In my previous two posts, we deepened our understanding of complex trauma, primarily focusing on the fact that when relational betrayal occurs, the resulting complex trauma often manifests as emotional dysregulation and/or relational disconnection. In this post, we turn our attention to exploring the dynamic, multi-dimensional aspects of betrayal trauma.
In 2006, Dr. Barbara Steffens, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, presented the results of groundbreaking research exploring the trauma experienced by partners of sex addicts. This research introduced the partner-trauma-model to the counseling field and changed our understanding of the ramifications of intimate betrayal. One of the key findings of Steffen’s research was that 69% of all partners of sex addicts met all but Criteria A1 (the criteria regarding life-threatening circumstances) for a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.My 17 years of experience working with betrayed partners and my personal experience as a betrayed partner back this research up. Many betrayed partners exhibit symptoms that qualify them for this diagnosis. I am not arguing with this finding in any way.
However, one of the most significant and largely unrecognized aspects of betrayal is that betrayal unfolds over time. Let me use myself as an example. When I first dragged myself to therapy after discovering my spouse’s extracurricular sexual behaviors, I didn’t know about sexual addiction. I didn’t know about compulsivity, brain chemistry, neuropathways, arousal templates, trauma issues, attachment styles, emotional regulation issues, and all the other things that make up our current understanding about addiction and what drives it. What I did know was that I was in pain and that my husband’s behaviors had violated the trust and safety in our relationship at the deepest levels. I also knew I wanted out of the pain, so I went to therapy to see if we could fix what had happened and move on.
I tried. We tried. Our therapist tried. It didn’t work. You know why? Because that was only the beginning.
The beginning of more discoveries, more lying, more tearful conflicts and fights, and more rounds of betrayal. More rounds of promises broken through discoveries that left me shocked and reeling, in disbelief that my partner was capable of lying to me at the level that he was chronically lying to me.
For most partners, when they enter therapy after the initial discovery of betrayal there is no post-traumatic stress. Instead they are mid-trauma. They are in the middle of an unfolding nightmare of betrayal that has no end. They are dealing with what they have already discovered (the past), what they just found out this week or a few hours before they walked into the therapist’s office, and what they may find out tomorrow (the present). And, they are living with the enormously threatening question about whether their partner’s behavior will happen again (the future).
The past has betrayed them through the discovery that their relationship was not as they thought it was. Their cheating partner has been caught and he has confessed or maybe someone else told his secrets. Regardless, the betrayal has come to light and in a single swipe it has dismantled the reality they thought they were living. It has in redefined the past history of the relationship in ways that are profoundly confusing and disorienting.
The present, too, is fraught with alarming questions. What if there is more betrayal yet to be revealed? What if he won’t stop the cheating? What if it’s not just an affair but is an addiction? What if he relapses and cheats again? What if, what if, what if…? Each question layers on top of the other, escalating fear and anxiety. Also complicating the present is the ongoing fallout from the discovery. As the details of the sexual behaviors come to light, some partners face health issues, or legal issues. Others discover devastating financial consequences attached to the sexual behaviors. Some face public scrutiny and shame if the cheater’s behavior was revealed through an employer, a church community, social media, or some other public forum.
The third level of threat is fear of what may happen in the future. If betrayal could happen once, it could happen again. Being blindsided by betrayal is such an incredibly shocking and awful experience that most partners will do almost anything to not experience it again. The fear that they could somehow let their guard down, begin to heal and maybe even to trust again, only to once more get smacked with betrayal puts most partners into a hyper-vigilant state of watchfulness and fear about the future.
As a result, betrayed partners are dealing with a trauma that is unfolding in multiple dimensions at one time (past, present, and future). In addition, they are in the middle of a dynamic trauma that has not yet ended and that changes in significance, severity, and impact with every new discovery. Each discovery of other lies, other cheating behaviors, and other betrayals alters the shape and meaning of what is happening. The impact grows more severe, the damage to the relationship deepens, hopelessness about the relationship’s survival grows, and all the symptoms described in my previous two posts about complex trauma worsen. This dynamic, multi-dimensional betrayal trauma experience can overwhelm betrayed partners’ coping capacities and put them into a state of long-term chronic insecurity and emotional/psychological danger.
This dynamic, unfolding nature of betrayal means that betrayed partners do not yet know where the edges of their traumatic experience are. When someone’s house burns down and they lose everything, as horrible as that is, there is a sense that the event is over, the level of damage and loss can be assessed, and the rebuilding process can begin. Not so with betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma often feels uncontained, as though there are no edges. You can’t figure out where the lying and cheating started, and you are panic stricken that it may never end as the hits of discovery just keep coming.
The multi-dimensional dynamic nature of betrayal trauma makes it a unique type of trauma both to experience and to treat. Therapists and clients are joining together not to deal with something that has ended and that both parties can wrap their hearts and minds around and begin to address. Instead therapists and clients join together in an unfolding shape-shifting experience that changes daily, hourly, and minute-to-minute.
Treating betrayal trauma is an invitation to participate in a relational rodeo that will stretch one’s agility and capacity as a therapist to its limit. It is a different type of work, and betrayed partners, even when they do not have the language to describe the complex, dynamic, multi-dimensional trauma that they are in the middle of, know that they have been plunged into relational chaos and pain and they need an experienced wrangler to get in the ring with them and help them deal with whatever is coming next.
Steffens, B. A., & Rennie, R. L. (2006). The traumatic nature of disclosure for wives of sexual addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13(2-3), 247-267.