For most partners who are waiting to see if it is possible to stay in their relationship, there is a period after the discovery of betrayal when they expend enormous amounts of energy pushing for change and monitoring the behaviors of their cheating partner.
At some point, however, it is important that the primary energy behind recovery and repair of the relationship comes from the cheating partner, not the betrayed partner. This means the betrayed partner must allow a ‘moment of truth’ to occur. The moment of truth is when the betrayed partner stops monitoring and checking the cheating partner’s behaviors and regularly reminding the cheating partner of what he has done.
When you do this in your relationship, you may find that your partner is committed to his recovery, and that he continues to work on himself and the relationship not to appease you, but because he wants to take responsibility for what he has done and to heal the relationship. He may be committed to change and recovery for himself regardless of whether the relationship with you works out. You may see him building relationships with other men and allowing them to hold him accountable and speak truth into his life. Best of all, you may discover that you can begin to trust and relax because he and his support system are ‘manning the wall’ and being vigilant to ensure that he does not return to his old patterns.
This, of course, is what most betrayed partners hope they will see. It is the foundation on which real healing can take place both individually and within the relationship. However, when you allow the moment of truth to occur, you also run the risk of a quite different outcome.
You may find that when you lower your guard and stop your monitoring behaviors that your cheating partner slacks off. New behaviors revert to old behaviors. Maybe he quits going to 12-step meetings, cancels therapy appointments, misses group, isn’t on the phone to his sponsor or others in his support system, relaxes boundaries that he has told you he needs, and abandons some of the healthy new habits he has created. You may find that suddenly you are having the same weird conversations you used to have with him. You may realize that you are being manipulated and lied to again. You may find that your cheating partner has been doing recovery to appease you, and not because he is truly committed to long-term change for himself and the relationship.
This is a scary, heartbreaking thing to find out.
And because the moment of truth is so risky, you might simply avoid this moment. This avoidance is often unconscious. You don’t realize that you are doing it. The part of you that seeks safety and wants to minimize threats to yourself and your relationship unconsciously avoids the moment of truth because it risks more pain and disappointment.
A primary way to avoid the moment of truth is to never let your guard down to see if, when you stop being the primary energy pushing for change, your cheating partner maintains (or even raises) his energy and effort level and takes responsibility for changing himself and repairing the relationship. Instead of risking further betrayal, you continue with monitoring, checking up, reminding, asking, probing, and more reminding.
Behind these behaviors is fear—fear of finding out that your cheating partner won’t do what needs to be done to repair the damage. And underneath this first layer of fear is the deeper fear that you are not worth it to your partner, that you don’t matter enough to him, that his refusal to do the work and take responsibility is about him not caring enough about you, your family, and your relationship.
Rather than find out what is true in your relationship, you avoid the truth because it has the potential to break your heart all over again.
However, by avoiding the moment of truth you handicap yourself and your relationship. You limit yourself because you keep yourself stuck in the belief that it is your trauma symptoms (hypervigilance is a trauma symptom) that keep your cheating partner in recovery. If this is true, then you can’t allow your trauma symptoms to heal. You and your cheating partner must continue to experience your trauma symptoms so that he will stay the course.
This may sound absurd at first. Most partners are consciously trying to reduce their trauma symptoms and feel better. But what I have observed both in myself when I was going through the process and in the countless partners I have treated is that unconsciously, because of the fear of further betrayal, we believe it is our trauma symptoms that keep our cheating partner from betraying us again. The changes in our behavior—our pain and distress and hypervigilance—provide a constant reminder to him of what he has done so that he will not forget and backslide into old patterns.
This fear can create a cyclical dynamic for betrayed partners. You begin to feel a little better, maybe just for a few hours or a few days, and that is a welcome relief. But this relief brings with it the fearful suspicion that if you feel better and are not in such acute distress, your cheating partner will forget, or become complacent, or go straight back to his cheating behaviors. Instead of the relief cueing safety, it cues danger. When this happens, the progress toward stabilization and healing is interrupted. Instead of progressing, you find that your mind turns toward and becomes preoccupied with past hurts and the possibility of future pain.
This happens involuntarily for the most part. Our threat systems begin to sense danger if we allow ourselves to relax in the presence of someone who has hurt us. What if they hurt us again? Our defensive/protective system reminds us of the betrayal by bringing us back to our pain and distress. Suddenly, we find ourselves rerunning mind-movies about the cheating, rereading hurtful texts between our significant other and his acting out partners, and asking about details and information we have already asked about and had answered several times. All these behaviors are a result of our threat system trying to help us avoid more danger by staying vigilant and prepared. However, the result is that they bring us back into the pain and distress of the original betrayal and reactivate our trauma symptoms.
Let me repeat what I said earlier. Usually, this cycle is based on an unconscious belief that it is your trauma symptoms—your pain, distress, sadness, and anger—that keep your cheating partner from hurting you again. And if this is true, then you can’t allow your trauma symptoms to heal. You and your cheating partner must continue to experience your trauma symptoms so he will stay committed to the recovery process.
This is no way to live long term. For true healing to happen, the moment of truth must be risked. You must be willing to stop having your pain be the primary motivator for your cheating partner’s engagement in the healing process. Taking the risk, while scary, is what sets you free—free to make the very best decisions for yourself, and free to heal.