INFIDELITY / BETRAYAL TRAUMA
“What moves betrayal into the realm of trauma is fear and terror. If the wound is deep enough, and the terror big enough, your bodily systems shift to an alarm state. You never feel safe. You’re always on full-alert, just waiting for the hurt to begin again.”
― Patrick J. Carnes
Betrayal is a unilateral decision to defy the agreements in a relationship that provide safety, trust, and stability without letting the other person know. – Heather Putney
When betrayal happens in intimate relationships, the impact can be earth-shattering. The person you have placed the most faith in, has obliterated your trust, not only in them, but even worse, yourself. Betraying partners frequently maintain the deception through gaslighting, defensiveness minimization, and denial which can cause their significant other to ignore or discount their instincts and feel like they are going crazy. Sometimes betrayed partners engage in safety seeking behaviors such as checking phones, emails, financial records to help make sense out of their internal conflict.
Whether you are experiencing infidelity from a single affair, or chronic infidelity due to addictive behaviors, the resultant betrayal trauma has many similarities. These discoveries frequently lead to fear, anxiety, and other PTSD-like symptoms. Please know that these betrayals were not your fault.
If your partner is struggling with sexual addiction, please understand the seeds of the addiction are typically planted in childhood, long before you ever met your partner, as a dysfunctional coping strategy to deal with life’s stressors, losses, pain and/or trauma. When loved ones turn to addictive substances and/or behaviors instead of their significant others, a toxic dance of distance, distrust and destruction ensues.
How did I not see it?
Unlike other addictions, which have more discoverable signs (ex: smells, drug paraphernalia, physical impacts: slurred speech, dilated pupils etc.), sexual addiction is much harder to detect. With smart phones in our pockets, unending
Advances in technology, combined with a highly sexualized society,, carefully hidden, sets partners up to be blindsided when the addiction becomes unmanageable and inevitable discovery occurs. Whether you had suspicions or were caught completely unaware, let me be clear; this was NOT your fault! The behavioral patterns that led to the addiction likely started WAY before you ever got together.
How can I ever trust myself, let alone someone else again?
The discovery that your life is not what you thought it was, makes you question your thoughts, feelings, instincts, safety, and even your sanity. Often times partners are manipulated, deceived, and gaslit into believing they are nagging, stupid, crazy, emotional or ungrateful in order to deflect from or protect their own addiction or deceptive behavior. Gaslighting, a term derived from a 1938 play by the same name, is a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser intentionally manipulates the reality of another in order to cause them to question their own sanity, discount their “gut” or intuition, feel crazy, and accept blame for the relational problems. Gaslighting is a gradual process and it is hard to recognize when you are on the receiving end; especially when it comes from the person you love and trust the most.
The good news is that healing IS possible. Once discovery of the deception occurs and you take off the distorted lens thrust upon you through which you perceived yourself, your partner, and your reality, you can see clearly once again. Empowered with clarity of the truth you can begin to mend the strained relationship with self and reflect back on when your intuition was correct, and begin to trust in it again.
Can a relationship survive betrayal?
Restoring trust in your partner is possible, but the likelihood of this restoration depends on the interaction of many variables which include: the level of commitment by both partners to recovery and healing, whether or not trust has been broken previously, the presence of children, finances, religious or spiritual values, the quality of the bond pre-betrayal, mental health issues, and the presence of previous betrayals or trauma by previous relationships or family of origin to name a few. No one partner is able to heal the relationship by themselves. While you can find hope and support by others in the recovery community, please do not compare your relationship to others. Each couple’s healing journey is unique. Whether you find yourself single or partnered when you arrive at your journey’s end is not a reflection of your value or worth. Your worth is not defined by your relationship or your partner’s level of commitment to healing. However, finding good therapeutic support from knowledgeable professionals can help you sort through the impact of the betrayal and enable you to move forward with new confidence towards a brighter future whether that be as a couple or individually.
The impact of deception and staggered disclosure
When discovery occurs, it is not uncommon for the betraying partner to deny, minimize or deflect the reality of the situation. When this is not possible, many admit to only the amount of deception that they believe their partner knows. They may justify that they are sparing their partner from unnecessary pain with the old adage “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.” However, nothing could be further from the truth. When the lies come out by “trickle effect” otherwise known as “staggered disclosure” the amount of trust and stability that has been re-established since the last disclosure disappears and the couple hits a new rock bottom. One partner described this experience as “death by a thousand cuts.”
Frequently the betraying partner withholds information out of shame and fear of losing the relationship. The irony is, the act of continued lying and deception actually MORE likely to cause the dissolution of the relationship compared to a full disclosure of the deceit with demonstrated remorse, empathy for their partner, commitment to recovery and impeccable integrity (NO LYING) moving forward. One partner stated “I would take the ugly truth over a pretty lie anyday!”
The mutual gift of a therapeutic full disclosure
When partners are not given the truth, they struggle with the ability to make sense out of their new reality. It can make it more challenging for them to reconnect with their intuition and move confidently forward in their life. It also robs them of the opportunity to make an empowered choice whether to stay or leave the relationship.
A therapeutic full disclosure is a therapist guided sharing of the betrayal in a non-defensive, non-triggering and cohesive way. This differs significantly from “information dumps” by guilt-ridden partners outside of a therapeutic context which may result in confusing, triggering or omitted information necessary for the restoration of trust in the relationship. I will liken the difference to dumping a 1000 piece puzzle onto a table without an image to help put it together. Although all the “puzzle pieces” may be present, the partners are left to sort out the chaos of the details in order to make sense of the image. In a therapeutic full disclosure, a trained therapist or coach (CSAT, CPTT or AAPSATS trained) guides the betraying partner to share the truth with a non-triggering level of detail in a coherent way that paints the picture of the partner’s new reality in a digestible way. Although this experience is still distressing, when done properly, it can be an act of intimacy and renewed progress towards re-establishing trust in the relationship.
A therapeutically supported full disclosure also gives the betraying partner the opportunity to revisit the timeline with increased insight into the contributing factors, mounting costs and increasing unmanageability which supports their recovery efforts. Also, when betraying partners move back into integrity, they get to leave behind the shame that bound them and prevented them from letting their partners in and receive the healing gift of true intimacy and acceptance.
When betraying partners give their companions the gift of truth, it sends a message that they are willing to put their partner’s pain above their own discomfort. It helps the partner reconstruct their reality and reconnect with their intuition and make an empowered choice whether to stay or leave the relationship. If a partner chooses to stay in the relationship from a stance of empowerment, the betraying partner receives the gift of validation and acceptance at a level they have likely never experienced in their life. This gift CAN NOT be received in any other way but through honesty and acceptance.
Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.” — Brené Brown
Why do the smallest things overwhelm me?
Betrayal trauma results in a post traumatic stress response that causes biochemical changes in your body that alter your ability to function normally. As evidence or reminders of the deception mount, your body may remain in a highly triggered, hypervigilant state, ready to fight, flight, or freeze to keep yourself safe. Triggers are unexpected and can come out of nowhere. Your body experiences small reminders of the infidelity and betrayal as if they are happening in the present.
The devastating effects of betrayal trauma are real. We understand and are ready to help. Our clinicians are trained and specialize in working with partners in both individual and group settings. We offer an environment where you can be heard and supported, and begin to heal.
The beginning stages of healing are rough on both partners. It is important that both parties get specialized support from well-trained clinicians. In our work with betrayed partners, we focus on helping them cope with their new reality, find a supportive community of healing, learn new coping strategies to manage and reduce triggers and flashbacks, connect with their inner-resilience, restore their trust in their instincts and ability to trust others, and find themselves again.
Trauma, not Codependency
Our clinicians adopt a Prodependence stance (https://prodependence.com/) that rejects the idea that partners of addicts inherently suffer from codependency. Prodependence favors an attachment-informed way of working with families impacted by addiction. In addition, our clinicians are trained from the Multidimensional Partner Trauma Model through AAPSATS (American Association of Partners of Sex Adicts Trauma Specialists https://www.aapsats.org) and IITAP (International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals https://www.iitap.com) that respects the traumatic impact of betrayal trauma and informs partner-sensitive treatment interventions to help the couple heal.