By Kristin Snowden
Once you develop a better understanding and language for what your mind and body are going through during your relationship crisis, as presented in part one and part two of this three-part series, it’s important to explore how you can feel safe again. Safety is paramount to healing and establishing a new reality—a reality where you come to terms with the fact that your trusted love one has harmed you deeply but you will survive.
Is the Threat Still There?
Betrayal trauma refers to the damage that is caused when you experience betrayal in your primary relationship that damages the trust, safety, and security of the bond you have with your partner. You cannot experience betrayal if there wasn’t a deep sense of safety and trust. Infidelity and addiction destroy trust and safety in relationships, as they often occur with severe acts of dishonesty, denial, minimization, and gaslighting. Therefore, it’s important to explore—ideally with a trained professional—whether you’re still in an environment fraught with dishonesty, denial, minimization, and gaslighting.
- Is your partner following through with his/her commitments to change or end damaging behaviors?
- Are you receiving the help and support you need?
- Are you receiving validation of your concerns, or do you continue to feel gaslighted?
As long as you’re experiencing incidences of betrayal, your emotions and body will respond as if you’re under threat and in crisis. If you’re in a state of crisis due to your partner’s infidelity or addiction, explore what your partner is doing to repair the situation. Is your partner taking on his/her part of the responsibilities in managing this crisis? Is he/she making it to necessary appointments and seeking healthy support such as his/her own therapy and 12-step meetings? Has he/she expressed willingness to change jobs, social circumstances, or engage in more transparent behaviors to support his/her process of change?
Do You and Your Partner Have the Right Kind of Support and Help?
Look at whether you are surrounded by loved ones and professionals who are stabilizing and safe. People struggling with the effects of betrayal trauma often say they feel re-traumatized by mental health professionals and/or loved ones who make them feel as if they are to blame for their relationship issues or that their “emotional instability” is an instigator for the infidelity. Thus, it is important that the people who support you do so in empathetic, non-shaming ways.
With help from your support system, you and your partner need to develop “Rules of Engagement” that will help you manage the high emotional reactivity that exists after uncovering infidelity. Use the help of a professional to explore topics like:
- When and where do you and your partner discuss adversarial issues and conflicts that surface? Do you wait for a therapist to be present?
- Will there be a separation? For how long?
- What behavioral changes must occur to help you feel safe again? A phone tracker? A polygraph? Regular drug testing? A guided/supported therapeutic disclosure? What happens to social media accounts and financial accounts?
- What do you need to feel safe sexually? Is STD testing necessary? How do you feel about sex now? Does sex need to be taken off the table until you feel safe again?
Normalize, Don’t Stigmatize
Betrayal trauma is complex and multifaceted. The more you can educate yourself and pay mindful attention to what you’re experiencing (both physically and emotionally) and why you’re experiencing it, the more likely you are to find that your symptoms are manageable. The following items are things you should keep in mind while you are walking through the process of healing from betrayal trauma:
- Know your shame triggers. Uncovering a partner’s addiction or affair can set off a tidal wave of shame (“How did I not know?” “Maybe if I was more attractive or more successful or whatever, my partner wouldn’t have done this.” Etc.) Explore these “shame voices,” identify them, figure out where they came from, and filter out guilt and fear versus shame. I would encourage you to do this with help from a mental health professional.
- Help your partner understand what you’re going through. Hopefully, your partner is also seeing a mental health professional who is educating him/her on the many facets and consequences of betrayal trauma. Still, you should share what you are feeling and experiencing. I often suggest the communication format of “When you do this/say this, the story I tell myself is (blank).” This helps your partner understand what you’re going through. You may also want to add what you need from him/her to feel safe. Every time you’re struggling due to betrayal trauma, it’s an opportunity for your partner to turn toward you and show empathy.
- Give yourself some grace. While you are trying to make sense of the betrayal, you could experience further trauma or shame from not behaving or coping as well as you expect yourself to behave or cope. For instance, if you pride yourself on being a good parent, but the recent trauma has caused you to disengage from your children or have less patience with them, that can cause further emotional damage. Your work ethic, emotional stability, rational thought process, religious practices, and other relationships may suffer greatly. Show yourself some grace. You are in a very serious crisis. You’ve never done this before. It’s going to be messy, and scary, and uncertain. That’s okay.
Reclaim Parts of Your Life
Experiencing betrayal can do a number on your self-esteem, and the crisis that ensues can tear apart your identity and everyday life. It’s important that you take steps to reclaim these aspects of your life after the immediate crisis subsides. Explore on your own and with supportive friends and professionals what you need and want from this new life you’re living. What brings you joy? Are there aspects of your life that you once loved that you might have lost due to the betrayal and ensuing crisis (i.e., a spiritual practice, certain people you spend time with, self-care activities, hobbies, etc.) These are deep, complicated questions to explore, but they’re extremely important parts of your recovery and healing.
Heal Your “Trauma” Brain
As discussed in part one and part two of this article, trauma can have a significant, long-term effect on your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. There are a lot of involuntary neurological/physiological reactions that you’re exposed to when dealing with stress and crisis. Part of your healing and recovery is often incorporating trauma therapy that helps you “heal” your “trauma/survival” brain. Types of treatment that might help include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing (SE), neurofeedback, meditation, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and more.
Rekindle Your Intuition
Experiencing betrayal and lies at the hands of your trusted loved one can be the most debilitating experience in your life. The very nature of betrayal trauma involves your partner manipulating, gaslighting, and lying to you regularly, often over a long period of time. The destroyed trust, safety, and security can contribute to your losing confidence in your basic decision-making abilities and questioning your identity, values, and intuition. Your intuition is a primal drive that helps keep you safe and helps you avoid further victimization. Therefore, it is imperative that part of your recovery and treatment includes steps to rekindle and reconnect with your instincts and intuition.
Rekindling your intuition is a complicated process of shame resilience, trauma treatment, and reconnecting with your instinctive, often subconscious thoughts. Because your “gut” is often subconscious, you must slow down, pause, and explore what it’s really saying to you. At first, you’re not going to be good at “hearing” your intuition. You may continue to let others gaslight you by telling you what your reality “should” be, rather than honoring your own experience. You can also over-correct to self-righteousness and an unwillingness to accept outside influence or feedback. It’s important to realize you’re not going to have a perfect balance. Be prepared to make amends for over-asserting your instincts. You may be wrong sometimes.
Knowledge is power. The more you can educate yourself and your partner during your relationship crisis, the more navigable and hopeful the process can get. Ask for help. Seek out professionals. Educate yourself. You will survive this.