What No One Tells You About Betrayal Trauma

Betrayal in a relationship, whether with a friend, family member, or intimate partner, can be so damaging to the betrayed partner that it can cause symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. These symptoms can include, but aren’t limited to,

  • Nightmares
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Numbing
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Agitation/irritability
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia

Persistent thoughts, both of the good times and the bad, continually run through our minds and we can’t not think about the one who betrayed us.

Our brains are hard-wired to connect to others.  In fact, if we did not bond with others, we could not survive.  Human infants depend on adults to survive and being a member of a tribe kept our ancestors safe from predators and natural elements.  Bonding with others has been shown to reduce blood pressure and decrease stress hormones. In order to be happy in life, we learn to trust others.  We let down our guard and let others into our lives. When a relationship is intimate, we let down our guard and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We allow ourselves to be seen.  We believe the other person will be there for us in good times and bad and will have our backs. We feel appreciated and believe that they will love us unconditionally. 

When the trust of a relationship is violated, our brains experience that loss of safety as danger.  In our primitive brains, we believe we will not survive without this person and our systems go on high alert.  In an intimate relationship, the discovery of infidelity or other betrayal causes severe distress. One psychologist called the period immediately after the discovery of betrayal as the “crazy time”.  It is a shocking as a sudden death – in fact, it is the death of the relationship. Esther Perel, the famed relationship therapist and author, actually says that the relationship you once knew is over after a betrayal and you have to mourn that relationship before you are ready to move on.  

Despite the seriousness of the shock of betrayal, it is important to note that with work, a relationship can not only survive but also thrive after the betrayal is discovered, if both partners are willing to work through the meaning of the betrayal and look at themselves unflinchingly.  In fact, some partners find that their relationship gets better because the of the work they do to overcome the betrayal. There are two main things to consider. The betrayed partner is going to go through a “crazy time”. During this period, there will be a lot of anger, a lot of guilt and hurt and a lot of patience required.  An acceptance of all the feelings that arise will require much work on the part of both partners. Answering questions as honestly as possible and as many times as needed is a good first step; however, there is a caveat necessary here. If the betrayal involves a sexual infidelity, in most cases, it is not helpful for the betrayed partner to know every single detail of the betrayer’s encounters, because this can lead to a deeper traumatization once those images find space in their repetitive thought patterns.  Help your partner heal by allowing for self-care, encourage rest, healthy eating, exercise, meditation, massage, journaling and personal therapy or spiritual work. When you are ready to discuss the meaning of the betrayal, seek counseling to work through how to share and how to be vulnerable with one another and restore trust in the relationship.

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