After the devastating blow of a betrayal, empathy is probably the last thing on your mind.
You may be angry, hurt, and devastated, and for someone to even suggest that empathy be on your radar, might seem like a betrayal in and of itself.
“They destroyed my life!” you might say. “Everything I always wanted has been stolen from me!” “They are a selfish monster! I don’t care what they think or feel.”
Look, I get it. In addition to practicing as a betrayal trauma therapist for the last decade, I also experienced betrayal trauma personally. I curled up in a ball in my closet and sobbed. I laid on the bathroom floor while my chest felt like it was exploding from the inside. I wanted to tear my skin off because I felt so disgusting. Intimate betrayal does so much damage.
So, why are we talking about empathy? Stay with me.
For a person who has been betrayed in an intimate relationship, safety is your top priority. Period. Whether you want to, or not, your nervous system will prioritize safety because intimate betrayal is a primal level threat.
All that snooping you want to do on your partner’s devices? Yes, that is a safety seeking behavior.
The anger you feel, and the revenge you want to enact? Yep, a safety seeking behavior.
Avoiding talking or thinking about anything related to the betrayal itself? That’s right, safety seeking.
You make sense. Your thoughts, your fears, your desires, all of them make sense. They are very beneficial. And, on their own, they might be keeping you stuck.
Empathy is the ability to sense and understand the feelings of another. Empathy is an intuitive experience. It’s an emotion in which we use our mirror neurons, a part of our brain that can mirror and detect another person’s emotions, and understand better what they’re going through.
Empathy does not include the absence of boundaries. It means that we seek to understand the other. Once we understand, then we can make decisions based on reality.
When our Inner Survivor is active, we don’t always have access to the empathetic part of us. The understanding part of us. This makes sense.
If there was a ferocious lion chasing you, you wouldn’t think, “Oh that poor lion, he must be so hungry!” And you definitely wouldn’t think, “I better stop so he can have a snack!” Heck no, you don’t think at all. You run. You fight. Or you play dead.
The same is true after a betrayal. If you are in an overtly unsafe situation, reach out. Get help. Get to safety.
If, however, are safe now – if your partner is honest and working diligently to be humble, accountable, and flexible, or if you are away from them and now safe – you will need to take cues from both your Inner Survivor AND your Inner Sage.
Your Inner Sage is that regulated part of you. The one that feels like home. The one you feel when you’re playing a game, connecting with a friend, playing with a pet, working artistically, or doing your favorite hobby.
What does empathy have to do with it? When you’re regulated and able to be empathetic, it will provide you with more information about your partner. Am I really safe? Am I okay? Are they being honest? Practicing empathy will also help to regulate your nervous system, giving you better access to the intuitive decision making part of yourself.
How Can You Have Empathy?
The first step will be regulating your nervous system. You can do this through connecting with safe people, or exercises on your own like meditation, yoga, weight lifting, or breathwork. Use these practices daily and after triggers. These practices are not there to take away your safety or need for safety. But instead to hone your mind so that you can think more clearly and assess danger better.
Next, you will have to cultivate a desire to understand your partner. You may not care to listen to them at the beginning. That’s okay. Try to put your assumptions aside for a moment. Remember that you have safe people who hear and understand you, and be sure to have compassion with your own suffering as well. Remember, hearing the betraying partner and understanding them does not mean that you will be left boundaryless. Understanding them will keep you more safe.
Finally, listen to your partner. Hear what they are saying. Genuinely hear them. Don’t hear what you want to hear. Hear what they are actually saying. Pay attention to how they behave. Notice if what they say aligns with what they do. Do you find yourself triggered? Are they clearly dysregulated? Learn about your partner through empathy.
What’s next depends on what you discover. If you find that your partner is blaming, gaslighting, defensive, or saying hurtful things, you will need to create safety for yourself. This may mean decreasing contact, time, and labor spent on this person.
If you discover a hurt person doing their best, and you ultimately feel in your gut that they are safe, you may choose to increase time, contact, or labor with them.
This process of understanding, used regularly will lead to safety and opportunities for connection with the right people at the right time.
It can be scary to slow down, sooth, and connect with our Inner Survivor and Inner Sage. It can be scary to have empathy and look at the truth of our situations. And, it is necessary over and over again to move through the pain of betrayal.
If you find yourself struggling to regulate your nervous system or with creating safety for yourself, you may benefit from specialized support. Specialized therapy can help you navigate obstacles, such as reprocessing trauma or healing from depression or anxiety. Specialized coaches can help you learn tools and skills to calm your body, trust your intuition, set boundaries, and feel like yourself again.
Whatever you choose, however you choose it, know this. You make sense. It doesn’t have to hurt like this forever. You can heal. You matter. You are not alone. There is hope.
KayLee Dunn is the Betrayal Navigation Coach, author, and instructor. She has also practiced as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specialized in betrayal trauma, sexual addiction, and PTSD for over a decade.
KayLee knows how painful it is to deal with the aftermath of betrayal because sixteen years ago she experienced it too. After many years of heartache and many failed attempts, she healed from betrayal and is now living her dream life. She has been married to the love of her life for fifteen years, has five crazy kids, and two dogs. In her free time, KayLee loves to watercolor, write creative fiction, and play with her family and friends in nature.