Heartbreak has an archetypal core, all heartbroken individuals suffer from the same kind of torture.—Ginette Paris
When you learn your supposed loving partner or spouse, to whom you have devoted your life, is not at all loving or devoted to you, it is a shock. For some of us the pain sets off a spiritual and existential crisis.
Having your trust shattered by the person you counted on most to be there for you calls into question your very understanding of human nature, of good and evil. If you have been through the soul wreckage of betrayal, you know how difficult it is for anyone who has not to believe what it can do to a person.
Waking to the deception you have been living releases a kind of “time-release poison” into your system that infects all your memories. Without your conscious intention, the brain must slowly, painfully, revise each memory associated with the relationship to fit the actual facts. The entire context of your past needs rewiring. Even years later, a new memory may be triggered and take you down.
“The Most Difficult of all Woundings”
If you are like me, you will feel vaguely ill, bewildered, as well as enraged and despairing while this adjustment goes on. Each memory that surfaces explodes like a little time bomb that sends shock waves through your body and wrenches you heart. You go for a massage, and sweet love-making that left you so full of warmth and affection comes flooding into memory; but now the memory is saturated with the realization that at the time she was planning her exit or he was covering up his affair.
The temptation is huge to avoid these torments. Various addictions and distractions will lure you to avoid the somatic distress of dying to your imagined past. As the difficult truth sinks in over and over again, it is important not to make the mistake of glossing over the damage by telling yourself it is no big deal. Your crisis of faith in the goodness of life is real.
There is a reason the betrayal of an intimate attachment has been called “the most difficult of all woundings,” “the most deviant form of attack,” (1) “a wound beyond words,” (2) “an irreparable devaluation,” (3) the most underrated traumatic experience,” (4) as well as “the greatest evil.”(5) Something in you IS slowly dying. You need to sit with and study it and let it sink in.
I found it difficult to be gentle and patient with myself as I was going through this ordeal that took years. I kept thinking it shouldn’t take so long! I was fortunate to have a lot of help to ride out the shock waves and to learn to patiently take care of myself, like I would a sick child.
If you or someone close to you is going through the aftermath of a traumatic betrayal, I encourage you to educate yourself about PTSD symptoms and to seek out a skilled trauma practitioner to help. Meanwhile, though you likely will not believe me right now, you are in the midst of an unprecedented opening, an initiation into darkness, yes, but also into the mysteries of suffering and compassion, the wonder of your own heart. Hang on.
Great Betrayals by Ana Fels
Detecting Disguised Personality Disorders by Stephen Diamond
Deliver Us: thoughts on evil and psychotherapy by Martha Crawford
How Survivors Define PTSD by Michele Rosenthal
1) Susan Piver,The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, 80. 2) Diane Cousineau Brutsche, “Betrayal of the Self, Self-Betrayal, and the Leap of Trust: The Book of Job, a Tale of Individuation,” in Trust and Betrayal: Dawnings of Consciousness, ed. Isabelle Meier, Stacy Wirth, and John Hill (New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books, 2011). 3) Aldo Cartotenuto, To Love, To Betray (Wilmette: IL, 1996), 86. 4) Michael Fox, The Emotional Rape Syndrome (Tucson, AZ: Tucson Publishing, 2001), 2. 5) James Hillman, quoting Jean Genet, according to Sartre, “Betrayal Part 2 (of 3).” Black Sun Journal (March, 2002).
Thanks for your email and for allowing comments. Many people will be comforted by your enlightening message and will not feel so alone. My sister will be one of them. She married young, and is now suffering the consequences of a son with mental illness linked to the betrayal when he was just 2 years old.
As someone who also been through this type of devastating betrayal, your blogs describe the various levels of the experience very accurately. Your blogs also describe the naiive comments and “words of wisdom” given by those who have clearly never endured such loss – which only serve as salt in the wound. It is only when one realizes that the only way out of the pain is to go right through the centre of it that healing can begin to occur. For me, the way through the pain to the place of healing was through journalling. For six months I locked myself away and journalled. This gave my pain a form and a mode of release. I hope this helps others.
Writing it out was essential for me too, Shannon. Eventually moving the trauma through my body with dance and singing also helped release the jangled, high-octane energies of the post-traumatic shock. Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your hard-won wisdom here.
Sandra, this is such a helpful piece. Having experienced betrayal in a “first love” relationship at 17, the hangover affects were devastating as you describe. These “hot-points” continue to flare up and rear their ugly heads until we reconnect with those painful and lost memories. Then we just sit with the pain and confusing thoughts and images that come in meditation, whatever form works best. I find hitting the tennis ball against the backboard releases pent up feelings and images/thoughts from times I had long forgotten were around…ah, muscle memory. I highly recommend EMDR also Sandra, from personal experience – it has greatly accelerated my own healing as it engages with the archetypal core of our emotional baggage, and reboots so to speak the jumbled operating system we have been handicapped with for so long. Loved this. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for letting me know this article was helpful to you, Clayton. I cannot imagine going through something like this at such an early age. I can believe a person would need to grow in many aspects to have the strength to face the pain, maybe decades later.
As for tennis, twice I found myself spending hours a day at a backboard after big losses. Once when my beloved collie was hit by a car; and decades later when my husband of 12 years died of lymphoma. There is something about moving the electricity of the shock out that helped organize my nervous system, so I know what you mean. As for EMDR, I have tried a few sessions, along with a lot of other trauma work, but I will consider committing to a longer series.
It happens to men too…..and to people who “should know better”…..I am a psychotherapist and was in a relationship with my wife for 29 1/2 years, married for 27. Now just after our 27th anniversary, we are divorced.
We had had a practice together for 10 years, and worked together in another practice for another 10 years before that…..I poured most of my inheritance into properties for “us” and our family……a horse farm for her because she loved horses…..spent countless hours working on the property over 7 years……pulling up old fence posts……putting in new fence posts ….over 5 acres worth…..and then there was our practice – I put more of my inheritance into an office building where we could both work together and was just 4 minutes from our property..….pretty much took care of all of the building and practice management because she was always too tired or her back hurt.
….after I’ve supported and nursed her through many episodes of depression and sometimes suicidal thinking….which would sometimes be blamed on me and/or our relationship, I realize now that I’d been stuck in a longstanding cycle of idealization and devaluation over pretty much the entire relationship including many episodes of gaslighting……and the final devaluation started to escalate after she quit drinking 3 years ago and began to complain about various things, insinuating that she drank to stand being with me…..suddenly there more and more periods when it seemed that there was very little I could do right, but would follow with us getting along better or even seemingly very well…..but steadily she made new friends through AA – people she would spend lots of time with and never bring around our family…..our 2 kids, when home from college, complained that it seemed like her AA friends and her sponsor who she texted constantly were more important to her than they were, and I began to feel the same way
……then this past November, she had her hormones adjusted and began to experience a heightened sex drive….Since she was saying “I’m going to ride this wave as long as I can” and we’d had many periods of sexual drought, I went with it too and we were literally having sex every day and she’d sometimes wake me up in the middle of the night for more sex ……. in the back of my mind – I was thinking “This is too good to be true.”
…..then just after my birthday and right before Valentine’s Day – she says after an argument she started over nothing – “Well, you know we have been talking about separating.” (when we hadn’t)…..The devaluation and discard escalated from there as I heard things like “I’ve been married to a boy, and I want to be married to a man.”….and then telling our kids that she married me because she “felt sorry” for me. When I confronted her about that, she said “Well, I’m not going to lie any more.” The person I felt like was my best friend had overnight become my worst nightmare. Yes, we had issues and there were things that we needed to do differently, but nothing that we shouldn’t have been able to work on. At first I pleaded with her and reminded her that especially as therapists, we should at least take a year to work on things before making a decision that would affect not just us, but our family and many friends. Her answer: “I’ll go to therapy with you after we are divorced!”
Since then I’ve been wrestling with a myriad of painful emotions that have made me question (even though I am a therapist) whether life was worth living, as I’m having to leave the practice that I pretty much built (it was just too painful to be there) and the property that was supposed to be where we would live together forever. I’ve apparently spent 3/5ths of my life with someone who now seems to be able to turn me off like a light switch.
I’ve had to explain to our kids (as I’m crying uncontrollably at times and she appears happy and in control) that grieving after a relationship is normal ….even though the pain I’ve been experiencing seems more intense that what would occur with a “normal” divorce with 2 people who decided to part respectfully. All of those years – they now seem worthless except for my 2 children. I’m finding that most people don’t really understand what it’s like to have given of yourself for years – and no, I’m not perfect but I was very invested in the relationship – to suddenly find the door slamming in your face.
Dear Rob — what can I say…. I am so sorry you are passing through this ordeal. In some small way, I do understand, although my circumstances were as nothing compared to what you are enduring, I know how betrayed trust can tear you apart in unfathomable ways. I found a way to channel the despair through writing what grew into the book “L&MB,” which I gather you have seen, given your name here.
Thank you for sharing yourself so openly and for affirming the unhappy news that, yes, betrayal does happen also to men. And you too are left in shock, bewildered, shattered, barely knowing what happened to you. I have now changed the wording on this post to make it more gender neutral. My heart goes out to you…