The Ability to Love Again
In the final phase of Debbie’s treatment, the focus changed from developing a healing identity to making new connections, particularly with men. With clients at this stage, I often focus on the distinction between wise trust and its opposites: blind trust and suspiciousness. Wise trust recognizes that we’re all frail creatures capable of betrayal in weaker moments. Blind trust denies this darker characteristic of human nature; suspiciousness exaggerates its presence. Wise trust in action involves a measured assessment and recognition that, despite the alarms triggered by old hurts, the actual probability of betrayal may be quite low if a person has demonstrated trustworthiness over time and under stress.
When Debbie was ready to start dating, we spent time carefully going over the signs of trustworthiness—or a lack of it—in potential partners. We discussed how to determine the likelihood of betrayal by ascertaining how someone responds to feeling vulnerable. When someone responds to a feeling of vulnerability by becoming angry, resentful, or depressed, he or she is likelier to betray you by shutting down, punishing, controlling, or seeking some kind of temporary ego boost through infidelity, impulsive indulgence, or deception. By contrast, someone who responds to feeling vulnerable by trying to improve the situation, connect, or instinctively protect is far less likely to betray you. Eventually, as Debbie began going on dates regularly, I gave her a sheet of paper to fill out to help her assess the probability of future betrayal, asking her to circle all the words that applied. One example from this paper is: “When feeling vulnerable (e.g., anxious, devalued, rejected, powerless, inadequate, unlovable), he tries to improve the situation, connects with me, shuts down emotionally, gets angry, deceives, abuses others, abuses me.”
When Disappointment Feels Like Betrayal
After several months, Debbie began dating a man with whom she felt a strong connection. One day, however, when they were grocery shopping together, he paid too much attention to a young woman in tight shorts in the produce aisle. The fact that he’d failed to “control his eyes” while knowing her sensitivities after her ex-husband’s infidelities seemed like a full-fledged betrayal to Debbie. Since that episode, she’d found herself increasingly irritated and critical with this man when they disagreed about things like politics, books, movies, and other preferences.
I explained to her that after intimate betrayal, it’s easy to misinterpret the anxiety signals that occur with feelings of common disappointment and think that you’re being betrayed once again. To distinguish the difference between disappointment and betrayal for Debbie, I put it this way: “Disappointment is about the way the house looks at a given moment, but betrayal is a gaping crack in the foundation. We can’t assume that displaced furniture signals a crack in the foundation, just as we can’t improve the foundation by rearranging the furniture. Some disappointments can be corrected through negotiation or compromise. Others must be accepted and tolerated if the relationship is otherwise healthy and viable. However, betrayal is nonnegotiable and intolerable, and it should never be accepted without significant relationship repair.”
I went on to offer Debbie a series of specific questions she could ask herself whenever her anxiety was triggered by disappointments in a relationship.
Was the behavior a violation of trust? Debbie’s answer regarding the incident in the grocery store was “Not really, though it seemed so at the time.”
What else might it have been? Debbie replied, “I read that men are more susceptible to visual stimulation, and that sometimes they aren’t immediately aware of where their eyes go. In fact, that’s exactly how my boyfriend described it.”
In the future, what might you say to your boyfriend about how you’d like him to handle similar situations? Debbie said, “I know it’s not that big a deal for you to glance at other women and that sometimes you might not know that you do it, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d be more mindful about it when you’re with me.”
I suspect that Debbie responded well to the approach presented in this case because she was tired of feeling like a victim—a condition that was inadvertently strengthened by her previous therapist, who’d overvalidated her painful experience and tried to relate it to childhood events. In our initial work, although we discussed why her highly emotional reactions were a completely normal response to intimate betrayal, we began to focus on how she could have a greater sense of identity and self-worth by connecting with her deeper values. I began to encourage a sense of empowerment, more so when my efforts to get her to focus on her deeper values and the life she wanted to have in the future had yielded some results. At that stage of therapy, I could point out to her that her straighter posture, more resonant voice, and increased confidence indicated that she was experiencing increased well-being.