In the aftermath of betrayal, it can be tempting to isolate – curling into yourself and hiding away from the rest of the world. When you are wounded, particularly in ways that create fear and a lack of emotional safety, an instinctual coping response is to distance yourself from others, hunkering down to privately nurse your hurting heart.
For the majority of betrayed partners, being cheated on creates feelings of shame. Questions arise such as: Am I good enough? Am I wanted? Do I matter? Am I worthy of loyalty and fidelity? Am I loveable? What did they (the acting out partner) have that I don’t? Can I ever be enough? These questions come from the shame that betrayal so often leaves in its wake.
In turn these feelings of shame, or of being worth less in some way, make us want to hide. We do not want others to see our shame. The questions we have about whether we are truly valued by our partner (who just cheated on us) can spread out impacting not just our primary relationship but all of our relationships. Suddenly we feel worth less with everyone and this makes us want to turn away, cast our eyes toward the ground and pull back into ourselves.
In the face of the feelings of rejection that being cheated on can bring, it feels impossible to be vulnerable with other people – even in small ways. Isolating feels safer. Our need to create safety for ourselves in the middle of the profound fear we are experiencing can cause us to retreat from relationships both with our partner and with friends and family who may be wanting or available to support us.
While this is a normal coping response to the pain of betrayal shame, giving in to the pull of isolation actually heightens the shame, or at a minimum freezes it in place. It is in safe, supportive, caring connection with others that we have experiences that counter the shame that betrayal brings. When we feel heard, paid attention to, important and that we matter to those who reach out to care for us, it goes a long way toward countering the whispers of worthlessness that shame sings in our ears.
When we isolate our fear grows. Our mind, often stuck in a hyper-aroused state of fear and vigilance, imagines and prepares for the worst. We can begin to rehearse scripts of catastrophe and even larger rejections than what we have already experienced. Our fear can make the monster of infidelity grow and bloom into an Incredible Hulk of betrayal that devastates us over and over again as our mind unspools one ‘what if’ scenario after another.
Staying connected to others keeps us grounded in reality. It soothes our threatened brains and helps us stay out of imagining even worse possibilities. Our relationship with safe friends, family and other support people gives us places to talk about our fears, our sadness, our grief and loss. And in sharing those deeper emotions we feel the relief of having them heard and held gently by those who care for us.
While the instinct toward isolation is absolutely understandable, my hope is that when you feel it you will acknowledge the desire to pull in and protect yourself and then you will gently and kindly nudge yourself to instead reach out and stay connected to others. For it is connection with others that allows our sense of safety to begin to regrow.