The Power of Active Support in Healing From Betrayal

Freedom begins in a community of “me too” people, people committed to helping you carry your burden. ~ Sheila Walsh

When a person experiences a loss or tragedy, those around them often offer support differently. People say things like, “Let me know if you need anything,” or “I’m here for you.” This can be genuine and well-meaning, but to the person amid crisis or grief, they’re not especially helpful. That is passive support, meaning if the grieving person comes to me and asks for something specific, I will provide it.

Active support looks like this: “I have two hours free on Tuesday evening. I’d like to bring you dinner and babysit your kids. Would that be helpful?”

Both offers are genuine and well meaning. One is more helpful to a person who is overwhelmed and in crisis.

Caring people often don’t know how to support a person in crisis. We don’t know what is helpful, so we extend this open-ended invitation for that person to identify their needs and then reach out and advocate to meet those needs. If you have ever been on the grief side of this equation, you know you often don’t even know what you need, and the last thing you want to do is reach out of your isolated shell of grief to ask someone for anything.

In my experience, this applies to betrayal recovery as well. As a betrayed partner, there is often so much shame surrounding the discovery of infidelity that the last thing we want to do is tell someone about it and then ask for something, particularly from people who don’t understand what it feels like.

This can apply within marriage relationships recovering from infidelity as well. Early on, my very well-meaning husband often said, “I’m here for you,” but I felt totally alone. He did not read books or search the internet to understand what I was experiencing or to find ideas or programs that might be helpful. Instead, he waited for me to tell him what I needed. I was drowning in shock, trauma, shame, and depression, and I had no idea what to do to move forward. In that state of being, I was not in a condition to use reasoning and thoughtfulness to research recovery tools and treatments. I was in crisis: a constant state of hypervigilance and distress, and my critical thinking skills were mostly offline.

My brain was trying so desperately to stay afloat amidst all the chaos that it mostly just tried to minimize the reality of the infidelity to survive. This was not a conscious decision. I did not realize how damaging and skewed this thinking was. I wasn’t seeking or expecting much of anything from my husband. I figured that I was not enough since he had wanted someone else. Therefore, I must be the problem. I saw this as my issue to solve, and I was alone. When I couldn’t just “get over it,” I again saw myself as the problem. Being “stuck” was just another indicator of my deficiency as a person, which is why he wanted someone else in the first place…and the twisted merry-go-round continued from there. (This was obviously all very unhealthy thinking, but that was the reality of my experience for quite a while.)

With all that in mind, I was uncomfortable asking him to do anything for me. I felt ashamed and rejected, so I did not have any confidence that my needs mattered to him. His actions had shown me I was dispensable. Why would I say, “I need…” and assume he would care?

I knew my repentant husband genuinely meant well, but I didn’t find it helpful. I didn’t know what I needed when we first began untangling everything after the betrayal. He didn’t either, but his approach was to encourage me to not think about it and move forward. I understand why this made sense to him then, but ignoring does not equal healing, so this was neither helpful nor possible. I share this not to point fingers but to hopefully help someone else learn from our mistakes.

Over time, I sporadically tried therapy and various programs, and while my husband said he supported whatever I needed, he was sometimes clearly uncomfortable with it. He did not understand the purpose and sometimes believed my efforts were making it worse. And at times, it did make it worse. Sometimes, even good recovery work can cause temporary instability, but I also tried some pretty unhelpful and really terrible programs, so it was probably a little of both. I also did not know what I was doing or what I needed, so I tried a lot of things; some were good, and others were not. It was like throwing spaghetti at the wall and waiting to see what would stick. There is no rule book for this stuff, so sometimes you have to try something and see if it helps before you know whether to continue it or bail and try something else.

My husband was always very genuine about wanting to be there for me; over time, he figured out how to do that. He went from being available to listen (though the conversation was tough for me to initiate) to directly asking me if I wanted to talk, especially when he could see I was struggling. That difference is huge. One was passively waiting to see if I brought anything up, and the other was actively asking if there was something I wanted to discuss, even knowing it might be unpleasant. It was a huge relief to me, and while I didn’t always choose to talk at that moment, knowing that he really meant it was very comforting.

When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction. ~ Peter Bromberg

Part of the exasperation in healing from betrayal is trying to get the unfaithful partner to understand the impact. The whole experience made me feel crazy, and it was hard to express everything I felt. Before I could see that he really grasped the depth of how his affair had impacted me, I felt I needed to justify my pain and triggers over and over again and somehow prove they were legitimate. Rick Reynolds captures this well by explaining, “Until the betrayed spouse believes their unfaithful spouse "gets it," they experience an internal pressure to keep talking about it until their mate understands. Many unfaithful spouses interpret this behavior to be a tactic to shame them, torture them, or manipulate them. The betrayed spouse actually has the opposite intent: they continue to ask questions in an attempt to heal their wounds and to actually reconnect again. If the unfaithful spouse will accept responsibility for their self-centeredness and dysfunction early on, their spouse will feel safer earlier and begin to grieve.”

I definitely saw this play out, and once my husband started to actively support me in the ways I have described, I could see that he “got it.” My compulsion to “prove” my pain began to noticeably subside, which allowed us to have more productive and healing conversations.

He began to ask, “How are you?” with genuine curiosity and without defensiveness toward my answer. This was a wonderful way to actively provide support, especially if my response was “not great,” which it often was.

Over time, he broadened the scope of his active support. If we passed through locations he knew were triggering, he would take my hand and say, “I know, I’m sorry.” It was validating and comforting, making me feel seen and understood. We often didn’t need to discuss it further in those moments because he demonstrated that he knew and cared about what was impacting me.

After his affair was revealed, I had become hypervigilant and very guarded, but the more he provided active support, the more relaxed I became. Slowly, it started to feel more like we were on the same team, dealing with this thing together, rather than me feeling like I was completely alone. But it took a long time, and a lot of patience and consistency. I know it wasn’t easy, and he took risks, knowing he would not always get a warm and fuzzy response from me. He created safety by doing these things; ultimately, it was what I needed, and over time it made a big difference in our relationship.

Sometimes he would hug me, let me cry, and say, "It's okay; you can tell me anything," even if it was the same stuff he'd heard 1,000 times already. He would say, "We will get there. We will do this as many times as we need to." He held onto hope for both of us when I didn’t have any.

Those things made me feel safe and seen. At first, I often didn’t tell him what was on my mind, as I had such a hard time doing it and was still very wary. But knowing he was willing to listen and cared about what I was experiencing felt very comforting and supportive, whether I shared my thoughts or not.

If you are the unfaithful spouse and you really want to support your partner, be there, and be truthful - 100% truthful - every single time. Tell him or her every day how sorry you are, how much you want to be with them, and how grateful you are that they are still here. Reassure them that you want to know their thoughts and feelings, even the ugly ones, because you are in this together, and you don't want them to be alone.

You should consider taking the initiative to show your support rather than waiting for your overwhelmed, betrayed partner to figure it all out. Recovery involves risk for both parties. It is not easy for a betrayed spouse to extend any measure of trust and vulnerability toward a person who willingly hurt them so deeply. Conversely, for the unfaithful partner, it is a risk to tell the truth and then be open to the full impact and consequences. But in the end, truth is the only way to have a meaningful relationship with your spouse. Real intimacy cannot be found without truth; every marriage deserves to experience that.

Love is providing a safe place for loss and pain to heal. And for hope and joy to grow. ~Topher Kearby

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Each article you write seems to mirror my experiences - and at the same time you help me see it from a different perspective.
Thank you.

Thank you Paulette

Our journeys are all similar and yet different in many ways. I'm glad the perspective was helpful to you. It's good to know none of us is really alone in this, even though it definitely feels that way at times.


Thank you for expressing everything I am feeling. We are almost 2 years out from the original D-day and this COMPLETELY resonates with me. I can see and can “feel” so many similarities in our stories. I always eagerly anticipate reading your blogs as they always make me feel understood and normal. THANK YOU. Please keep sharing. It is helpful to both me and my husband. I feel like I’m reading about my story and the hope it gives to me is so comforting.

Thank you bostonterrier3

I'm very happy this was helpful to you! Feeling understood is so critical in recovery but can be so elusive, so I appreciate knowing this gave you hope and comfort.

Thank you for your comment, and best wishes for your ongoing healing.

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