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Can You Recover from a Military Marriage Betrayal?

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

If emotional or physical infidelity hasn't impacted your marriage, you probably know another marriage it has.

"Trust" is the topic second only to "communication" most often brought into counseling sessions I hold with my clients and, most of the time, betrayal is the root cause.

Betrayal can take many forms, but by far the most hurtful and most common are pornography, online or digital relationships, emotional relationships and, of course, sexual affairs.

Military spouses often prepare for the excruciating possibility that we could lose our service members in war, but the shock wounded spouses go through after betrayal is a devastating loss of emotional safety that feels like the death of the marriage itself. That's something most spouses' minds and hearts have never fathomed.

While infidelity hits civilian marriages too, the military lifestyle includes factors that can create the perfect marriage storm.

If we are not on guard as couples and proactive to protect each other, issues such as frequent and drawn out separations, tough times of reintegration, gaps of unshared experiences, and adrenaline seeking can make military marriages even more susceptible.

If you are someone who has been impacted by betrayal, you are not alone -- and all hope is not lost. Under certain conditions, recovery really can happen. Things can get better.

It's important to know, though, that "recovery" is different from "restoration." Your marriage may never return to what it was but, in most cases, you wouldn't want your marriage to return to a state that was tempted by betrayal, anyway. You want something stronger.

I the initial aftermath of a betrayal, where to start that recovery process can be confusing.

Here are a few steps to get you going in the right direction.

1. Both spouses must be "in."

A marriage cannot rebuild if both spouses aren't committed to absolutely whatever it takes to begin healing.

If the spouse that has done the betraying isn't actually sorrowful or regretful, no progress will be made in the relationship. In the beginning stages, all contact with the the other person or inappropriate activity must stop, and he or she must be willing to begin couple's work.

And as the wounded spouse, being all "in" doesn't necessarily mean your heart is immediately open again -- it just means you are willing to show up and consider the process of recovery.

If your service member is deploying or away, agreeing on specific rules such as sharing passwords, online accounts and full transparency can help with building trust during separation.

2. You absolutely cannot do it alone.

Many couples think that they can navigate the waters of betrayal alone. While there are powerful books and resources out there, they are only half of the equation.

Having a neutral person to talk through will help both spouses process what led to the betrayal, accountability for the hard work that needs to happen and wading through the waves of grief and shame that come with betrayal.

Of course, finding a culturally competent clinician who has worked with military families before is extremely helpful. Look for clinicians who specialize in marriage and the military, and even consider looking for experts in your state who can provide counseling online just so you can find someone who is the right fit for you.

In addition to counseling, the spouse who betrayed will need additional accountability, like a trustworthy friend of the same sex. That step is not only for their protection, but also a great relief to the wounded spouse who cannot have eyes and ears everywhere.

That accountability also offers a safe place for the one who betrayed to work through any future temptations without triggering the wounded spouse and derailing progress.

3. Know that trust builds in stages.

One of a wounded spouse's biggest fears in post-affair recovery is whether they will be "fooled again." It is only natural that a hurting heart will put up walls for protection.

Many spouses are relieved to know that recovery doesn't mean that they must tear down those walls immediately. One of the best definitions I have ever heard for building trust is "doing the right thing, for the right reason, for a really long time."

Trust does not come back immediately, it happens intentionally and in stages.

Couples who have done the hard work together after betrayal often describe that the "bubble burst," or that the betrayal and recovery took off the rose-colored glasses they didn't know they were wearing.

They would never wish to go through it again, but they learned not to expect perfection from their spouse and that marriage is not a utopia.

There are specific stages that your marriage will need to go through with the help of a professional to help you know when it is time to start bringing the wall down and what healthy trust looks like.

These stages also help the other spouse accept and work through the consequences of their behavior as they begin to prove their trustworthiness over time.

4. Expect the long approach.

None of this brings a quick fix. Couples that recover commit to at least three or four years of hard work together. In fact, the couples that sweep it under the rug or move too quickly are often hit multiple times by betrayal because the intentional work wasn't done.

Much like addiction recovery, relapses in trust can easily happen along the way. That doesn't always mean another affair or serious betrayal. Navigating those bumps, no matter how big they are, takes time. Believe it or not, if processed with the support of a professional, the bumps can make recovery even stronger.

Since it's rare for a military couple to stay in one place for three to four years, expect setbacks in your recovery as you navigate finding another therapist in a new location or deployments to interrupt the traditional path.

That might seem like a long time to find hope again in your marriage, but when you consider healthy marriages can last 40-plus years, even five years is worth it.

If you have gone through a betrayal, or even committed one, I can't promise that everything will be alright, but I can tell you that I see recovery happen a lot with those who are intentional together.

Get the help that you need and begin the healing that needs to start today.

For more, listen to my interview with Dr. Michael Systma, a sex therapist and post-affair recovery expert.

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Family and Spouse Marriage