cheated on him repeatedly. As he told me the long and circuitous story of suspicion, denial and revelation, he moved through a snake pit of emotional confusion -- anger, hurt, longing, disbelief, shock.
As I watched him weep, rant, deflate in despair only to bound back in self-reproach ("how could I have been so stupid?!"), I saw that he was still in shock, in the trance of his own disappointment. He was only physically in the office with me, but he was mostly lost in the torment of his recent past and his fear about the future.
Those shocked states can continue for moments, months, years or a lifetime. And while they have good reason for being there to start with, after the moment is past, they can become huge impediments in a person's life.
The question I am faced with when I meet people with any kind of trauma is two-fold: One, how to bring them out of the trance they are in and two, how to work through the suffering and move to healing.
First Things First: Verbal First Aid for the Crisishttp://www.wordsaremedicine.com/verbal-first-aid
Verbal first aid plays a big part in the initial phase of recovery, not only in the more technically clinical sense, but in the immediate one. What do we say to ourselves in order to move ourselves out of shock and what do we say to someone else who's been so terribly hurt?
I started working with rape victims when I was in my twenties as a volunteer. The first thing we learned became a model for most of my work since then. The trainers asked us: Did she survive? If she did -- and she did, because you're talking to her (or him) -- then whatever she did worked. Make sure she knows she did the right thing because she's alive!
In those years with the Rape Crisis Center set up in White Plains, NY, I learned the power of hope and the power of presence. We weren't trained to do therapy. We were trained for crisis intervention and the only real healing tools we had were the fact that the rape victims survived and that we were there to care about them. It was astonishing how well that combination could work.
Caring in this sense is not mothering. It's not fussing over or controlling or fixing. It is standing before horror together. It is re-empowering a battered spirit. It is offering a hand and a heart full of hope because the facts give us reason to hope -- you survived!
Those simple words, "you survived," turned so many lives around and began to take them out of the trance they were in.
Verbal first aid in any crisis uses the same tools: building rapport, utilizing rapport and delivery healing suggestions.
In a betrayal, which is so personal to the betrayed, it is important that we stay very present, very grounded and take great care to be patient. They are hurt, they may be very angry, they may be confused.
Sometimes, the simplest words are the best: "I know you're hurting. I see it. I'm right here for you no matter what."
In most cases, if a person is confiding in you about a betrayal it is more than likely that you've known each other for at least a while and there is already a sense of rapport and trust between you. Building on that already established rapport, what is needed most is your ability to witness and pace.
Witnessing is simply that -- not to judge, not to sentence, not to join in on the rage, resentment, self pity or pain. Just to simply stand before it and bear witness. Pacing is a way of witnessing with words and behavior. It lets the other person know you are fully present.
Your Friend: "I can't believe he did that. I just can't believe it! How could he do that?!"
You: "It's hard to believe."
That's the simplest example of pacing with words.
You can do it also with your body. Leaning forward with them, holding their hands, letting them cry and, if it is genuine, crying with them.
I remember a long time ago when I had a terribly broken heart, a girlfriend sat with me on my bed as I told her what had happened. For the first time through the whole ordeal, I cried. And, as her tears flowed with mine, she said, "I'm so sorry it hurts so much."
At that moment, I felt the most subtle but massive shift in me and I knew the recovery had begun. She was the first person who didn't try to make it go away, or make me forget him, or convince me what a jerk he was, or what I jerk I was to stay. She wasn't angry or jaded or judgmental. She was just with me. And that was all I needed, as it turned out.
When you're in a position with a friend or loved one who has been hurt that badly it's important to understand and accept the awful fact that you can't fix it. The pain is real and often it's more than reasonable. Trying to make the pain go away prematurely or make the person get over it, move on and feel better before they've even processed the unimaginable, will only meet you with resistance or worse.
Let The Healing Begin
According to many therapists, and many of the people I've worked with personally, being betrayed is no different than any other emotional or physical trauma. It leaves them feeling run over, emptied, stunned and aimless.
What differentiates whether, when and how people heal are how they process the injury after it occurs. I have noticed that there are a few things that characterize and can facilitate (or hinder the process):
After people get hurt they make decisions about their future behavior. They make vows. They promise they will never make that mistake again. They promise they will never trust anyone like that again. They promise they will just get over it. They swear they'll show him or her. It is very common. If the vow is a good one, a reasonable one, it can facilitate healing. If it's one that is born solely of the hurt and anger and moves us into resentment, it only prolongs the grief and destabilization.
Whether a man reconciles with his wife, or a woman decides it's time to let go of her boyfriend is not the issue. Either one may be a healthy decision. But for it to actually be healthy and allow us to be loved and loving again, it must be one that keeps us open and available to the truth.
A healthy vow might be something like: "I'm getting better every day. I can live in the moment and make decisions as I need to take care of myself." Or ... "I'll know what I need to do when I need to do it." "His behavior hurt me but I can love again when the time is right." "I vow to be open to the truth."
In his book, "The Gift of Fear," Gavin deBecker talks about how much prejudgment can put us in harm's way. He stresses over and over -- as do I with trauma survivors--that hyper-vigilance is actually an impediment to accurate discernment of a real threat. When we are afraid of everything, we are not focusing on what is really happening and make ourselves more vulnerable. Discernment is the key to trusting again. And that comes with time and trustworthiness.
Penance and True Repentance
A relationship that is struggling to heal a wound like infidelity inevitably has to re-establish itself as worthy of trust. For that reason, the one who committed the infidelity must show some true remorse and the willingness to put action behind words. There may have been many reasons for the betrayal and the other person will have to show equal good faith in the same way.
In fact, this is an issue of character and without it -- whether we stay together with the person or not -- finding a new, healthy relationship will be very difficult. Nothing, especially infidelity, occurs in a vacuum and everyone has something to learn from such a dramatic experience.
But the upshot for me: You can't have a good life and be a cheater. It's that simple.
Love will come again, but not if you're filled with hatred, resentment and self-righteous indignation that puts you on the offensive or defensive with every potential partner you meet. Without forgiveness, you can neither reconcile nor let go. Nothing is a stickier or nastier glue than resentment and hatred.
It is inevitable when I bring up the very word "forgiveness" that people balk. After talking it through, what we find is that the reason they find it so distasteful, even impossible, is because they have equated it with excusing the behavior.
Forgiveness is not an excuse. It sees the behavior for what it is and moves on. For forgiveness to be given, there must be something to forgive, a wrongdoing. It is not the same as saying, "No bother." It is a release for both parties, but especially for the one who has been wronged. It accepts what is true. From that point we become free again.
What is hard for most people is to see forgiveness as a path to strength instead of unnecessarily and witless vulnerability. Resentment is only a hair's breadth away from hyper-vigilance. It makes us rigid and actually much more vulnerable to hurt and deception because it keeps us closed to what is actually in front of us. Forgiveness doesn't mean opening your door for an ax-murderer. It doesn't imply stupidity or naivete. It doesn't mean we have to let someone hurt us over and over. In fact, in my experience, it usually results in the opposite. When someone is able to forgive the abuser, the betrayer or the wrong-doer, he or she is able to recognize that behavior or that tendency in others more quickly and avoid it. Just the opposite with someone who is stuck in trauma, where repetition and continued pain seem to be the course of events.
Trauma is a lock down of our minds, our hearts and our spirits. But it doesn't have to stay that way.
Follow Judith Acosta on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VerbalFirstAid