Are You Showing Trauma Symptoms in Your Relationship? Understanding Betrayal Trauma and Its Symptoms

By Kristin Minto Snowden

The primary tools needed to heal from a crisis are:

  • To gain a better understanding of what’s happening.
  • To regain a sense of safety.

This multi-part article on healing from relational/betrayal trauma explores how one can establish and utilize these necessary tools. Before we get to this, however, it’s important to understand the many facets of trauma.

A traumatic event can be loosely defined as the following:

  • Anything that overwhelms your nervous system
  • Anything that catches you off guard
  • Anything that you don’t feel prepared for or know how to handle
  • Anything that makes you feel scared or helpless
  • Anything that causes you to feel shameful
  • Anything where you experience moments when you’re not sure you will make it through the event
  • Any type of real or perceived threat

Do any of those descriptors resonate with you as you’re grappling with your relationship crisis?

Relational trauma, also known as betrayal trauma, is a subcategory of trauma. Betrayal trauma occurs when a trusted loved one has been lying, leading a double life, and/or making choices that deeply harm you. Betrayal trauma can also occur in relationships where there is fear, abandonment, or emotional/physical neglect. Relationships where there is an addiction, infidelity, emotional abuse, or physical abuse are the most common examples of betrayal trauma. For more information on how betrayal is traumatic, please see my previous article on this website.

Another important category of trauma is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (commonly called PTSD). PTSD is a complicated way of saying that even after the traumatic event has occurred—if there’s a beginning and end to the “threatening” stimulus (i.e., a car accident, getting mugged, or discovering your partner has been having an affair)—you may continue to struggle with physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. The length of time and severity of PTSD symptoms vary greatly from person to person, depending on background and the nature of the traumatic event.

The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 criteria for a PTSD diagnosis are as follows:

  • Exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, violence
  • Unwanted, upsetting memories
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Emotional distress after reminder triggers
  • Physical reactivity after triggers
  • Avoidance of stimuli
  • Altered mood: irritability, aggression, risky or destructive behaviors, hypervigilance, startled reaction, trouble sleeping

While many who struggle with betrayal trauma do not fully meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, it can still be helpful to understand that even after the betrayal has been brought into the light, you can grapple with trauma-like symptoms for weeks, months, or years. These symptoms can make it hard to function, regain emotional stability, and feel safe again—all things that are imperative to healing and carrying on.

Discussion of betrayal trauma, its symptoms, and how to overcome them and regain a sense of safety in your relationship will continue in my next posts to this site.