Betrayal is a harrowing experience that has been shown to trigger feelings of intense emotional pain, confusion, anger, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even self-loathing.
While experiences may vary, people commonly go through several stages after learning of their partner’s betrayal, whether it be an emotional affair, hidden pornography use, or a sexual affair. They include shock, denial, obsession, anger, bargaining, mourning, acceptance and recovery. Betrayal trauma parallels the sudden loss of a loved one. While going through the stages of grief is part of the healing journey, the stages are not linear. They can overlap, repeat, and occasionally coincide. You may find yourself bouncing between stages from minute to minute.
Understanding the stages of betrayal trauma can help you determine where you are in the process and give you a sense of direction in healing.
Stage 1 – Shock
The shock stage involves the initial discovery of your partner’s betrayal and deceit. Reactions in this stage can vary greatly, often resulting in extreme behavior. You enter a fight, flight, or freeze state, making it difficult to get through each day.
Some women not only lash out at their partners but anyone in their paths, like friends, family, and even strangers. Others find themselves unable to control their emotional reactions, which may include bursts of anger, tears, or laughter. And many women shut down, unable to get out of bed, shower, or function with daily tasks.
Some studies have shown that the shock acts as a natural anesthesia to help cope with the pain. As the shock wears off, you’ll find yourself moving into other stages that can bring greater pain. Unfortunately, to heal from the pain, you must walk through the pain. But if you do the work, you can heal. There is hope.
Stage 2 – Disbelief and Denial
When we’re told something we don’t want to hear or believe, our first reaction is often disbelief or denial. It is natural to doubt or reject things that might hurt us and cause immense emotional pain. It’s our first form of self-protection in stressful situations, keeping us from having to face a brutal reality.
In this stage, you might feel as though you are dreaming; if you were to wake up, everything would be okay and back to how it was before. You may also feel numb and disconnected from what is happening around you.
The shock may continue for days, weeks, months, or even years, coming in waves of disbelieving aftershocks. It takes time to come to terms with what happened and understand how somebody could treat you like your partner did. As obvious as this may seem, it isn’t always easy. For many, it can take multiple instances or solid evidence before they begin to accept their new reality.
While denial serves its purpose in the healing process, protecting us from painful emotions, getting stuck here can cause a constant state of pain, the exact thing you are trying to avoid. Moving into your truth and accepting the feelings that come, without judgment, is key to moving towards healing.
Stage 3 – Obsession
Once the reality of the situation begins to sink in, many women find themselves obsessing over their partner’s deceit and betrayal. Questioning if there’s more that you don’t know and if there was any truth to your relationship, fixating on filling in missing details can make focusing on anything else nearly impossible. On top of that, it’s common to start doubting and analyzing your intuition and behaviors, trying to find something you could have done to prevent the betrayal from ever happening.
Your ability to trust yourself, your instincts, and your sense of reality has turned upside down. You are caught in a cyclone of heartbreaking details and frantic scrutinization of yourself, your partner, and your relationship. You might think about the betrayal constantly, fixating on and obsessing over the details, trying to make sense of what really happened and where things went wrong.
It is natural to want and even necessary for the betrayed spouse to seek details about the betrayal. While some general information can be helpful, such as the general nature of the behavior (perusing online dating sites, compulsive porn or use of prostitution, crossing emotional intimacy boundaries in the workplace, etc.) and how long the behavior took place, knowing about specifics or seeing texts and images will be difficult to “un-see.” Receiving too much information can be further traumatizing, so using caution when feeling the desire to ask about graphic information is strongly advised.
This phase may last weeks or months and can be triggered if you learn new information about your partner’s betrayal.
Stage 4 – Anger and Sadness
As you try to make sense of this new reality, everything you thought you knew about your partner and intimate relationship is called into question. Grappling with the loss of the life and connection you thought you had often brings intense waves of grief and anger. In the anger and sadness stage of betrayal trauma, you may find yourself asking questions such as:
- How could they?
- Has our whole relationship been a lie?
- How could I have not known?
- How could I possibly ever love or trust them again?
- What will I do now?
While anger and sadness are considered separate stages of the traditional cycle, thousands of women we have worked with report these feelings co-existing. Considering the nature of betrayal trauma, it’s no wonder. Experiencing an unbearable loss of confidence, comfort, familiarity, and safety at the hands of someone you loved and trusted intimately is both infuriating and heart wrenching.
During this stage, you must allow yourself to feel whatever emotions arise, remembering that underneath is even more vulnerable feelings. Diving into the anger and sadness, you’ll likely find fear and grief. Reinterpreting these emotions for what’s below them allows you to get to the root of the issue rather than becoming stuck in emptying resentment.
Stage 5 – Bargaining
In the bargaining stage of betrayal trauma, you try to make a deal with a higher power, your spouse, or even yourself to fix things. This stage can include convincing yourself things aren’t as bad as they could be, that it won’t happen again (despite unhealthy patterns persisting), that you are overreacting, or even making excuses that justify your partner’s behavior. Anything to minimize or explain away the pain you are feeling. You might find yourself thinking:
- What if I (fill in the blank) so they (fill in the blank)?
- If only I were enough, this wouldn’t have happened.
- At least they didn’t (fill in the blank). It could be worse.
- What if I do (fill in the blank), then they will (fill in the blank).
- If only I had…
No amount of bargaining can undo the damage that has been done. While it is possible for your relationship to recover and move forward, it will take a conscious effort from yourself and your partner. You need to heal your parts before you can begin healing together. This means caring for yourself, understanding your betrayal trauma, and learning how to manage it.
Stage 6 – Mourning
During the mourning stage of betrayal trauma, many partners report losing interest in things they used to enjoy, including the companionship of other people. Isolation and avoidance are common as you move into a depressive state. Mourning the loss of your relationship, as you believed it to be, is natural. It’s essential during this period to be extra gentle with yourself, allowing time to attend to your wounds.
While feelings of deep sadness and depression are normal, feeling stuck in this stage and dangerous thoughts are not. Reach out for help if you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide. In some situations, medications may be appropriate. Speak with your primary care provider to find the right solution for you.
Mourning is often uncomfortable, so this is often the stage of grief we are most eager to rush through. Unfortunately, running through won’t lead to true healing. Only by taking the time to examine, process, feel, learn from, and grow in your emotions will you find healing.
Stage 7 – Acceptance and Recovery
In the place of anguish, brokenness, and devastation comes redefining yourself and your relationship. Acceptance is often confused with being okay with what has happened. However, this is not the case. It’s about stepping into your new reality and readjusting for a healthier future. For the betrayed partner, acceptance means understanding how you came to be in a relationship marred by betrayal and trusting that you can be healthy and whole again despite the pain of the past.
As you and your partner begin working on individual recovery and growth, you will create a new, healthy, and genuinely intimate relationship. Healing as a couple happens when each partner commits to a guided individual and relational recovery program. If you are proceeding without your partner, or plan to stay in your relationship but your partner isn’t doing their recovery, individual healing can still happen.
Whether moving forward together or individually, seeking professional help and guidance through a structured program will significantly increase your chance of complete repair and recovery. Whichever stages of betrayal trauma you find yourself in, Bloom Guided provides the support you need to navigate healing with expert confidence. Schedule a free consultation call to learn how we can support your journey to recovery.