Helping couples dealing with sexual betrayal navigate the process of getting to, going through, and healing after disclosure is a complex process, demanding a high level of skill, wisdom, adaptability, and structure on the part of the therapist.
Disclosure, as a key phase in the recovery process for both the cheating partner and the betrayed partner, should not be simplified and reduced to the task of ‘telling all the secrets.’ While the process does center around fully disclosing secret behaviors and information, the intention, purpose, and benefits of disclosure far exceed this single necessity. Disclosure, presented and experienced in a broader context, creates pivotal opportunities for healing on multiple levels for both individuals and potentially the relationship.
Disclosure allows the cheating partner, perhaps for the first time, to fully confront his or her sexual behaviors and the negative impact those behaviors have had on self and others. This facilitates healing of the compartmentalized, distorted thinking created by infidelity and creates an opportunity for a fuller integration and acceptance of the self. Disclosure provides an opportunity for the cheating partner to ‘unmask,’ beginning a process of discovering his or her true self and allowing that self to be known and encountered by others in often unprecedented ways.
In addition, by preparing and reading the disclosure document, the cheating partner learns how to take responsibility for his or her behavior, and to make amends for the impact of that behavior. Responsibility-taking that allows true connection with guilt, pain, and remorse while staying out of toxic shame is a key element of personal growth and long-term recovery. The disclosure process provides a meaningful and practical framework for learning this vital skill.
The process of preparing the cheating partner to read the disclosure statement is rich with opportunities for growth and healing. Learning how to regulate his or her emotional self in the face of great anxiety and trepidation, learning how to identify when coping responses of anger or defensiveness are hijacking the ability to stay present, learning how to connect feelings of empathy and compassion and risk, revealing those feelings to the partner, learning how to individuate by holding onto his or her own reality while hearing and responding to the partner’s reality: These are all essential relational skills, and disclosure provides a crucible for accelerated experiential learning and development of these abilities for the disclosing client.
When the betrayed partner receives full disclosure about the secrets and lies that have marred the relationship, he or she often experiences a profound validation of his or her inner reality. Things that previously were unclear and confusing are now clear and make sense. This validation provides a path to restored and repaired self-trust for the partner. In this way, the partner’s sense of agency and empowerment in making decisions, taking care of the self, and wisely discerning the path forward are supported and strengthened.
The process of preparing the betrayed partner to hear the full truth is rich with opportunities for growth. As the partner anticipates the information to be revealed, he or she can identify areas of betrayal blindness that are rooted in attachment fears. At the same time, the partner can strengthen his or her resilience and ability to face the full reality of the relationship. Preparing the betrayed partner to respond with questions, boundaries, and information about the impact of the infidelity creates opportunities for the partner to learn how to use his or her most empowered voice while staying grounded in the deepest truth.
Finally, as the betrayed partner grapples with the blow to self-esteem created by being cheated on and lied to, there is an opportunity for the partner’s understanding of true and inherent worth to develop—for an unshakable core sense of self to grow and expand. The hidden gift in the blow of betrayal is the potential for true self-esteem, rooted in inherent worth, to blossom and change the partner’s life in innumerable ways going forward.
As therapists, it is our job to look beyond the surface of disclosure and to think deeply about how we can utilize this tender process to create and foster significant growth, behavioral change, and spiritual and relational transformation in the lives of our clients. Disclosure is a process that is endlessly rich with opportunities we can leverage to facilitate a wide spectrum of healing. But this only happens when we, as therapists, slow down and think about the deeper meaning and opportunities that are being presented to us and our clients.
Michelle Mays LPC, CSAT-S is the founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Relational Recovery with offices in Leesburg, VA and Washington, DC. She has developed two new resources to support therapists and clients with the process of disclosure: the Relational Recovery Disclosure Prep Manual and the Relational Recovery Disclosure Prep Workshop Kit. She is also the founder of PartnerHope, a resource site providing hope and help to betrayed partners.
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