The Trauma of Betrayal, Part Two: How Do You Heal from Betrayal Trauma?

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By Kristin M. Snowden, MA, LMFT

Desperately Seeking Safety

Nearly every person who experiences the trauma of sexual betrayal goes through a period of wanting to ask the betrayer a long list of questions about where, when, and how the betrayal took place. If you are a betrayed partner, you’ve likely asked things like:

  • Were there other affairs?
  • Did you love him/her?
  • When you were getting all those phone calls that I asked you about, was that your affair partner?
  • How could you do this to me?

This need to ask question after question can leave you, the betrayed partner, feeling out of control, emotionally unstable, and just plain furious. And this can shut down your partner and deter positive progress you both may have made in the healing process.

If you previously prided yourself on your emotional stability, this out-of-control questioning can be further traumatizing to you. As can the answers you get from your loved one.

So many clients ask me why they ask these painful questions. Some call this behavior “pain shopping” or “emotional cutting.” However, these questions are simply a matter of a betrayed partner desperately seeking safety. The betrayed partner has been lied to for so long and has had his/her instincts dismissed so often by his/her partner that desperately trying to find the truth is almost inevitable.

Rekindle Your Intuition and Empower Yourself

Whether you are repairing your relationship with your partner or you’re on a new path without him/her, the road to healing will be long. On average, it takes anywhere from eighteen months to three years to recover from a betrayal trauma (and that’s with help and support). There are several steps you need to take to move on from the trauma in a healthy way:

  • Validate that the betrayal is trauma.
  • Work with a professional to find healthy coping skills and outlets for the gamut of painful emotions that follow a betrayal.
    • Do not numb, ignore, distract from, or project your emotions on to others. Your emotions need to be acknowledged and worked through.
  • Rekindle and renew your intuition and instinct.
    • Being gaslighted for several months or years can make you feel crazy. It is important that you take steps to “re-learn” how to listen to your instincts (who’s safe, who’s not), practice healthier boundaries with others, and re-establish what your values are, what your passions are, and who you are as an individual.
  • Understand that because you have experienced a form of trauma, you may also experience symptoms similar to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) where:
    • Visual and other environmental triggers may quickly send you back to an unpleasant memory or experience related to when the trauma occurred (i.e., the discovery, the fallout, a memory when you realized that your partner was lying to you).
    • When this happens, it’s important for you to realize that you are taking your mind, body, and emotional response back to the moment of trauma and you will trigger a fight-or-flight emotional response in your body.
    • It’s important for you (and your partner, if he/she is around) to learn grounding techniques to help you remember that you’re experiencing a memory of the trauma, not the actual trauma, and you (and possibly your partner) are working toward healing and rebuilding safety.

If you and your partner are working together to heal from the betrayal trauma, it is extremely beneficial to seek professional help and/or support groups. Experiencing betrayal can cause extreme emotional flooding, making self-regulation difficult. When the mind and body are in a state of panic or “survival mode,” it is almost impossible to think clearly and rationally. It is important to have safe outlets in the recovery process along with defined “rules of engagement” with your partner (i.e., no discussing the affair unless you’re with your couple’s therapist).

I have seen many families recover from this devastating experience. Those that are willing to put in a great deal of work can create opportunities to heal together, growing levels of empathy, sympathy, and intimacy that were previously unattainable. However, some betrayed partners find the trauam they experienced to be stronger than their desire to stay in the relationship. Growth and healing can arise from that path, as well. Ultimately, the road to recovery is long and difficult, but you can transcend this painful crisis with the right support, guidance, and patience.

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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.