The Trauma of Betrayal, Part One: What is Betrayal Trauma?

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By Kristin M. Snowden, MA, LMFT

Understanding betrayal trauma is an integral part of unraveling and healing from your relationship crisis. The term “betrayal trauma” refers to the damage that is caused when you experience a betrayal in your relationship that damages the trust, safety, and security of the bond you have with your partner.

You cannot experience betrayal where there is not a deep sense of safety and trust. But when there is a deep sense of safety and trust and you uncover an unknown addiction or infidelity, it can be the most debilitating moment in your life. These forms of betrayal are extremely traumatic, and you can experience devastating mental, physical, and emotional consequences.

Whether the betrayal triggers the end of your relationship or you are planning on repairing intimacy and moving forward together, it is important that you take the time to understand what you can expect from the healing process. Most importantly, you need to know the following: You are not crazy, emotionally unstable, or unlovable, and you are not alone in the process of healing and recovery.

Infidelity (emotional or physical engagement with someone outside your primary relationship, chronic porn use, etc.) and addiction (drugs/alcohol, sex, gambling, etc.) destroy trust and safety, as they often transpire with severe dishonesty, “gaslighting,” denial, minimization, and manipulation. Those in crisis and distress from discovering these realities are struggling with betrayal trauma.

Here are ten ways betrayal trauma manifests:

  1. An unexpected discovery may throw you into an immediate and life-altering crisis that you feel ill-prepared to endure and navigate.
  2. Experiencing betrayal causes you to feel extremely unsafe and insecure in a relationship or with a person where there once was an expectation of safety and security.
  3. Experiencing betrayal can violate your trust in the person who betrayed you. Additionally, the doubt and distrust can extend into other relationships, including trust in yourself.
  4. Experiencing betrayal can destroy your expectation or belief that your partner is supposed to be safe, honor his/her commitment to you, love you, make you and your family a priority, etc.
  5. Cultural and societal norms about infidelity and addiction may shame and embarrass you. This can cause you to isolate or internalize your struggles instead of reaching out to others for help and support.
  6. You may feel a lot of personal shame and blame for your partner’s infidelity or addiction. You may think, “Maybe if I had more sex with him,” or, “Maybe if I was more emotionally supportive and loving toward her,” then he/she would not have had an affair or continued the addiction. (The truth is, your partner’s infidelity/addiction had nothing to do with you.)
  7. You may experience the betrayal of “gaslighting,” a form of deceit and manipulation that your partner engages in to hide/minimize/deny the reality of his/her betrayal. Gaslighting is a term used to describe the act of someone convincing you that your reality is not real. Gaslighting occurs all around us. In your situation, you may have suspected or found evidence of your partner cheating or having an addiction; then, when you confronted him/her about it, he/she not only denied the truth of the betrayal but added something blaming like, “Maybe if you spent less time snooping around and more time working on our marriage we wouldn’t have these problems,” or, “I have no idea where you get these ideas. You are crazy. You should go on medication.” The long-term consequences of living with a gaslighter are deep confusion, low self-esteem, loss of identity, and—most importantly—an inability to plug into and trust your instincts and intuition.
  8. While you are trying to make sense of the betrayal, manage the distress, and navigate the crisis, you could experience further trauma or shame from not being able to cope or manage the crisis as well as you (or others) expect. For instance, if you pride yourself on being even-keeled and emotionally stable, you (or others) may not be tolerant of the emotional volatility that inevitably arises during times of crisis. Similarly, if you feel validated for being a good parent but the recent trauma has caused you to disengage from your children or have less patience with them, falling short of expectations can create shame. Your work ethic, emotional stability, rational thought process, religious practices, and other relationships may suffer greatly.
  9. Where there are circumstances such as sexual infidelity, shared needles, potential for disease contraction, or other physical violations, physical/sexual intimacy can become a drastically different experience for you. It can become painful and scary.
  10. You may be re-traumatized by mental health professionals or loved ones you turn to for support and guidance during the crisis. You may feel like your therapist and others are reinforcing your partner’s gaslighting tactics, causing you to feel as if you are predominantly to blame for your partner’s issues and your emotional instability is an instigator (or justification) for your partner’s acting out behaviors.

In my next post, I will discuss ways to embark upon the healing process. 

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Kristin Minto Snowden, MA, LMFT, specializes in helping individuals and couples recover and heal from addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma, loss, infidelity, and other relationship challenges. She is an adjunct therapist and educator at Avalon Malibu, a treatment center for substance abuse and mental health disorders. Previously, she helped to develop and run the Substance Abuse and Intimacy Disorder Program at Promises Malibu – a comprehensive multi-focused addiction treatment program that was the first of its kind in the world.