Many betrayed partners come into therapy in a state of shock and disbelief about their partner’s extracurricular sexual behaviors. They sit on my couch and tell me they had no idea, not even an inkling, of what their significant other was doing. I listen to them, and I know that their shock and surprise about what they have discovered is real, and they truly did not know what was happening. But I also know that they did know.
I know this because in the weeks that follow they inevitably tell me stories about their relationship and various clues they overlooked. I hear stories about previous infidelities; about finding pornography, condoms, and secret Internet accounts; about changes in the nature of their sex lives and their sense of emotional intimacy; about conversations and denials and all sorts of other things indicating a problem existed. Yet they still did not know. Even though they knew.
How does this happen? How do they know but not know? And where does the part of them that does know go?
Jennifer Freyd is a researcher who has done pioneering work on the concept of betrayal trauma. What initially piqued her interest in this topic was the question of why people don’t allow themselves to see the betrayal that is unfolding right in front of their eyes, and why do they not remember the traumas after they’ve have happened. In short, she has explored the question, “What would make us literally not see and not know that which is easily seeable and knowable?”
To formulate an answer to this question, Freyd connected what we know about the nature of human attachment with what we know about the ways in which we are hardwired to respond to traumatic events.
Attachment theory tells us that we have a primal need and desire to attach emotionally, and that the more securely attached we are to our partners, the freer we feel to take risks and to become vulnerable with our partner. A secure attachment with our partner also creates significant interdependence. We intertwine our lives, relying and depending on one another emotionally, sexually, socially, spiritually, physiologically, and financially.
This is why relationships inherently require vulnerability and the willingness to risk. It is also why trust is at the center of functional relationships. We simply must trust our partners if we’re going to be dependent on them.
When our secure connection with our partner is threatened by betrayal and our trust is ruptured, we perceive this trauma as a threat to our very survival, and we react to that trauma in one of three hardwired ways. Basically, when we sense danger, whether physical or emotional, the threat center of our brain (the amygdala) lights up and our fight/flight/freeze response kicks in. We fight by confronting the threat in order to remove it and return to safety, or we flee by withdrawing from the threat to a place where we are safe, or we freeze, staying in place while our body shuts down and our minds go numb.
Generally, if we can fight or flee, we will. However, when fight and flight are not available (or are perceived as unavailable), our freeze response kicks in.
What Freyd has argued is that the behaviors of not seeing and not knowing are often forms of the freeze response. Rather than confronting our cheating partner or withdrawing from the relationship, we go numb and fail to witness and process information about the betrayal. This allows us to continue operating in the relationship as though it remains safe.
When we combine infidelity with our attachment needs and our inborn response to trauma, it creates the following equation: Betrayal injures our sense of safe connection to our partner. Because of the interdependence that is the heart of secure bonding, these attachment injuries are felt as primal dangers, threatening our sense of survival. The more we feel our survival is threatened, the more we will take steps to try to preserve our attachment in order to preserve our survival. And one effective way to preserve our sense of safe connection is to not know what we know and not see what we see.
This survival-based form of not seeing and not knowing is called betrayal blindness.
Please understand, betrayal blindness is not a conscious choice. Rather, it is an instinctual survival response that unconsciously kicks in, causing us to not allow one plus one to equal two in ways that would rob us of our primary relationship and the sense of safety and connection it provides.
Sadly, the unconscious coping mechanism of betrayal blindness causes many betrayed partners to ignore, squelch or disregard their gut – the inner voice that prompts them to pay attention, to notice, and to be aware. An essential part of healing for betrayed partners is to move out of betrayal blindness by reconnecting to their gut, listening to it, trusting it, and allowing what it is saying to come into their awareness.
Next week we will look more deeply at the issue of listening to your gut.