Attachment ambivalence is the phenomenon of having two opposing safety imperatives fire inside of you at the same time in response to betrayal. One safety imperative tells you to move away from and disconnect from the source of your pain in order to stay safe. The other safety imperative tells you to move close and figure out how to reconnect with your significant other in order to stay safe. These two opposite safety imperatives are often experienced simultaneously making most betrayed partners feel pulled in opposite directions in a way that can be chaotic and confusing.
Most betrayed partners caught in the instinctual imperative to restore a sense of safety – either through relational connection or relational protection – will experience this tug-of war as a cyclical dynamic that they rotate through over and over again during the initial aftermath of betrayal. This cycle can happen multiple times in one day and can also be experienced as smaller cycles happening within larger cycles.
Here is what the cycle looks like.
You wake up in the morning, lying in bed next to your spouse who you recently discovered cheated on you. You are warm, sleepy and cuddled up next to one another. For a few moments, you enjoy the sensation of comfort, safety, and connection that coming out of sleep next to your loved one provides.
Suddenly though, you realize that there is a lurking feeling of dread in your body. The sensation that something is terribly wrong, if only you could remember what. Seconds later the dots connect and memory slams into you as you recall that your spouse cheated on you and has recently been diagnosed with a sex addiction. You don’t even know all the details yet of how many times he cheated and all that he did. But what you do know has torn your world apart.
You roll away from your spouse, your body becomes rigid and filled with fear, anger and tension as your mind begins to race with thoughts and questions about what he did, why he did it, and what it means. You ask yourself, “How could he? What was he thinking? How are you going to survive this?”
You get up out of bed, get the kids up and you begin the routine of helping them out the door to school. You are a shell, your body showing up to shove breakfast at them and gather backpacks and homework while your mind is far away furiously trying to wrap itself around the new reality you have landed in.
Your spouse gets up and showers and gets ready for work. You do not speak to him. You do not look at him. Your body radiates anger, shock, pain and confusion. Your energy accuses him at every turn, communicating as loudly as a scream your distress about losing your lover who you thought you knew to this stranger who just crawled out of your bed.
Your spouse tries to talk to you. To ask if you are ok, if there is anything he can do. He tells you for the umpteenth time how sorry he is. You say nothing, just waiting for him to leave before you completely lose your mind and smack him across his familiar face.
Your spouse leaves for work and you spend the day just trying to get through it. You receive several texts from him with more checking in, more apologies. You ignore all them, steeling yourself against his pleas. You spend some time crying. You watch tv without seeing it. You try to clean the kitchen and think about the fact that you really should do some work because even though you work from home you still have deadlines. Instead of working, you have long ranting angry conversations with your spouse in your head and finally, after going several rounds in your mind, you pick up the phone and have the fight for real.
At the end of the phone fight, you feel worse not better. Nothing got resolved, nothing got clarified, the pain and fear are still overwhelming and your frustration at your spouse’s inability to bring you any relief makes you want to howl. So, you climb under the covers and for a blessed few minutes you fall asleep from the sheer exhaustion of grief.
When you wake up you feel like the life force has been drained out of you. You are shut down, numb with overwhelm. Once again, your body goes on auto-pilot as the kids come home from school and you start to get dinner on the table. About an hour later your spouse walks in the door, looking exhausted as well and clearly unsure of the welcome he will receive.
You sit down to have dinner together and as you both interact with the kids about their days, the air between you begins to thaw just a bit. As you sit in the familiarity of a hundred other dinners together as a family, you begin to feel the numbness recede. When dinner is over, you both handle the evening stuff of helping with homework, kicking the soccer ball around outside, playing a video game or whatever the norm is for your kids and home. As the evening unfolds you can feel the fight slowly going out of you. It has taken enormous energy to stay distant and protected all day and you are exhausted and need a moment of relief from it all.
By the time the kids are in bed and you and your spouse have retired to your room to lay on the bed and watch some tv or read a book or fiddle around on the tablet, you are no longer angry, you are just sad and tired and sorely in need of comfort.
You roll toward your spouse who immediately reaches out to tuck you into his side. You curl up against him and you close your eyes while tears of relief and sadness roll down your cheeks. You let yourself be held and you feel the comfort of being connected once again. You talk some but not angry words. You both are careful to not say or do anything to ruin the moment of connection that you are both so desperately in need of. Maybe you even make love, letting your bodies come together in a moment of intense and intimate connection. Then you go to sleep, and you sleep the sleep of the relieved.
The next morning, you get up and you talk with your spouse about the day. You kiss each other goodbye when you head off to work. You still don’t feel like yourself, but you don’t feel like you did yesterday either. Throughout the morning you exchange a couple of texts and make some plans for managing the kid’s schedules that evening.
At lunchtime you take a break from work and you get some lunch and plop yourself in front of the tv to watch your favorite show. But uh oh. In this episode your favorite character who you love and who is married to your next favorite character finds out he has been cheating on her. Now you hate this character. In fact, you hate him so much that you even hate the actor who plays him.
Suddenly you are back in the vortex. The pain and agony of betrayal sweep over you and the anger you feel takes your breath away. You text your spouse and tell him about the show and what a lying cheating asshole he is, just like the guy on the show. You rant, and rage and let fly with your anger, verbally pushing your spouse away from you as hard as you can as your need for protection from him comes rushing back.
That evening you are either fighting or not speaking and you go to bed, backs turned away from each other in an emotional standoff of pain.
The next morning you wake up and…
If this scenario feels familiar to you, you are not alone. The simultaneous need for distance in order to feel safe and connection in order to feel safe create a push/pull dynamic for most betrayed partners that leave them feeling confused and the cheating partner at a complete loss.
One of the best things you can do to help yourself with this dynamic is to give yourself permission to experience both needs, even though they feel like they contradict each other. There will be times when you are angry or hurt or afraid and you need distance. Ask your significant other for the space you need. It is ok to say to the cheating partner, “I have been really angry at you all day today and in so much pain about what you have done to me and our family. I need space from you this evening so please leave me alone and give me room tonight.”
When you are feeling like you want to be closer and want to talk or need the comfort of being held or reassurance about how he is handling his part of healing the betrayal, ask for this as well. It is ok to say to your significant other, “I need to feel connected to you right now. Can we go for a walk together later and talk for a while?”
The more you can give yourself permission to be present with yourself and whatever feelings you are experiencing, the more you will be able to process what has happened to you. It is normal to feel a desire both for connection and distance after betrayal so allow yourself the room and space to feel both without judging yourself or trying to push yourself in any one direction.