Understanding Betrayal Trauma

Here’s the thing about Betrayal Trauma.

It makes you feel like you are losing your mind. It puts you on an emotional rack and pulls you in opposite directions until you are begging for mercy or you break and ricochet over to one of the extremes just to find some relief.

I wish that when I was going through the many rounds of betrayal I experienced that I knew then what I know today. More information would have helped me feel normal and I would have been able to be kinder to myself when my emotions and behavior felt out of control. At the time I did not understand the science and theory behind the way that we pair-bond and what happens when that attachment is damaged. I only knew that discovering sexual betrayal in my relationship changed me overnight.

Every betrayed partner is dealt two blows at once when they discover their spouse’s sexual behavior. Blow number one is the gut punch of betrayal; a breathtaking breach in trust that changes your relationship in permanent ways. Blow number two is the shocking realization that your partner has been extravagantly and expertly lying and manipulating reality in order to cover up their behaviors. These blows smash into your heart and in an instant plunge you into a whole new world.

When I experienced this, in seconds, the person who I depended on and was deeply connected to went from being a source of support and companionship to being a source of pain, fear and deep uncertainty. My relationship, which had created a stable base from which I was able to operate in the world, was suddenly a rickety, wobbly mess.

Here is what I wished I had known then about what was happening to me. This is the science behind the tsunami of feelings betrayed partners so often experience.

Getting Attached

When we pair up into long-term relationships we begin a process of bonding with one another that is a beautiful and profound intertwining of two lives. In this mysterious attachment, we actually start to physically operate as one biological organism. The book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment says, “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing and the levels of hormones in our blood.”

As our bond grows through perhaps getting married, combining our homes, having children together, or working toward common goals, we become more and more interdependent with one another. This is not codependency I’m talking about. This is healthy, normal, mutual dependency. It is what makes relationships fulfilling and sought after.

We all want this special someone to attach to and intermingle our lives with. In fact, attachment researchers talk about the paradox of attachment saying, “The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become,” (Attached). So the better our relationships are in terms of providing us with a sense of, “I can depend on you” the more we are able to move fully into the rest of our lives, face insecurity and take risks. In this way our adult relationships mirror our relationship with our parents as children; both, when functioning well, provide us with a secure base from which we can enter our worlds with confidence.

Breaking Bad

If it is true that when we attach to someone healthy and functional, it feels good and provides a sense of security, grounding, safety and wholeness, then the opposite is also true.  When we attach to someone who is perhaps say, sexually addicted, it can affect our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health in teeth rattling ways.

Instead of grounding us, it puts us in free fall. Instead of security we experience fear. Because our partner has caused us such deep pain, they now feel like a threat to our well-being rather than a source of comfort and rest.  Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples says that betrayal traumas, “overwhelm coping capacities and define the…relationship, as a source of danger rather than a safe haven in times of stress.”  

When that special someone that we have bonded with betrays us it messes us up because all of a sudden the person who is our ‘secure base’ in the world has caused us untold pain and robbed us of our sense of safety.  The relationship we thought was safe now feels painful and threatening.

This profound and sudden change in our sense of security and connection sends our bodies into panic and lights up the fear center in our brain like a giant Christmas tree. When our fear center goes into overdrive our ability to think and reason diminishes quickly and our ability to function takes a nose dive. This is the trauma part of betrayal trauma. It is the enormous fear and panic response that our bodies are plunged into when our bond with our partner is threatened or severed.

For most betrayed partners this experience is not short-lived. Betrayal has long-term impacts on the ability to trust, to feel safe, and to reconnect and re-engage with openness and vulnerability.


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