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The Trauma of Experiencing Betrayal

What You Need to Know to Heal from Trauma and Move On

Uncovering an unknown addiction or infidelity can be the most debilitating moment in one’s life. These forms of betrayal are extremely traumatic and have devastating mental, physical, and emotional consequences. Whether it triggers the end of a relationship or you’re planning on repairing and moving forward together, it is important that you take the time to understand what you can expect from the healing process. Most importantly you need to know the following: You are not “crazy” and you are not alone in this process of healing and recovery.

The term “betrayal trauma” was first used by researcher Jennifer Freyd and refers to the damage that is caused when someone experiences a betrayal in their primary relationship that damages the trust, safety, and security of the bond they have with their partner. Simply put, one cannot experience betrayal where there isn’t a deep sense of safety and trust. Infidelity and addiction destroy trust and safety as they often occur with severe acts of dishonesty, “gaslighting”, denial, and minimization.

Betrayal Trauma’s Effects

Betrayal Trauma touches every aspect of our lives:

1) It causes us to feel unsafe, where there is an expectation of safety

2) It violates our trust in our partner and others

3) It destroys our expectation or belief system that our partner is supposed to keep us safe, honor his/her commitment to us, love us, make us and our family a priority.

4) Not only do we find ourselves unable to trust our loved one, but we find ourselves unable to trust our own instincts due to long periods of being “gaslighted” by our partners (i.e. their persuasive lies, denial, and blame during their addiction or affair led us to believe what our instincts were telling us was wrong….we learned to not trust what we knew to be true)

5) While we are trying to make sense of the betrayal, we could experience further trauma or shame from not behaving or coping as well as we expect ourselves to behave or cope. For instance, if we pride ourselves on being a good parent but the recent trauma has caused us to disengage from our children or have less patience with our kids, that can cause further emotional damage. Our work-ethic, emotional stability, rational thought-process, religious practices, and other relationships may suffer greatly.

6) The reality of a failed marriage and potential divorce is traumatic, especially when there are young children, lack of additional support, complicated finances, and religious/cultural expectations.

7) When there is sexual infidelity/betrayal, sexual intimacy can take on a drastically different experience for the betrayed. It can become a painful experience. There is also the obvious trauma of contracting a disease due to your partners addiction or infidelity.

8 ) Clients often report being re-traumatized by other mental health professionals or loved ones who they seek out as support or for guidance during the tumultuous time. Clients report feeling like the therapists often reinforce the addict’s gaslighting tactics and make the client feel as if they are predominantly to blame for the couples’ issues or that their “emotional instability” is instigator for the addicts’ acting out behaviors.

Desperately Seeking Safety

Nearly every client who experiences betrayal trauma goes through a period of wanting to ask the “betrayer” a long list of questions about where, when, and how the betrayal took place (i.e. Were there other affairs? Did you love her? When you couldn’t make it to our son’s performance were you getting high/having sex? How could you do this to me?). The bombardment of question after question can leave one feeling out of control, emotionally unstable, and just plain furious; not to mention, it can shut down your partner and deter positive progress you both may have made in the healing process. Again, if the client is one who previously prided him/herself on her stability, this out-of-control line of questioning can be further traumatizing—not to mention the answers he/she gets from her loved one. So many clients ask me why they ask these painful questions. Some call this act “Pain Shopping” or “Emotional Cutting”. Therapists who understand betrayal trauma know that these questions are simply the betrayed person desperately seeking safety. The betrayed has been lied to for so long and has had his/her instincts taken from him/her by his/her partner, they are desperately trying to find validity in their truth, their instincts.

Return Your Intuition & Empowerment

Whether you are repairing with your partner or on a new path without him/her, the road to healing will be long. On average, various experts say it takes anywhere between eighteen months to three years to recover from a betrayal trauma (with help and support). There are several steps that need to be taken to move on from the trauma in a healthy way:

1) Validate that betrayal is trauma

2) Work with a professional to find healthy coping skills and outlets for the gamut of painful emotions that follow a betrayal

a. Do not numb, ignore, distract, and project these emotions on to others. They need to be acknowledged and worked through.

3) Rekindle and renew your intuition and instinct

  • Being gaslighted for several months or years can make one feel crazy. It is important that clients take steps to “re-learn” to listen to their instincts (who’s safe, who’s not), practice healthier boundaries with others, re-establish what your values are, what your passions are, who you are as an individual.

4) Understand that because you have experienced a form of trauma, it is very common to experience symptoms similar to PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) where:

  • Any visual queue or other environmental triggers may quickly send you back to an unpleasant memory or experience related to when the trauma occurred (i.e. the discovery, the fallout, a memory when you realized that your partner was lying to you)

  • When this happens its important for you to realize that you are taking your mind, body, and emotional response back to the moment of trauma and you will trigger a fight-or-flight emotional response in your body similar to the one that occurred in the trauma.

  • Its important for you (and your partner, if he/she is around) to learn grounding techniques to help you remember that you’re 1) experiencing a memory of the trauma, not the actual trauma and 2) you (and possibly your partner) are working toward healing and rebuilding safety

If you and your partner are working TOGETHER to heal from the betrayal trauma, it is extremely beneficial to seek professional help and/or support groups. Experiencing betrayal can cause extreme emotional flooding; making self-regulation difficult. When the mind and body are in a state of panic or “survival mode”, it is almost impossible to think clearly and rationally. It is important to have safe outlets in the recovery process along with defined “rules of engagement” with your partner (i.e. no discussing the affair unless with the couples therapist).

I have seen many families recover from this devastating experience. Those that are willing to put in a great deal of work can create opportunities to heal together, grow levels of empathy, sympathy, and intimacy that were previously unattainable. However, some partners find the violation they experienced from the trauma to be more severe than their desire to stay in the relationship. Growth and healing can arise from that path, as well. If you or someone you know have experienced betrayal trauma, please have them contact me. I’m happy to recommend books, support groups, and any other helpful information.

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