4 Layers of Grief After Betrayal

Sarah McDugal
May 18, 2020

Grief isn't a simple journey. 

I tell my coaching clients to expect four layers of grief when recovering from an abusive relationship.

Abuse recovery grief is completely different from the grief when someone very close to you dies, or you become a widow. Yes, grief is grief. And yes, we can give support and have compassion for those who are grieving, whether ourselves or someone close to us. But when someone dies who is close to you, even if they were awful to you, you get to experience closure. They're gone. You still carry the pain, but they're not still alive and coming back around to torture you repeatedly. You have the gift of finality. You get to grieve, and then you are free to gradually move on. 

Grieving an abusive spouse is much, much, MUCH more complicated

Because you will go through multiple layers of grief, over and over... and over, again. It's a deep, multi-level kind of grief.

And there’s four different layers of what you’re going through;

First, you’re grieving the loss of what is

You’ve gotten a divorce, you've sought safety, you're grieving a loss that is immediate. The shift in circumstances, the change in environment, the anguish of your perceived reality going up in flames.
You feel this layer of grief immediately. 

Second, you’ll grieve what should have been

You’ll experience an intense awareness of the loss of potential of what the relationship could have been, but you didn’t get that far.
This is one that you’ll begin to feel over time. 

Third, you’ll grieve what you dreamed it would become. 

You’ll grieve what you wanted it to be--not just the potential it held, but what you dreamed about--the things you wanted it to become, even after you realized it wasn’t gonna happen.
This grief hits you later, when you think you're starting to get over it.

Fourth, you’re grieving the loss of what you believed it actually was. 

I think this is the one that cuts the deepest. When we experience betrayal trauma, when we find out that the person we’ve given our vows to is cheating, or is addicted to porn, or has other addictions, or we realize that what we’re living in is an abusive context, an abusive environment.
This one comes in waves, over and over again, sometimes years after the fact.

Nobody tells you ahead of time about the intense searing agony of realizing what your spouse meant when he said “I love you”... 

He didn’t actually mean love... 
He meant lust. 
Or a completion of himself.
Or how your good character made other people treat him better. 
Or that you were a convenient scapegoat for all the things he chose to do wrong.
Or the way you protected him from consequences because you kept his secrets.

Whatever it was, at some point along the way you believed--and maybe you’re still struggling with this--you believed it was love

But it wasn’t.

And so, when you realize you are grieving this, when you’re grieving the reality that you were deceived, you were tricked... your grief is two-fold; you're not just grieving what you believed it to be.

You’re grieving your own sense of being duped. 

In this phase we often struggle with feelings of self-hatred and self-recrimination, and we wonder, 

How could I not see the red flags? 
How could I be so gullible?
How could I have missed this?

But that's asking the wrong question... because...

You didn’t know to look for what you couldn't have known existed. 

You don't need to berate yourself for what you couldn’t have known.
You do need to give yourself grace and compassion. 

Because you went into it with a pure heart. And you can learn to forgive yourself for not knowing the difference.

Fifth, the learning curve of how to dream again.

This is where you gradually begin to come alive again... giving yourself permission to find new dreams. Laying old dreams to rest, sprinkling dust on the coffin lid, and walking away. 

There's often a gap of time while you heal, before you are able to find new dreams, and that's okay.

Take your time. New dreams will waken when you're ready, ❤️


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We are all at different stages of healing. Some are in brutal Survival and Safety mode. Maybe you are safe now, but you're entering a season of tenuous Stability. Or maybe you're finally stable enough to explore deeper layers of healing in your season of Strength...

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