I told you everyone who I cheated on you with. What else do you want to know?
I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel like you are telling me the truth.
How many times have you and your partner gone the rounds on something like this as you attempt to work toward healing from addiction and infidelity?
It is the dreaded ‘dead-end’ fight that many couples attempt to avoid altogether. Instead, they default to a very bleak view that there just won’t ever be trust like there was before. Betrayed spouses feel broken forever, and addicts feel that there is nothing they can ever do that will be good enough.
One of the reasons this dynamic happens so often and is seemingly impossible to get out of is that the parties do not recognize they are talking about two different things. They are emotionally in two different places and therefore not able to connect in these critical moments.
Truth and Fact
Note to the reader: Do not consult Webster’s for these definitions because they aren’t there. I have created these definitions because the words truth and fact are frequently used interchangeably, and they should not be.
Facts are verifiable and quantifiable pieces of information. Facts are things that security footage, financial ledgers, and records of written correspondence capture. There is only one factual answer for any fact-based inquiry. For example, “Have you eaten pizza?” is a fact-based question. It is either a “yes” or a “no” answer. “How many partners have you acted out with?” is another fact-based question with only one answer.
When I work with couples recovering from betrayal trauma, fact-based questions and answers play an essential role in the healing process. Recovering addicts who are challenged to get factual about their acting out develop the ability to confront shame and denial. Betrayed partners who are given the facts they want and need are given an opportunity to make informed choices about their health and safety with respect to their relationship.
Truth has more to do with emotional fidelity. It goes beyond the concrete and verifiable facts and connects with a larger theme. Truth connects at a less tangible, more feelings-based level. “Do you like pizza?” or “How out of control were you in your addiction?” are questions that are much more open to nuance, emotion, and history. They require more careful telling and listening to fully understand and appreciate.
People in recovery need a lot of truth. Most addicts live life disconnected from emotion and meaning, so truth can be as painful as it is liberating. The same is true for betrayed partners. In the dialogue that opened this article, the betrayed partner is looking for something more satisfying than a number or a list of names. But as much as the betrayed partner wants the truth, hearing it could be incredibly painful.
That said, a key ingredient in the restoration of trust is the ability to speak, feel, and live truth. It’s one thing to acknowledge the enormity of an addiction problem by listing off what happened, it’s another thing entirely to feel the impact – the heartbreak, risk, and disconnection that truth-telling and truth witnessing brings.
The Fact/Truth Tradeoff
The fact/truth tradeoff occurs when couples slip into using these terms interchangeably or do not have an awareness of what they are trying to communicate to each other. Many people who are working through the fogginess of betrayal trauma know that they need a certain kind of information, but they may not be able to figure out the best way to get to it. They may ask over and over about details of acting out or secrets kept. Many times, they are asking about facts when in reality what they want and need to know is the truth: “Are you sorry?” “Does this disturb you, too?” “Do you realize how devastating this has been?”
Addicts early in recovery (and sometimes later in recovery) struggle to connect with their feelings. In an effort to manage their own feelings, they may stick to dry facts. They may appear to still be keeping secrets because of their one-word answers and closed body language. It’s possible, however, that they are being honest about the facts but struggling with the truth and all its impact. Getting at the truth requires both parties to slow down, feel their feelings, and bring their minds into the room to grasp the place where truth and fact meet – reality.
In her groundbreaking work on emotion regulation skills, Marsha Linehan teaches the power of dialectics. A dialectic is when two seemingly contradictory states exist at the same time, often in the same person. Have you ever looked forward with both anticipation and dread? Have you felt the simultaneous joy and pain of telling a painful secret? Those are dialectics. Where opposing states overlap, there is a powerful and multifaced reality that is bigger and richer than the component parts. When truth and fact overlap, that is what occurs – a powerful and multifaced reality that is bigger and richer than the component parts.
This reality is what trust and intimacy are built on. This reality requires fidelity to fact and commitment to truth. It often requires sorting through the nuances and seeming contradictions between truth and fact. In other words, getting to reality requires hanging with it – body, heart, and mind.
Finding reality requires a lot of practice, patience, and persistence. A trained third party, such as a qualified marriage therapist, can also be immensely helpful. To get started in the process of shifting your own prism around fact and truth, you might try the following suggestions:
- Listen to just the words someone is saying, tuning out the body language and emotion.
- Pay attention to only the body language and emotion when someone is talking to you, tuning out the words they are saying.
- Allow yourself to be curious about the disconnect between words and tone. What does it actually mean when you say one thing and feel another? We often jump to the conclusion that when there is that kind of discrepancy, someone is lying. It’s often much more complicated and interesting than that. What more is going on under the surface?
As with most dead-end dynamics, it takes a lot of practice and curiosity to break the stalemate. Intimacy and trust do not come without risk. Leaving the certainties of fact and truth for the nuances of reality can be scary. When couples break into reality together, they finally have an opportunity to really see their partner and their relationship. And with that, they have a chance to move forward into healing.
Jon Taylor is the owner of White Pine Recovery, an outpatient sexual addiction treatment center near Salt Lake City, Utah. Jon specializes in and has extensive training in sexual addiction, relationship issues, and issues related to the treatment of complex trauma.
In addition to weekly work with individuals and couples, Jon is a proud facilitator of Ken Adam’s Mother-Enmeshed Men Workshop. Jon also works with men and couples who are learning to separate from relationships that overwhelm with obligation and guilt and to connect with the relationships they choose to be a part of.
Jon counts himself lucky to work day in and day out in his passion and life calling. When he isn’t working with clients, he can be found building memories with his spouse and two children or hiking and mountain biking with his dog.
To learn more about the work Jon does with individuals, couples, and Mother-Enmeshed Men, you can email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.