Several years ago, I was walking alone in uninhabited woods on a beautiful spring day, enjoying my solitude and the natural beauty. Lost in thought, I barely registered the bear droppings littering the path. Suddenly, a loud rustling caught my attention. A huge paw rattled a bush just a few feet ahead of me. I froze, my heart pounded, and I watched as a giant black bear walked onto the path and stared at me.
Terrified, I slowly inched backward. When the bear was no longer in sight, I turned and ran for two miles out of the woods.
The encounter lasted seconds, but the thoughts and memories persisted for months. Did I handle it the right way? Was I in as much danger as it felt like? How do I avoid putting myself in that situation in the future? And, most especially, how could I have been so stupid as to ignore the signs—the plentiful, fresh bear droppings covering the path—that danger lay ahead?
I’ve never again experienced the peaceful contentment of walking alone in the woods. Now I’m tense, on guard, I scan the ground for clues, and I am always prepared for a hasty escape. Often, I avoid these solitary walks altogether. The fear of being vulnerable simply outweighs the possibility of pleasure.
How the Bear in the Woods Applies to Relationshipsattachment and advances in neuroscience, we now know that the brain is hardwired for attachment. Babies are born needing comfort and emotional warmth from an attuned caregiver, and this need for human connection continues throughout the life span. When one’s attachment relationship appears threatened or severed, the brain codes this experience as a threat to survival, much in the same way it interprets physical danger. These physical and psychological threats trigger remarkably similar physiological, emotional, and cognitive reactions.
The perception of danger initiates a complex physiological response. The brain’s amygdala registers the threat, sets off a neurochemical process that results in increased blood flow to our muscles and extremities, and it prepares us to fight or flee. As a result of this process, our hearts pound, our limbs shake, and we may become lightheaded or dizzy.
These physiological changes are accompanied by intense emotion. When I met the bear in the woods, I first felt terrified. As the terror gradually subsided, I felt angry—angry with myself for ignoring signs that I was walking right into danger. Now, when I think back on this experience I mainly feel sad that I’ll never again be able to lose myself completely in the natural world.
Many people experience moments that shake the foundation of their primary relationship. Infidelities, absences at key stressful times, and dismissal of our fears and needs can all feel like a betrayal of the attachment bond. The mind and body react exactly as if our physical survival is threatened. Physiological changes prepare us for fight or flight, while our emotions cascade through terror at feeling so vulnerable, anger at the betrayal, and a deep underlying sense of sadness and loss. The experience may even feel more traumatic than a physical threat because its source is not a random event, but rather from the person who is supposed to have our back.
What the Bear Teaches Us about Betrayal
Understanding the similarity between encountering a bear in the woods and feeling betrayed by your partner can help in several ways. First, it can make sense of the intense physiological and emotional reactions many people feel. Panic, insomnia, intense fluctuating emotions, and feeling retraumatized by reminders of the betrayal are all normal responses, and these reactions may last for months or even years.
Many people experience moments that shake the foundation of their primary relationship. Infidelities, absences at key stressful times, and dismissal of our fears and needs can all feel like a betrayal of the attachment bond. The mind and body react exactly as if our physical survival is threatened.Second, it can explain why the offending partner’s responses, while often well intentioned, may make matters worse. Telling a partner it wasn’t so bad or how he or she could have prevented it (“If you told me you needed me, I would have come home”) rarely helps. You wouldn’t tell someone who encountered a bear, “The bear didn’t actually attack you, so it’s not a big deal” or, “If you had just paid attention to the bear droppings, you wouldn’t have been in that position.” The hurt partner’s reaction is less about objective facts than the experience of extreme vulnerability and the accompanying fear, anger, and sadness.
Third, it explains why getting over an experience of betrayal is not as simple as choosing to forgive or to stop living in the past. The hurt partner’s reaction often feels outside of his or her control, and interpreting it as an active choice to stay stuck in the past only compounds the pain.
How to Feel Safe Again
Healing is possible even after an extreme betrayal, but it has to be earned, not willed. The process begins by doing whatever it takes to reestablish safety and honesty. The offending partner needs to understand and validate the hurt partner’s experience of vulnerability and accompanying emotional reactions, and express genuine remorse. To quell the hurt partner’s anxieties, he or she needs to experience changes in the relationship that suggest such a betrayal is unlikely to happen again. While responsibility for the betrayal rests with the offending partner, full resolution necessitates that both partners examine their contributions to cracks in the attachment bond.
Healing from an experience of betrayal is difficult, painful work and often requires seeking the guidance of a therapist. An ideal therapist would be one with specialized training in this area, such as a couples therapist trained in emotionally focused therapy. Couples who commit to hard work instead of walking away or sweeping their feelings under the rug may initially experience intense distress, but the payoff is usually well worth it. After completing therapy, many couples report their bond is stronger, deeper, and more nurturing than ever.
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