The Aftermath of Betrayal: How to Clean up the Glitter

“I’ve already forgiven him,” Riley shared, “so why can’t I get past this?” Riley and Alex came to therapy a few months after Riley learned of Alex’s infidelity. They had become exhausted by a conversation that seemed to repeat itself on a never-ending loop. Riley would find herself overwhelmed with anger and sadness after something reminded her of her husband’s betrayal. She would pull away from him or shut down, unsure of what to do with the weight of the emotions. She certainly couldn’t go to Alex about it. After all, he was the one who caused this! And yet, she badly wanted to be able to turn to her husband who had always been her greatest confidant and comforter. She was stuck. Eventually, Alex would catch on to her irritability and emotional withdrawal. He’d instigate some conversation and find himself attacked by her anger. He’d respond with, “I’ve already said I’m sorry! I don’t know what more you want me to say! You claim to have forgiven me, yet you continue to punish me!” He wanted to be able to comfort her, but it didn't seem possible when he was the enemy. And so, they were both stuck.

Hope. Healing. Redemption. Restored trust. Things they both agreed to continue to pursue in their relationship after the betrayal but were seeming further and further out of reach.

Riley and Alex were facing the messy aftermath of betrayal. Their story is a common one. It happens not only in the case of infidelity, but other forms of betrayal as well. A betrayal is any action that is outside of your mutual expectations for the relationship. The partner chooses to forsake that agreement and behave in ways that did not have their partner’s best interest in mind.

A Betrayal Could Be:
  • Infidelity
  • A secret addiction (gambling, substance abuse, pornography, etc.)
  • Sharing a partner’s secret with an extended family member
  • A secret, private bank account
  • Lying about whereabouts repeatedly

            What qualifies as a betrayal is dependent upon the unique expectations set in your relationship. For example, having a private bank account may be perfectly acceptable in your marriage. However, to another couple who agreed about exclusively shared banking, this may be the partner acting against the union. Also, sometimes a behavior does not seem serious enough to be a betrayal in one person's mind. However, for another, it may be profoundly hurtful. Regardless, if a partner is feeling betrayed by the other’s actions, it is important to spend time understanding why it is a betrayal in their mind. What expectation was unmet? In what way did they feel their partner acted against the union?

          Betrayal is like a Glitter Bomb
 
            When I see couples who find themselves feeling stuck in the aftermath of a betrayal, I often find it helpful to use the metaphor of a glitter bomb being opened in their home. Imagine this: the betrayer is given this opportunity to burst the glitter bomb. For whatever reason, they are enticed. They choose to pop it. BOOM! A lovely burst of glittery delight sprinkles through the air. What a show! However, after a few seconds, the glitter falls to the floor and shifts from delight to mess. If you have ever tried cleaning up glitter, it is nearly impossible. You may be able to get most of it, but little glitter pieces will find their way into every crack and crevice of your home. It attaches to your shoes, your hands, your broom and finds its way into the kitchen stove, couch cushions, bedsheets, bathroom mirror, lawn mower, EVERYWHERE! 

            Betrayal is like this glitter bomb. The betrayer chose to open it and as much as they might wish, they cannot undo that choice. The effects of that betrayal seep into more parts of their home, marriage, and lives than they ever intended. Each time a new piece of glitter is found, the same feelings of frustration or sadness may reappear. At first, it seems they find a new collection of glitter daily. Over time, it may be months or years until a triggering little sparkle shows itself in the most random of places.

            So, who’s gonna clean it up?
 
            Here’s the tricky part. Oftentimes, it is the betrayed who notices the glitter appear. They may have forgiven the betrayer for popping the glitter bomb (as Riley did) and yet, they are still left in this cleaning (aka ‘healing’) process by which they find a piece of glitter and are hit by an emotional wave as they are forced to try and scrape it up. They may think to themselves, “Why am I the one left to deal with this? They’re the one who made the mess. I’m the one paying for it.”
            Finding the glitter is not a sign of the betrayed person’s lack of forgiveness. It is the unavoidable hurt that lingers. The good news is that the betrayed person does not have to clean it up alone. They are allowed to be upset about the glitter’s presence just as much as the betrayer is allowed to be. They both hate that it’s there. They should be able to turn to their partner and point it out:
Riley: “Alex, can you believe I found more glitter in the attic!? Can you come help me scoop it up? I’m feeling so overwhelmed.”
Alex: “Of course, sweetheart. I’m so sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed. I am here for you.”

Outside of metaphorical language, Riley could let Alex know that something reminded her of the betrayal and that she needs help processing it. Alex and Riley must work together to learn how to do this. Maybe Riley needs to hear Alex say he’s sorry. Maybe she needs to be held. Through the help of a therapist and one another, they can make sense of the glittery aftermath of the betrayal, piece by glittery piece.

If you and your partner find yourself caught in the aftermath of betrayal, consider reaching out to a couple’s therapist. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate, I am skilled in assisting couples walk through this process. I find it my greatest joy to watch couples find unity and connection after seasons of such disconnection. As a trained Gottman’s therapist, I am equipped with research-based tools to understand how to support one another after betrayals. We will lead you through a 3-step process to reconnection. If you are interested in connecting with me or another ALCS counselor to learn more about counseling after betrayal, please contact our office.

Mary Kate counsels clients from our North Austin location. Mary Kate helps individuals, couples and families as she addresses trauma, anxiety, depression,  attachment wounds, problematic behaviors in children, parenting, divorce, blended family issues, sexuality, infidelity, and chronic conflict. For more information about Mary Kate's practice click here, or feel free to email Mary Kate at [email protected]

Your ALCS Team

Welcome to the Abundant Life Blog, where we answer common questions about counseling and support you and your family on the journey to deeper relationships and a joyful life. Competent care informed by Christian faith for individuals, couples, and families.

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