Any time I am helping a couple rebuild after a betrayal, I’m reminded of how alike couples are in the healing process, with predictable hiccups along the way. Here’s a typical example:
“Why can’t you just forgive me and move on?!” The husband sitting in front of me gesticulating with his hands and shouting his frustration at his wife clearly felt helpless about successfully repairing his relationship. Saying nothing, she folded her arms and just stared, and based on my history with this couple, I could tell he was microseconds from an angrier outburst, protesting her withdrawal and demanding that she heal from his betrayal.
I immediately moved closer to him and put my hand out, “Hold on. Let me help you. Can you look at me?” I asked quietly. He turned his head and I held eye contact with him. “I know you’re hurting and in pain, right?” He nodded. I continued, “It looks like you’re becoming desperate and afraid you will never be able to repair this relationship with her, yeah?” He signaled a “yes.”
“Can we track what just happened?” I asked. “She started talking about how some days she thinks she can move on and trust you, but on days like today, she starts getting worried that if she does lean into you and trust you, she will fall and get hurt again, metaphorically speaking.” “Yeah,” he immediately flared, raising his voice, “So what’s the point? If she’ll never trust me again, even after all I’ve done to be trustworthy, why are we even here?”
Before I could speak, she fired back, arms folded tighter, “I never said I’ll never trust you again,” and he quickly cut her off, louder, “That’s exactly what you’ve been saying ever since this whole thing happened.” In a split second, he had gone from 0 to 100 again. I quickly reached out again, “Hold on. This feels really important, but did you see how fast that same cycle took over? Let’s slow it down and help you get unstuck.” At this point, they both looked at me like I’m nuts, because they’re uncertain about what I just psychobabbled and where I’m going. It’s ok. I’m used to it.
“I think your wife has been saying that because she cares so much about you, she has been trying to find ways to trust you, did you hear that?” “No,” he smoldered, turning slightly away from her, “All I heard is that she doesn’t trust me and will never trust me.” “I know,” I supported, “That’s part of how you get disconnected so quickly.”
I turned to his wife, “Did I get that right?” I asked. She nodded, “That’s right. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t trying to fix our relationship. I just don’t know how to control the triggers.” “Right,” I validated, “So you start feeling safer, and a trigger happens and you get scared again and uncertain about how to reach out to him, so it’s easier to withdraw. Sometimes, I’ll bet that when you start trusting him, you get even more afraid that you can’t really trust him, so you have to be really careful, right?” She confirmed, “That’s exactly what happens.”
At this point I turned back to him, “You see, the paradox is that as she starts to trust you more, there is a part of her that gets afraid that she’s wrong, that she really can’t trust you, and she hasn’t had enough safe experiences with you yet to know for sure that your change is durable, so there might be moments when she seems to shut you out more. On your end, you start feeling hopeful that she is trusting you, and you want to connect more, and when she pulls back because she gets scared, it’s as if she’s shutting a door in your face, or something like that, right?” “That’s absolutely what it’s like,” he confirmed, “Slamming the door in my face, actually.”
“Right. Slamming the door in your face,” I repeated, “Of course it feels like that. That’s why it gets so painful and desperate for you so fast, and that’s when you start protesting by yelling and threatening to leave…you’re trying to reach her through the slammed door. Unfortunately, all this time, all she can see is your rage, which makes her retreat further, and the sad part is that she never gets to see all the tender feelings you really have for her, because they are so hard to see through the anger. She has no idea how very sorry you are that you hurt her and can’t seem to fix it, and how afraid you get that you won’t be able to heal the relationship that matters the most to you. Am I right?”
He’s starting to tear up and nods. I go on, “This is hard for you. You’re a very accomplished and competent person. You’re respected in your profession and you feel confident there, right?” He nodded again and I continued, “It must be so difficult for you to be so highly competent in so many areas of your life and feel so helpless in this important relationship. You love her so much and you’re so desperate for her to see that, that it makes you want to try harder, right?” He indicated agreement, wiping his eyes.
I asked, “I can see that you have learned that if something isn’t working, you keep trying harder to figure it out, and eventually it works, right?” He agreed, so I continued, “A lot of times, working harder means applying more pressure, working faster and stronger, right?” He’s still signaling that I’m getting it, so I go on, “Except sometimes that approach might ruin what you are trying to accomplish, like for instance building a sandcastle. If you were going to build a sandcastle, you would have to be very careful to not bring in too much pressure too quickly or you would destroy it. Can you see how this relationship is kind of like that?”
“Yeah,” he fretted, “I can, but I still don’t know what to do.” “It’s ok,” I comforted, “I’ll help you. I just want to make sure I’m getting this right. Is anything I said off a little bit?” “No,” he replied, “That sounds about right.”
I looked at her, “Would you change anything about what I said?” She jumped in, “No. I do have a hard time seeing that he loves me and doesn’t just want to control me when he gets mad. I really am trying to feel safe with him.” “Does that sandcastle analogy fit for you?” I questioned. “Yes,” she confirmed, “Because when he is really gentle with me and acts like he wants to comfort me and apologizes, that’s how I know he really means it…that he really is sorry, and will let me heal at my pace. That’s when I feel closer to him…so the sandcastle part fits, because it’s his carefulness and gentleness that I can trust.”
I turned back to him, “What’s happening for you while you listen to her.” He was considerably calmer, “I can see what she means, and it is like building a sandcastle, because you have to be really careful to do that. There are times when I’m more careful and I can be comforting, but sometimes, I’ve done that and if she’s still sad or withdrawing, I don’t know what else to do.” “Exactly,” I confirmed, “Because that’s when you go in and demolish the sandcastle, right?” “Yeah,” he recognized.
I added, “So another way you can manage that and be careful at the same time is let her know that you are at one of those sandcastle moments when you are starting to feel a little helpless because you don’t know what the next step is. Attuning to her and asking for guidance is another way to treat the relationship like a sandcastle.”
I know this was a long exchange, but I use the sandcastle analogy a lot because people relate to it so well. Everyone understands that sandcastle success is dependent upon an element of care. The foundation in this instance is curiosity about your partner’s betrayal experience and repetition of safe, reassuring interactions. Here are some ways to rebuild and treat a relationship more like a sandcastle instead of a brick house:
- Move in close enough to attune to your partner—make eye contact, reach your hand out to offer safe touch if it is allowed by your partner and slow the heck down.
- Ask what has been the hardest part about healing so far.
- Ask when your partner has felt safer with you.
- Ask what your partner is afraid you might not understand.
- Remind your partner about how sorry you really are, but only if you really mean it. By the way, you are going to have to do this many times.
- Ask your partner if he/she would like you to explain how you feel differently about the relationship now.
- Ask your partner what he/she still fears in general about the relationship.
- Ask your partner what can help and if he/she says nothing, then just reassure your partner you are there for when he/she does know.
- Reassure your partner that you are there because you are wanting to help make it better in any way you can.
- Do NOT impatiently demand that your partner get over it.
I have had several clients report that thinking of the relationship like a sandcastle has helped them slow down, breathe and approach their spouses differently.
In the end, a man’s (or woman’s) home really is his/her sandcastle.
Photo credit: Copyright: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo