Is Inner Healing Possible After the Wound of Betrayal?
Healing After Marital Betrayal and Abuse
To say it hurts to be betrayed is an immense understatement, but to express the anguish that’s experienced when an intimate partner deceives you—not once, or twice, but repeatedly through domestic abuse—is impossible to describe. The cycle of both major and minor betrayals show just how much manipulative partners care—about themselves.
It can be extremely difficult to admit the truth when there’s abuse within an intimate relationship. It’s easier to accept his excuses—that you’re to blame, the two of you merely have a communication problem which can be worked out, or you’re being oversensitive and blowing things out of proportion.
Actually, abuse victims tend to do the opposite—they usually minimize their experiences, not exaggerate them.
If his voice keeps replaying in your head, and his narrative is believed, then it’s easier to maintain hope that things can change. After all, if it’s your fault that your relationship is so tumultuous and torturous, then it’s within your power to fix it. Right?
No, it’s not.
In an abusive relationship, the power dynamic is skewed against you—until you come to that startling and shattering moment when you realize your power has been slipping away and you need to take it back.
If you don’t, you feel as if you’ll crumble away into nothingness, a desolate pillar of salt like Lot’s wife (Gen 19:26). She knew she was leaving a life that had been terrible, ungodly, and corrupt. Still, it was her home. She took a chance. She looked back with a sudden sinking sense of dread …
And it destroyed her.
Once you come to that dreadful realization and you’re finally able to admit that yes, this is abuse, a grieving period begins. You’ll likely find yourself grieving what you thought you had in your relationship, now recognizing it as an illusion.
In other words, you’re mourning an unexpected death. You’re in deep sorrow not only for the death of what you thought you had—and the brutal realization that it was all lies—but the death of your dreams and hopes as well. The precious memories have become intertwined with the traumatic ones, creating a sticky, thorny mixture of disbelief and grief.
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Happily Ever After
Jewel Kilcher, in her excellent and highly recommended autobiography Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story, describes her own devastating experience with narcissistic abuse at the hands of her mother. “I went through several phases that helped me confront my feelings of betrayal and discovered that each of them had to be experienced fully in order to heal.”She then goes on to describe these phases, based on the work of psychotherapist Melanie Brown Kroon. These are:
Grieving the loss of the betrayer.
Grieving the loss of who you thought that person was, and the realization that what you experienced was trickery. As Jewel puts it, “I was in a relationship with a person who did not actually exist.”
Forgiving. This is a difficult step, because forgiveness is often misunderstood under the cliché of “forgive and forget,” yet that idea is not only false, but dangerous as well. According to the USCCB, “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the abuse or pretending that it did not happen. Neither is possible. Forgiveness is not permission to repeat the abuse. Rather, forgiveness means that the victim decides to let go of the experience and move on with greater insight and conviction not to tolerate abuse of any kind again.”
Self-forgiveness. This is often the most difficult step, because it’s more challenging to forgive yourself than it is to forgive others. Most of us tend to be overly self-critical, especially if we still have our abuser’s voice hurtling through our minds, telling us we’re selfish, mean, demanding, stupid, bitchy, a horrible mother or wife, or any of those other negative accusations we may have endured. Jewel has confessed, “shame and humiliation kept me from speaking out for a long time. It has been very, very hard to forgive myself for having been fooled.”Sadly, this is a common reaction of abuse victims.
Yet you can successfully work through the shock, the grieving, and the process of forgiveness to reach the ultimate peak of release and healing. “Betrayal converts our innocence to wisdom if we can let go of pain, bitterness, and fear, and create self-love and safety for ourselves.”
Meditation is above all a quest (CCC 2705).
One of the key ways to re-center yourself and encourage genuine healing is through daily prayer and meditation. Silent and peaceful prayer not only confers spiritual graces, but it also calms the nervous system and helps reset the mind. Scott Hahn, from his book Signs of Life, states:
There are many good, natural reasons to take up prayer. Physiologists recognize that they relax our bodies, reduce our stress levels, and unfurrow our brows. They also burn durable neural pathways ... Even amid the most extraordinary circumstances, we can escape to God, we can endure, and we can prevail, using the most ordinary means of prayer. It is a very good thing if all we need to do is touch a bead ... in order to turn our thoughts to God, because we may come to moments when that’s all we can do.
When you’re in the midst of the abuse cycle, it’s easy to minimize the trauma. Victims do this as a survival and coping mechanism, as a way to get through each day intact. Yet at some point—when it’s safe, when you’re ready, when you recognize abuse for what it is and acknowledge the need for true change, in whatever form that may take—it’s crucial to fully feel and process your immense grief, sorrow, heartbreak, and disillusionment. It’s only by going through the grieving process that you’ll transform your shattered, victimized self from the cocoon you’ve been wrapped inside into the gorgeous blue butterfly you can become as a glorious survivor.
Survivor = Warrior
You’re in mourning. Wear black for a while if you want, or wear bright pink, if that better suits you. Regardless of black or pink or green or in-between, be true to yourself and where you’re at in your healing progress. This isn’t a day-to-day thing. It’s hour-by-hour, even minute-to-minute.
Embrace the minute you’re in.
Take your time. Turn to healing practices to steady your soul. Seek prayer, meditation, self-care and self-love. Take the time to rediscover yourself. Erase the toxins in your life—all of them. Create the space to become you again. But go slow, because this is a slow process.
“Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray …
The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”
Jewel Kilcher, Never Broken: Songs are Only Half the Story, p 300.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “When I Call for Help,” https://www.usccb.org/topics/marriage-and-family-life-ministries/when-i-call-help-pastoral-response-domestic-violence.
Scott Hahn, Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots (NY, NY: Doubleday, 2009), 16-17.