Rebuilding Trust After Sexual Betrayal
By John Parker, MS, LMFT, SATP, CSA
Trust is a funny thing; it disappears in an instant and yet takes what seems like an eternity to rebuild, especially after sexual betrayal. When sexual addiction walks in the room, dishonesty usually follows closely behind. It is rare to see one without the other. A betrayed partner will feel the pain of infidelity, and that pain is intensified by the lies and manipulation that go along with it. Complete lack of trust is the salt in an already excruciating wound.
Rebuilding trust can be a daunting task for both the addicted person and the partner. Usually a long, arduous process, it does not follow a nicely laid out path. So, what is a couple to do? Can a betrayed partner ever trust his or her addicted loved one again?
A common question asked by individuals who are in recovery from sex addiction is “what can I do to help my partner trust me again?” There is no simple formula, but there are a few steps that can go a long way toward reestablishing trust. Perhaps the most important step in the process is for the addicted person to take ownership of his or her betrayal and understand that the burden of rebuilding trust rests solely on them. The partner isn’t obligated to trust again, ever. This trust must be earned by the addict, and that’s going to require intentional effort.
Where should that effort be directed? I’d like to suggest five behaviors that can help with the process. These behaviors can be remembered by using the acronym SHAPE. Think of it as the addicted person getting their relational trust back into shape. There are no guarantees here, and it’s not a formula, but the more these behaviors are implemented, the more progress is likely to occur.
S = Sobriety
Staying sober for an extended period of time goes a long way in building trust with a partner. When sexual addicts manage to eliminate their bottom line behaviors for an extended period of time, they are showing that they take their recovery seriously. Sobriety demonstrates that something about their recovery is working. But keep in mind, being sober for a few weeks or months isn’t going to instill great confidence in a partner. It often takes years before sobriety can make a significant impact.\
I often talk with frustrated addicts who say things like “why doesn’t she/he trust me? I’ve been sober nearly a month now.” While this frustration is understandable, it is also important to recognize the years of betrayal and collateral damage that have wreaked havoc on your partner’s heart. A few months of sobriety is a wonderful thing that should be celebrated with your support system. But don’t expect kudos from your partner. Sexual fidelity was likely a baseline expectation and meeting it after betrayal is not likely to inspire rejoicing from a hurting partner. However, the longer you maintain sobriety, the greater the likelihood of your partner sensing that you are serious.
H = Honesty
Many partners I have worked with find the lying and deception that accompany sexual addiction to be just as, if not more, hurtful than the acting out behaviors. Gaslighting, minimizing, denying, dishonesty, covering up, omission, and deceit all shake a partner to the core and cause them to doubt if they can ever again know what is true or false. Honesty by the addicted person is imperative for stabilizing a partner’s sense of reality. If they do act out and break their sobriety, being honest about it is critical. More hiding and covering up behavior will continue to destroy trust. Developing a pattern of honesty, even when it is difficult and painful, in the long run, will help build confidence. Living in the truth is crucial.
A = Action
The old saying “talk is cheap” is especially true when it comes to recovery. Words hold very little weight when spoken by an addicted person. Promises of fidelity are usually meaningless to a partner. Rather, it is important for a partner to see the change in behavior. Observing the addicted person leaving the house to go to a meeting, seeing them working on their recovery material, hearing them on the phone with a sponsor or recovery partner … these behaviors speak much louder than words. Stop talking about recovery and start doing it. Action is more powerful than words.
P = Plan
Have a recovery plan. Work with your therapist and sponsor to set a course for your healing journey. Be clear about what action steps are necessary for you to take, and be specific and make them measurable. How often are you going to go to meetings? What meetings are you going to attend? How long will it take you to complete step 4? Who will you share your step 5 with? How do you define your sobriety? These are all part of a good recovery plan. Share them with your partner. And in case you need to be reminded, don’t forget to ACT on your plan. Otherwise, your plan is not a plan, it’s just a theory.
E = Empathize
This may be the most difficult of all. Most addicts are swimming in shame and guilt from their own behavior. Being reminded of their behavior can be excruciating, and listening to a partner describe the pain inflicted on them with tear-filled eyes or an angry voice can be challenging. But it is a challenge that must be faced with tireless courage. Partners need time to process the betrayal and share their pain with the addicted person. As hard as this can be to hear, it is necessary for healing. Developing empathy is one of the most important skills an addict can learn. Sitting with your partner in their pain — without trying to fix it or make it better — takes a lot of work and endurance. Acknowledge your contribution to their hurting heart, feel their sadness and fear, sit with them, don’t try to pull them out of it, and definitely don’t avoid it altogether. Face the pain and anger with dignity and strength. Lean on your own support system for comfort and encouragement, and then get back in the arena with compassion, diligence and attentiveness. Empathy, over the long run, is a healing balm that can eventually lead to intimacy and trust. Remember that when you are listening to your partner for what seems like the millionth time talking about how much you hurt him or her. Stay the course … it’s worth it.
Getting trust back into SHAPE is a long, difficult journey. Here at Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows, we stand ready to assist you on that journey. The Rio Retreat Center offers intensive workshops for those who desire to find healing from the shame of sexual addiction, want help creating a solid recovery plan, learn tools and skills needed for successful sobriety, and desire to live in honesty.
If you would like to know more about our Men’s Sexual Recovery Workshop, Journey of a Woman’s Heart, Healing Intimate Treason, Discovery to Recovery or any of our other workshops, contact our intake department at 800-244-4949 or visit rioretreatcenter.com/workshops.