Most of us have heard of emotional trauma in response to significantly disturbing events such as natural disasters, accidents, or abuse. However, there is another form of trauma that is rarely discussed, yet is more widely experienced than initially realized – betrayal trauma.
So then, what is betrayal trauma? In its simplest form, betrayal trauma is the pain and emotional distress experienced after severe deception by a loved one.
What are the Different Types of Betrayal Trauma?
Many instances can be considered relationship betrayal. There are the more commonly identified forms such as infidelity, secrets, lies, or abuse. Other less widely recognized forms of betrayal include discovering a partner’s sexually addictive behaviors. These behaviors may include addiction to viewing pornography, masturbation, or sexual acts.
- Types of Betrayal Trauma
- Child Sexual Abuse
- Institutional Betrayal
- Law Enforcement
- Romantic Betrayal
At Bloom for Women, we specialize in helping women heal from sexual betrayal. Discovering a partner’s sexually compulsive behavior can be painful and traumatic, shattering the perception of the relationship. The betrayed has not only found their partner isn’t trustworthy, but they often question if they can even trust themselves.
What does Betrayal Trauma look like?
Like other forms of trauma, betrayal trauma can occur after experiencing an event or betrayal that is considered extremely disturbing or damaging in a primary relationship. Betrayal trauma often leaves a wake of emotional and physical stress and catastrophic devastation. It can upend the beliefs, realities, and relationships one had before the betrayal. The betrayal damages trust and safety, calling the relational bond into question.
Research suggests betrayal trauma symptoms are profoundly impactful and can have long-term effects on one’s mental health. When a partner discovers the betrayal, they determine they are not safe. Their trauma manifests in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If your partner has betrayed you through pornography use or infidelity, you may experience debilitating anxiety, high stress, fatigue, depression, despair, grief, fear, flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, and other severe symptoms. Emotions range from anger to sadness to guilt. The betrayed person may swing between wanting to end the relationship and wishing things were like before.
How Does Betrayal Trauma Relate to PTSD?
Discovering a partner has been unfaithful is a legitimized traumatic event. Researchers have found the “emotional responses to infidelity to mirror those of other traumatic events, including shock, repression, denial, intense mood fluctuation, depression, anxiety, and lowered self-esteem.” All of which are symptoms of PTSD. Perhaps even more shocking and seldom talked about, 70% of women with unfaithful partners met most criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD. Furthermore, 71% demonstrated a severe level of functional impairment in significant areas of their lives.
Dr. Kevin Skinner, Clinical Director at Bloom, said, “I have sat with thousands of betrayed spouses. I found the trauma resulting from their discovery of infidelity holds almost identical symptoms to those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And like PTSD, unless treated, recurring triggers will not only sustain their trauma but can feed and exacerbate it, regardless of the relationship remains intact or not.”
According to Dr. Skinner, betrayal trauma correlates with PTSD criteria in the following ways:
Criteria A: Threat to Life.
This may not mean the betrayed worries about being killed. The research shows that over 60% of participants in Dr. Skinner’s studies were afraid of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, which would undoubtedly be considered one form of threat to life. Additionally, the betrayed may also worry the life they once had is no longer a reality or possibility.
Criteria B: Reliving the Experience.
Reliving the experience could look like nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and images. Whether replaying the moment of discovery or picturing infidelity, this could occur when reminded through certain places, situations, or people.
Criteria C: Avoidance.
Betrayed partners often start avoiding people, places, and situations because they can’t count on feeling safe like they used to. As mentioned in Criteria B, it is common for places, conditions, or people to trigger reliving the experience, so it makes sense they would turn to avoidance. Because of this, this also includes avoiding talking or thinking about the traumatic event.
Criteria D: Negative Mood.
It is not uncommon for betrayed partners to experience uncharacteristic mood swings. Many women even report increased irritability and lower patience in relationships outside of the betrayal, including strangers, friends, and children. Criteria D also includes negative thoughts about others, the world, or the self. Thoughts such as “Well, if I were good enough, then this wouldn’t have happened,” or “There must be something wrong with me.”
Criteria E: Stressed Mind.
Betrayed partners often have difficulty sleeping and concentrating or find themselves startling easily, being on guard, and turning to destructive behaviors. Unable to slow down their minds, these symptoms and behaviors are typical responses to increased anxiety.
How Might Betrayal Trauma Affect Daily Life?
Processing the betrayal requires an immense amount of energy. While signs and symptoms of betrayal trauma can vary, a few are particularly common, including:
Dissociation is described as separating yourself from your body to stop feeling. You may have heard it called checking out, zoning out, or numbing out. It can happen if the emotional pain becomes too much and physical escape is impossible. The brain involuntarily disconnects from reality to protect the betrayed from reliving the experience.
Betrayal trauma can cause intense emotions that feel nearly impossible to control. These intense emotions can affect relationships, social interactions, and quality of life. Signs of emotional dysregulation include:
- mood swings
- outbursts of anger
- high levels of shame
- extreme perfectionism
- thoughts of self-harm
- other self-damaging behaviors
If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, do not delay reaching out for help. The suicide hotline is open 24/7.
While the betrayed spouse is not responsible for their partner’s actions, many women still experience feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or shame around the betrayal. For some, these feelings are rooted in the belief that their perceived inadequacies drove their partner’s betrayal. Others may feel foolish for trusting their partner or believing the relationship was sturdy and authentic.
In betrayal trauma, the brain activates the survival instinct of fight, flight, or freeze. This is your body’s attempt at keeping you safe in what it recognizes as an unsafe situation. Staying in this mode for long periods, common with betrayal trauma, can cause long-term mental, emotional, and physical repercussions.
In addition to the limbic system’s response, many women also experience intrusive thoughts around the betrayal. These thoughts can be about the partner’s act of betrayal or reliving the moment of discovery. In either case, this could look like hypervigilance (checking phone records, emails, bank statements, or browser history), flashbacks, or dreams.
Betrayal trauma theory notes that infidelity even affects the betrayed partner physically. Physical symptoms can include hair loss, stomach issues, irregular sleep, aversion to intimate touch, weight loss or gain, and distorted body image, to name a few. When stress and fear exist for too long, adrenaline and cortisol continuously course through the body. As a result, the body becomes overtaxed, weakening the immune system increasing vulnerability to sickness, cancer, and other conditions.
Stressors in Daily Life
With the physical, emotional, and mental impacts betrayal trauma can have, it’s no wonder the betrayed partner often experiences a significant disruption in their daily life. It takes immense energy to process the betrayal. It can be challenging to find the vigor to complete even seemingly simple tasks. The lack of energy can affect the ability to perform in work, friendships, parenting, other roles, and relationships. Betrayed partners may find themselves avoiding social situations, missing deadlines, having difficulty connecting, falling behind on tasks, or even struggling with basic self-care needs.
Can you heal from Betrayal Trauma?
Overcoming the pain and heartache from your partner’s betrayal can be complicated. Although for very different reasons, both of you are likely experiencing a myriad of negative thoughts and emotions. As a result, each of you has a different path toward healing. However, if each of you is willing to put in the work and learn to rely on one another, healing as a couple is possible. If your partner isn’t invested or negative emotions collide too often, moving forward together may come to a screeching halt. Though painful and perhaps disappointing, healing can still happen alone if this is the case.
Whether healing as a couple or as an individual, Dr. Skinner says, “To heal from betrayal trauma, betrayed spouses need education, professional help, compassion and support from loved ones. The knowledge of knowing it’s not their fault and they are not alone provides tremendous relief and healing.”
Although betrayal inflicts a devastating blow to the trust within your relationship, it doesn’t mean healing isn’t possible. Bloom for Women offers a haven for you to discover you’re not alone in your journey. While betrayal can affect everyone differently, having someone to relate to may bring a sense of peace and validation to your heart. You deserve to feel supported as you try to process all your emotions.