In her New York Times article, Great Betrayals (10.05.13), New York psychiatrist Dr. Anna Fels writes eloquently about the corrosive, confusing and life-altering impact of betrayal and deceit in a marriage.
She describes how lies eat away at the fabric of the betrayed partner’s past reality, creating the need — in order to move forward — for a new narrative that integrates both the good and the bad. The following is a selection from her longer article.
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Discoveries of secrets [of betrayal and deceit] typically bring on tumultuous crises. Ironically, however, in my clinical experience, it is often the person who lied or cheated who has the easier time. People who transgressed might feel self-loathing, regret or shame. But they have the possibility of change going forward, and their sense of their own narrative, problematic though it may be, is intact. They knew all along what they were doing and made their own decisions. They may have made bad choices, but at least those were their own and under their control. Now they can make new, better choices.
And to an astonishing extent, the social blowback for such miscreants is often transient and relatively minor. They can change! Our culture, in fact, wholeheartedly supports such “new beginnings” — even celebrates them. It has a soft spot for the prodigal sons and daughters who set about repairing their ways, for tales of people starting over: reformed addicts, unfaithful spouses who rededicate themselves to family, convicted felons who find redemption in religion. Talk shows thrive on these tales. Perhaps it’s part of our powerful national belief in self-help and self-creation. It’s never too late to start anew.
But for the people who have been lied to, something more pervasive and disturbing occurs. They castigate themselves about why they didn’t suspect what was going on. The emotions they feel, while seemingly more benign than those of the perpetrator, may in the long run be more corrosive: humiliation, embarrassment, a sense of having been naïve or blind, alienation from those who knew the truth all along and, worst of all, bitterness.
Insidiously, the new information disrupts their sense of their own past, undermining the veracity of their personal history. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. Memories are now suspect: what was really going on that day? Why did the spouse suddenly buy a second phone “for work” several years ago? Did a friend know the truth even as they vacationed together?
Compulsively going over past events in light of their recently acquired (and unwelcome) knowledge, such patients struggle to integrate the new version of reality. For many people, this discrediting of their experience is hard to accept. It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new “true” version on the other. But putting a story together about this kind of disjunctive past can be arduous.
Frequently, a year or even less after the discovery of a longstanding lie, the victims are counseled to move on, to put it all behind them and stay focused on the future. But it’s not so easy to move on when there’s no solid narrative ground to stand on. Perhaps this is why many patients conclude in their therapy that it’s not the actions or betrayal that they most resent, it’s the lies.
Therapy can be one path to reclaiming your past. Creating a coherent narrative of one’s life has long been seen as a central goal of psychotherapy. It provides the internal structure that helps us predict and regulate future actions and feelings. It creates a stable sense of self….
As a psychiatrist, I can tell you that it’s often a painstaking process to reconstruct a coherent personal history piece by piece — one that acknowledges the deception while reaffirming the actual life experience. Yet it’s work that needs to be done. Moving forward in life is hard or even, at times, impossible, without owning a narrative of one’s past….