George and Linda were 18 months into recovery following Linda’s discovery of George’s sex addiction. Yet things didn’t seem much better between them. “I don’t get it,” George lamented. “I’ve gone to groups. I’ve been through counseling. I’m not looking at porn anymore. What else do I have to do? Why can’t we move on from this?”
If you’re a man trying to rebuild your relationship after betrayal, you may have asked this same question. As a betrayal trauma recovery coach, I find there are five characteristics of men who help their wives heal. But before I list them, I want to correct some common myths.
Myth #1–We (or she) can get over this and move on.
There is no “getting over this.” That’s not to say that your relationship won’t heal, nor that you can’t be truly happy together. On the contrary, couples who do the hard work of rebuilding following betrayal often say that their relationship is better than ever. But rather than getting over the past, they recognize it as part of the fabric of their lives–no longer the main event, but an important one that set them on the path toward creating the life they now have.
Myth #2–She should work her recovery, and let me work mine.
Please don’t ever tell your wife to “stay on her side of the street.” This is, at the very least, annoying, and as a practice, extremely damaging, especially considering that what happened on “your side of the street” brought you to this point and seriously harmed your wife/family. If the relationship is to survive, you must include her in your program, being accountable to her and communicating about your recovery activities.
Myth #3–Each spouse is equally at fault for the disintegration of the marriage.
Sorry guys, but the onus of responsibility to repair the damage is on the betrayer. I know your wife is not perfect. It is the responsibility of the betrayer to rebuild trust and to repair the damage the betrayal has caused. Only then can other issues be addressed. Many couples find that other issues weren’t issues at all when the betrayer rebuilds trust through changing his behavior.
Here are five characteristics I observe in men who help their wives heal—giving their relationship the best chance at surviving and thriving:
Understand Your Wife’s Trauma
Educate yourself about what your wife is experiencing. Once you understand the nature of betrayal trauma, and the impact betrayal has had on your wife, you will be better able to answer your own question, “Why can’t we move past this?”
Unfortunately, trauma can take years to heal, and the scars never completely go away. Years down the road your wife may be triggered, and her physical and emotional response will feel as if she’s right back in that moment of discovery.
Even if you’re strong in your recovery, her trauma is still the result of what you once brought into your relationship. This doesn’t mean you need to beat yourself up or live in guilt, but it is an opportunity to help her heal. Recognize that this is how trauma works. Know that she wishes she could get past it just as much as you do, probably even more. Understand she’s in pain, acknowledge that, and ask her what she needs from you. Then, do your best to provide it.
Now is the time to set pride aside. Honestly, your wife doesn’t want to be asked to celebrate or cheer you on because you’ve been 90 days sober from porn. This is a great accomplishment for you, and you can and should feel good about your progress. But save your need for validation for your support group.
Your wife, with time, will one day appreciate the hard work you’ve done and recognize the things you’ve overcome. But remember, this process was never supposed to be part of your relationship with her. You introduced this painful journey, and until she is sure that you are safe for her, she may not be able to muster joy for you, as she struggles to find it for herself. Put off pride until the two of you can celebrate together the healing of your relationship.
What does humility look like exactly? It means responding to her needs patiently, repeatedly, and consistently. It means answering her questions non-defensively. It means recognizing that her anger and sadness are valid and giving her room to express her feelings. It means owning that you are the one who stepped outside the boundaries of marriage and saying you’re sorry. As often as necessary.
What is transparency? I’ve heard it referred to as “rigorous honesty.” It is living a life of zero deception. It means the life you’re living is the life your wife knows about. It’s recognizing that there should be no secrets in any marriage, much less in one that’s healing from betrayal. Omitting information, deciding for yourself what your wife needs to know, sugarcoating the truth, and minimizing your behaviors are examples of deception.
One of your wife’s toughest challenges right now is rebuilding trust, not only in you, but in her own intuition. Don’t undermine her efforts to trust herself again. It might help you to understand that complete transparency is the foundation for real intimacy. To know and be known. And isn’t that what you’re fighting for?
A Radical Commitment To Rebuilding Trust
What that looks like for each person is different, but if addiction is present, it should include counseling by qualified professionals, recovery groups, and accountability to a “band of brothers.” A “circle of five” that you can text typically guarantees at least one person will get back in touch when you need it. Seeing that you’re serious about your own recovery adds to your wife’s feelings of safety in the relationship. Other radical changes that you might choose to make include:
- Leaving a job to cut ties with an affair partner
- Putting accountability software on your computers
- Deleting email accounts and/or getting a new one
- Deleting social media accounts
- Initiating daily check-ins with your spouse
- Supporting your wife in her own healing if she wishes to join a support group
- Offering to provide your wife with full therapeutic disclosure and a therapeutic polygraph
When your wife begins to see that you’re willing to put aside your comfort, time, and convenience for the sake of your recovery and your relationship, she can often start to let go of fear and begin to heal herself.
The effects of trauma linger. As stated earlier, betrayal carries with it lifelong bruises. Those bruises get bumped. And they hurt. Helping your wife heal means being there for her over and over again. The good news is that as she heals, the triggers come less frequently over time. And this new way of responding to your wife becomes the new you. Win-win! Because it’s the way healthy couples relate. When we hurt, we help each other.
Another reason you need grit is that trust takes time to rebuild. Your wife isn’t going to trust your honesty in the beginning. And she shouldn’t. The truth that you now tell sounds exactly like the lies that protected your secrets. For her to trust you again, she’s going to need to see that this is lasting change.
Recovery is hard work. Repairing the damage caused by betrayal is even harder. On days when that reality feels discouraging, try to remember that there will be a reward in this for both of you. All the characteristics that help your wife heal are necessary for your recovery too. The most important goal is mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Relational healing is part of that. The message I hear time and time again from wives in relationships that survive and thrive is this: “It was ugly in the beginning, but we eventually came together as a team, and my husband helped me heal.”