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What is betrayal trauma?

At the core of a marriage is a shared commitment to vows that were made on the wedding day. Those promises include love and loyalty, faithfulness and commitment through all the ups and downs of life. A woman in a beautiful dress, a man in a special suit, surrounded by friends and family, promise to love and cherish till death do us part. They are saying, in effect, you are my one and only special person, and I promise to keep it that way. These promises are made in the context of relational trust and an expectation of togetherness and honesty that build intimacy and connection. The couple rely on each other for support and for protection with the undergirding foundation of commitment and love.

When one person in the coupleship violates the relationship through breaking trust and failure to uphold the shared commitment, the impact on the other is devastating. Traumatised responses of fight, flight or freeze may come into play as the understood safety in the relationship is undermined or blown apart by the discovery of secrets or ongoing trust-breaking actions. This is particularly painful when it involves intimate behaviours, whether porn and sex addiction or emotional and sexual affairs.

Trauma responses come from the part of our brain that is designed to alert us to danger and mobilise our reactions and move us toward safety. Discovering trust-breaking behaviours send this function into overdrive as much of what was believed to be safe in the relationship is now under review. This can lead to distressing symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, unrelenting questions, disengagement from normal life activities, nightmares, sleep disturbance, brain fog, flashbacks, startle response, hyper-vigilance, negative mood and recklessness. The traumatised person may feel out of control and unlike themselves and be unable to function at normal levels. Self-blaming and shame may kick into full gear, increasing the difficulty of reaching out for help.

Betrayal trauma carries the additional layer of attachment rupture and the confusion of the simultaneous experience of “this is my person” with “this person is unsafe”. The attachment system is in distress and wanting the comfort of “their person” while the warning system is in high alert that this person is unsafe. It's "I want you close. No, get away from me!" all in one terrifying moment. Michelle Mays, author of The Betrayal Bind calls this, “hugging the tiger”, an apt picture of the competing attachment and safety systems.

Intimate betrayal impacts multiple dimensions of the partner’s experience. Physically, every system of her body - digestive, cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine - feels the effects of her trauma. Emotionally, numbness, anger, grief and more spin out of control. Spiritually, she may feel disconnected from God and her faith community and be questioning her belief system. Sexually, the injuries are deep, confusing and intensely personal. Relationally, the impact is not only on the coupleship but also on the children, the wider family, the friends and social networks. The shame that comes with sexual betrayal often isolates. (I’m using the language of “her” to refer to the betrayed partner, but this is equally applicable when it’s “him” who is experiencing the trauma of betrayal.)

What does healing from betrayal trauma look like?

Healing from betrayal trauma happens gradually as the betrayed person recovers a sense of safety and control. Boundaries help her to regain a sense of agency in her healing. Self care and grounding provide her with a toolkit for calming and reconnecting with herself, increasing her capacity to recover. Her experience of loss, anger, grief and the possibility of forgiveness need to be acknowledged and processed. Envisioning a future with hope and joy seems impossible, but there are evidence-based practices that can move her in that direction.

Often betrayed partners want hope that the relationship can recover. Relational recovery is possible when the betrayer takes action to stop and take responsibility for his behaviours and the drivers behind them. This will require full commitment to recovery and full honesty in the relationship and need the support of specialists trained in sexual betrayal and, if applicable, sex addiction and support groups. He will need to fully acknowledging the damage his actions have caused and hold empathic space for his partner to heal without defending, deflecting or minimising. The traumatised partner’s work includes learning her needs and using her voice, self-care and grounding, and rediscovering her sense of self. Specialised help again can provide needed support for this healing work. Couple’s work with a specialist is an invaluable support for this relational rebuilding work. It takes commitment and it’s not a straight road, but many couples find that doing the hard work of recovery gives them a deeper and richer relationship than they had before betrayal.

While relationship recovery is a worthy goal, healing from betrayal trauma is possible even when the relationship doesn’t work out. Betrayal does not have define you. The road may be different, but the rewards of the hard work of finding yourself and your true value will be worth it.

If you would like to talk with me about coaching or group experiences to help you move forward in your healing from betrayal trauma, please contact me via this form.


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