We get married with the expectation that our partner will be there for us when we’re unsure, scared, anxious, and overwhelmed. We make a promise that we will forsake all others and become the special one to whom they can always turn. We bet everything on this promise. To truly make a marriage unified, we stop turning to others for comfort and reassurance. Though it’s risky, we also trust it will offer a deep well of relief from an indifferent world.
This reflex is really just an extension of the primal attachment bond formed at birth with primary caregivers. Infants expect someone to be there when they’re hungry, tired, fussy, and scared.
Through thousands of seemingly ordinary interactions, infants can learn it’s safe to depend on someone to help them regulate their bodies and emotions.i
We don’t outgrow this dependency when we reach adulthood. Instead, we transfer it from parents to a spouse. This isn’t some regressive and immature longing we can’t jettison. Instead, it’s the best way for two people to build a strong and healthy relationship. Two people who agree to be interdependent are much stronger than two people who just cohabitate without any expectations. We truly are stronger together.ii
However, when you discover that your husband has betrayed your trust by turning toward someone else (a person, pornography, lust, etc), it knocks the emotional and physical wind out of you and leaves you desperate for comfort. Naturally, everything in you is programmed to reach toward your husband. However, since he’s the one who just inflicted this terrible pain on you, there is a hesitation. This hesitation causes you more pain. You are now faced with the dilemma described earlier. He’s supposed to be the source of your comfort while now being the source of the worst pain you’ve ever felt.
There are as many reactions to this dilemma as there are women who experience it. However, my observation is that most reactions fall somewhere on the fight, flight, or freeze spectrum. Some women will fight with their husbands to care about their pain by argument or retaliation. Other women will flee and never let their husbands know of their pain and struggle. Some are so overwhelmed with the new reality of betrayal that they numb out and carry on like emotional zombies. In fact, most women experience all of these reactions to one degree or another when they become disoriented in the aftermath of betrayal. Having no one to depend on really throws us off balance.
Betrayal has countless consequences, but one of the most significant losses is the loss of allowing yourself to depend on another person. Most women not only struggle to depend on their husbands again, but most women decide to completely give up on dependency. Many conclude that they were just foolish and co-dependent for allowing someone to hurt them this way. Others might believe that there is no way they can ever trust someone again now that they’ve been betrayed like this. All of these responses make perfect sense. Losing the secure bond in marriage reorganizes deeply held reflexes and beliefs.
Even though you have lost trust in turning to your husband to meet your innate and healthy dependency needs for comfort and reassurance, you don’t have to throw dependency out altogether. In fact, it’s your reflex for dependency that will help you find the deepest relief and comfort.
You’re not built to self-regulate. You’re not going to find your deepest healing and relief by yourself. You are built to reach for comfort and allow others to help you slow your breathing, calm your mind, and soothe your frazzled nerves. If you fight against this dependency reflex, believing that dependency was what got you into this mess, you will cut off the best possible option for your healing.
Attachment researcher Thomas Lewis described it this way:
“Even after a peak parenting experience, children never transition to a fully self-tuning physiology. Adults remain social animals: they continue to require a source of stabilization outside themselves. That open-loop design means that in some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own - not should or shouldn't be, but can't be. This prospect is disconcerting to many, especially in a society that prizes individuality as ours does. Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them”.iii
Staying near people who can support you during this time of crisis is a critical part of your immediate and long-term healing. Even though it’s scary to trust, recognize that your sanity and security will stabilize must more quickly through allowing you to depend on others. Here are eight ways to keep your dependency healthy and active in the aftermath of betrayal trauma:
1. Open up the idea of healthy dependency. We live in a culture that values independence and dismisses dependence as regressive, immature, clingy, and unhealthy. Like most things in life, extremes in either dependence or independence are unhealthy. There is such a thing as healthy dependency. Even if you’ve never experienced it in any of your relationships, it is something that does exist. I recommend you read “Love Sense” by Sue Johnson to better understand what healthy dependence looks like, even if that ideal isn’t in your immediate future. Hold a place in your mind and in your heart for healthy dependency so you don’t structure your life in a way that leaves you too isolated and independent. If you err on the side of being too dependent, recognize that healthy dependence will feel strange. It may seem like you’re too far away or unattached. Finding the right balance of independence and dependence is the work of every relationship aiming for optimal health.
2. Remind yourself of relationships where dependency is still active and working. Perhaps with your parents, a sibling, a girlfriend, with your Higher Power, or another important relationship. Gather evidence to help you hold onto the idea of dependency as something that has brought you security, joy, and relief in the past. This could be letters, thank you cards, text messages, photographs, etc.
3. Practice dependency in small ways. Ask someone to be there for you, even if you don’t share any private details. For example, you can ask a girlfriend to lunch, make a phone call, send a text message, or even ask for a hug. Depending on others is vulnerable, even when you haven’t been betrayed, so recognize that it will be difficult to take this step. You may feel guarded and decide to keep some things to yourself. That’s okay. Let yourself be loved by others and allow them to show up for you. Even though you may only have the courage to open up to one person initially, recognize that there are others who will willingly support you.
4. Attend a 12-step meeting for partners and family members of addicts. These meetings allow you to be seen and heard without the risk of rejection. You can walk in, sit down, and just listen and watch other people practice healthy dependency. They will share stories, struggles, victories, and other personal accounts. They will allow the group to nod, smile, and acknowledge their presence. This environment is very healing for many people as they learn to begin trusting others.
5. Connect to professional relationships. This is a great place to begin practicing dependency. A professional therapist is ethically required to allow you a space to share your story without asking you to support them emotionally. So, it’s a built-in one-way relationship that is all about you and your dependency needs. If available in your area or online, you can expand on this by attending a professional support group of women going through betrayal trauma.
6. Allow someone else to depend on you to remind yourself of the importance of
dependency. If you have children, this is the most obvious place to start, as their dependency needs are your responsibility and they are always coming at you. Embrace their need for dependency and allow them to need you. If your children are older or have left the home, recognize that there are still ways they may be reaching to you. If you can’t detect anything obvious, allow them to need you by being there for them (show up to help them out, send them a loving message, etc). **Warning, please do not turn to your children for your own dependency needs. It’s unhealthy and harmful to children to be pulled into a confidant or support role for their wounded parents. Let them be children and find support and comfort from others adults.
7. Identify areas where you still depend on your husband and acknowledge them. It’s normal to struggle with this one, especially in the wake of betrayal. It’s hard to see your husband as dependable in any area when he’s wounded you so deeply. If it’s difficult to do this one, please don’t pressure yourself. This is simply another way for you to acknowledge the reality of healthy dependency, wherever it exists. If you’re up to it, here are a few ways you can look for it: Is he a stable provider? Does he work to care for the children and housework? Where can you count on him? As difficult as it may be, recognize that acknowledging these things invites truth into your life and into your marriage. It doesn’t mean that you completely trust and depend on him. It just means that there are areas where he can be counted on, you’re allowing that, and it helps in a small way. If your husband has been completely undependable in your marriage, please don’t blame yourself for struggling to find areas to notice. Focus on other ways to keep your dependency instincts alive.
8. Understand your own attachment history and make any necessary fixes. Our early experiences with caregivers influence the way we allow ourselves to depend on others. If you grew up in a home where it was safe to depend on your parents, then it probably wasn’t difficult to trust other people with your needs. On the other hand, if you grew up in an environment where your needs were ignored or criticized, depending on others won’t be as instinctive. Even though your husband certainly needs to earn back your trust and become safe again, recognize that his efforts won’t automatically repair early attachment injuries that affect the way you relate to others. This is a good opportunity to examine how you navigate dependency in all of your relationships. Have the courage to repair any injuries that keep you from allowing yourself to open up and connect to others.
Practicing dependency allows you to nurture this life-saving reflex so you don’t cut yourself off from the very thing that will help you heal from the damage of betrayal. Dependency isn’t the culprit of your pain. The need to depend on others for support is never the problem. Instead, the problem is that you were with someone who was untrustworthy. This is something they have to work to restore. If there is any part of you that wants to build a relationship with him again in the future, then it’s critical that you keep your dependency alive, even if you have to withdraw it from him for a time.
If your husband is working an honest and accountable recovery program, there will come a day when you decide to take the risk of depending on him again. You don’t want this to be your first experience trying out dependency again. You want to know that you can transfer your practice of healthy dependency back to him when he’s earned the right to have you place that trust back in him.
If your husband doesn’t choose recovery and you have to move on, it’s still important to protect your reflex for healthy dependency. Continue to nurture relationships where you can depend on others and others can depend on you.
Recovering from betrayal trauma is really about recovering, or restoring, those instincts that give you the best chance for peace, connection, and joy. Dependency is one of those instincts, though badly bruised, can be picked up, dusted off, and reactivated in a hundred healthy ways so you can feel the security of healing in community. And, if you decide to give your trust back to your husband or a new relationship down the road, you will be already have the reflexes needed to help co-create a secure attachment.
ii This phrase was coined by Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen http://www.rebeccajorgensen.com
iii Lewis, Thomas, “A General Theory of Love”, p. 86
1. What happens when you think of the word “dependency”? What images, ideas, thoughts, and emotions come up for you when you think of that word?
2. Have you had good experiences with dependency? Share some with the group.
3. Have you ever wanted to give up on dependency and become completely independent? What did you decide to do?
4. How would you describe what makes a healthy interdependent marriage?
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapistand operates a private group practice in St. George, Utah (www.alliantcounseling.com). He is the founding directorof LifeStar of St. George, a comprehensive treatmentprogram for pornography/sexual addiction and betrayaltrauma (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity.” He also co-hosted the audioseries “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. Geoff writes a weekly relationship column for St. George News (www.stgnews.com)and Meridian Magazine (www.meridianmagazine.com). He completed a bachelor’s degree incommunications studies from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in marriage andfamily therapy from Auburn University. He and his wife, Jody, are the parents of four children.
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