By: Dr. James Wadley-
On Monday evenings, I host a group entitled “Beginnings” for those who have experienced some form of betrayal in their relationship and as a result have struggled to manage trauma. The group is called Beginnings because the aim of the group is for participants to embrace a new beginning for how they think about themselves and the relationship that they are in. One of the themes that consistently emerges in the group is how at the start of a relationship, people have rules and expectations about sex, money, time spent, family, friends, communication and the like. Some of these expectations are talked about while others are assumed (e.g., Having sex for the first time and assuming that you and your partner are now monogamous). As the relationship progresses, those rules, expectations, and boundaries sometimes become elusive and difficult to maintain because of your emotional investment and fear of change.
So for example, think about your present or last relationship where you told yourself that you would never get into another relationship with someone who cheats. You told yourself over and over that if you did, you would leave with no questions asked. Once it was discovered or disclosed that your partner has been or was cheating on you, he/she apologizes, says that he/she will never do it again, and then you take them back—again and again.
One night, I asked the participants of my group what their “deal breaker” was. I asked for each of them to identify one behavior that their present or past partner absolutely could not do which would be the deal breaker for the relationship. The room became quiet as some of them had a difficult time coming up with something that they said would be unforgiveable in a relationship but they ended up staying. Even after a week, many of them could not come up with anything.
It is very important that BEFORE you get into a romantic relationship or friendship, you identify those behaviors that are completely unacceptable. Oftentimes, people will indicate that sex outside the relationship, domestic violence, or some other neglectful or heinous event will cause them to leave. Whatever it is you deem to be intolerable, make sure you have a conversation with your partner about it and you should also find out from him/her what is unacceptable.
Sometimes when a person has a partner who repeatedly crosses the “line in the sand”, he/she remains stuck, emotionally paralyzed, confused, angry, resentful, and even fearful. Time and time again, you may allow yourself to be re-traumatized by the other person’s behavior and feel helpless when you know you need to do something different (e.g., leave). The trauma becomes familiar and common and leaves you anxious and unable to move forward in this relationship, in the next relationship, and/or the relationship with yourself. Here are a few tips to consider when identifying deal breakers and sharing it with your partner:
1. Identify what your deal breakers are, stick to them, and share with your partner. Your deal breakers are probably reflective of your value system which allows you to have a good sense of who you are as a person.
2. Be clear with yourself and your partner the nature and role of forgiveness. What does forgiveness mean to you? Have you ever forgiven someone before and if so, what happened? Most people don’t talk about how they can and cannot forgive BEFORE something happens. We assume that our partner will be more than human and never do anything wrong to us.
3. Seek support. Don’t be afraid to reach out to family, friends, or even a professional (e.g., therapist) when you are unsure what to do. Family and friends can remind you about the person you are as well as offer you emotional support. A therapist can help you untangle, unpack, and unravel the confusion and hurt that you are feeling if you have experienced relational betrayal.
4. Be open to change. Give yourself and your relationship an opportunity to change. This does not mean that you should allow your deal breakers to be less rigid. It just means that your romantic relationship may have to change into a friendship; your friendship may have to turn into being acquaintances; or you may have to move on.