Alex was pretty sure his life was in perfect order. He had good friends and a great family, and everything in his professional life was going just fine — sure, he was a little stressed, but that was nothing a romantic getaway to a cottage with his girlfriend of three years couldn’t solve. To make things even better, Alex invited his lifelong best friend to the cottage as well. There the three of them would unwind, rest and relax.
Of course, this all changed the moment Alex walked in on his girlfriend and best friend in a compromising position in their cottage bedroom — a bedroom owned by his parents, no less. Alex immediately left the cottage and spent time processing his devastation alone. Now, after witnessing the two people he cared most about in an act of infidelity, Alex is wondering: “How should I proceed?”
Welcome to a very specific form of emotional distress: romantic betrayal. When infidelity of this severity happens in a serious relationship, it can feel so heart-wrenching, painful and visceral that some describe the experience as though someone close to them died. Romantic betrayal shares commonalities with PTSD and other trauma disorders: people who go through these sorts of experiences often deal with flashbacks, hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, trust issues, insecurity and more.
What’s the right move for someone like Alex in a moment like this? While a good number of (well-meaning) websites and love columnists recommend working through betrayal in order to arrive at a better place in one’s relationship, that’s not what this article is about.
This article is about moving forward. By taking into account everything he knows about his values and beliefs, we can offer Alex the kind of guidance he needs to move on with his life in a way that is healing and restorative.
When romantic betrayal happens, it can feel like everything in your life’s been turned upside down. It’s similar to getting fired from a job, experiencing a chronic illness, losing a loved one or entering a period of financial insecurity. And, much like all of these experiences, when it comes to romantic betrayal, there’s never going to be a way to “go back” to how things were before the event happened.
That means the only thing to do is move forward. For Alex, that means looking at his major dealbreakers in life and deciding if what has happened is one of them. If I were Alex, I would say that the kind of betrayal he experienced at the hands of his best friend and girlfriend is absolutely a dealbreaker. There’s hardly any trust to be rebuilt after witnessing something this heinous, and the process of rebuilding that trust — with both his partner and best friend — would be excruciating, time-consuming and painful.
This goes for anyone in a position like this. Think about what your dealbreakers are, and then stand by them. What must you absolutely have in your relationship to feel safe, secure, grounded and happy? Can you have all of those things after experiencing the kind of trauma and pain you’ve gone through? If the answer is no, it’s unequivocally time to move on. And even if the answer is yes, there’s going to be a lot of work cut out for you moving forward. Things can improve, but they’ll never be exactly the same as they were before the betrayal occurred.
With Alex, the right move here is to cut out those who’ve betrayed him and move on. But his work doesn’t stop there. After taking the necessary steps to remove himself from a toxic situation, he needs to examine what forgiveness looks like for him. Because the truth is that holding onto this festering wound forever won’t help him find new friendships or love. Alex doesn’t have to accept what happened, but he does have to let go of the situation.
In order to do this, it’s important that Alex doesn’t blame himself for the way things ended. Even if he was the worst boyfriend in the world, that doesn’t mean it was okay for his girlfriend or best friend to do what they did. If his girlfriend felt neglected or unhappy, the right move was to break up with Alex. And even if his best friend was attracted to his girlfriend, he should have avoided putting himself in a potentially compromising situation with her. So, no matter what Alex thinks about the situation, he shouldn’t blame himself for any of it.
How to get over infidelity
Past his breakup, it’s up to Alex to make it clear that he’s no longer going to communicate with either of the people who betrayed him. And then it’s time for him to move on and look for relationships that serve him better in life. This is going to be a tricky period: it’s going to take a lot of soul-searching for Alex to really uncover the kinds of people, relationships and experiences he wants in his new life. If he fails to really interrogate his beliefs and values, he might end up with someone unworthy of his time again.
There’s an old saying (you’ve probably heard it) that goes: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” It’s up to Alex to understand that just because he was rejected by meaningful people in his life, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve a healthy, stable, wonderful relationship. Alex needs to ask himself what he wants in a partner, and then cultivate the kind of life that attracts a person like that. By coming to peace with what he thinks he deserves, the people Alex wants to be with will naturally migrate to him.
Lastly (and this part is tough, because it takes a lot of time), Alex needs to really count his blessings going forward. Romantic betrayal is always awful, but there are some silver linings to this situation. First of all, Alex’s girlfriend demonstrated her infidelity and unfaithfulness before their lives became further intwined. He never committed to marriage with her, nor did they have children together. And although Alex’s best friend turned out to be unworthy, that doesn’t take away the good experiences they’ve had up until that point. Alex can appreciate the good moments he’s had with his best friend while still knowing it’s time to sever that relationship. So while ultimately it’s awful what happened, things could have been worse.
Moving past infidelity
Of course, thinking of all the silver linings and moving forward is much easier said than done. It’s hard work, and it’s not going to happen overnight. That’s why I’d recommend that Alex keep a journal while he’s working out his issues. By writing down every aspect of his healing journey, Alex can track progress against his goals and more accurately see how far he’s come. Journaling will show Alex what he needs to do to keep moving toward the life he wants — more than that, the process of journaling can act as a therapeutic tool that lessens anxiety, depression and other distressing symptoms of trauma.
So — as far as Alex’s situation goes (and for anyone who’s also experienced romantic betrayal) — the message is clear: Alex needs to clearly define his dealbreakers, use that information to sever toxic relationships, create a life that attracts the kind of relationships he wants, and hold himself accountable by journaling. By doing that, Alex will slowly but surely work toward a better future for himself and those in his life.
What happened sucks, but if I could talk to Alex, I’d also tell him: congratulations. Why? Because this terrible thing just opened up his life to so many new possibilities. He’s free from people who’re going to hurt him, and now he’s got all the time in the world to really create a life that speaks to his true values. I’m excited for Alex, and in time I know he will be, too.