Experiencing betrayal at the hands of someone you love and trust can be the most debilitating experience in your life. This is best explained with the theory of betrayal trauma. “Betrayal trauma” refers to the mental, physical, and emotional damage that is done when you experience betrayal in a trusted relationship through emotional abuse, physical abuse, infidelity, lies, or manipulation. It destroys the trust, safety, and security of the relational bond. At the same time, it bleeds into the betrayed partner’s personal well-being and extended relationships. Therefore, understanding the existence and complexities of betrayal trauma is vital to effective treatment.
Betrayal trauma puts betrayed partners in a quandary where the person they’ve loved and trusted the most is also the person who’s harmed them. This creates a torturous, emotionally charged rollercoaster of wanting to reconcile and repair the relationship but then feeling fear, disgust, and rage. The destroyed trust, and the loss of safety and security contribute to betrayed partners losing confidence in their basic decision-making abilities and questioning their identities, values, and intuition. This also results in the loss of their identity and reality, self-doubt, and isolation/disconnection from all relationships. Other symptoms of betrayal trauma include deep shame, confusion, self-blame, emotional instability, depression, anxiety, and difficulty executing basic life functions. Worse still, further trauma can occur if an untrained therapist does not properly understand and respect the multi-layered complexities present with betrayal trauma.
The concept and treatment techniques of betrayal trauma must be shared with all clinicians working in couples counseling, addiction treatment, and divorce and infidelity recovery. This information must also be shared with the clients themselves. If not, we risk improperly diagnosing or pathologizing the betrayed partner, who is already in a deep state of fear, confusion, and mistrust.
An untrained clinician who doesn’t know the right questions to ask or doesn’t properly assess the presenting symptoms through the lens of betrayal trauma will often view betrayed partners symptoms as histrionic, emotionally volatile, or even borderline. Because of this, betrayed partners often become the “identified patient,” viewed as being the cause of the marital problems when, in reality, the betrayal is the most significant presenting issue. The betrayal has created the trauma and the resultant crisis that need to be addressed.
Similar to other victims of trauma, betrayed partners are often unable to verbalize or rationalize their emotional state. Nor can they provide evidence of why they’re struggling or unhappy. Months or years of being lied to, emotionally abused, and gaslighted creates in betrayed partners an intangible but insidious damage that often manifests as emotional floundering, pushing the betraying partner away, then desperately seeking assurances from the betraying partner that he or she will fully return to the relationship.
Even though the betrayed partner did not create the crisis, he or she tends to be far more reactive and dysregulated when compared to the betrayer. In fact, the betraying partner tends to be disconnected from his or her feelings and to minimize his or her part in the relationship crisis and the trauma being experienced by the betrayed partner.
Untrained clinicians trying to conduct couples or individual therapy with betrayed partners who are trying to heal after uncovering an affair or sexual addiction can often see the reactivity and dysregulation of betrayed partners and assume the real issue, the real cause of the betrayed partner’s issues, lies within the betrayed partner. This is a mistake. The betrayed partner is simply responding in a very normal, reasonably expected way to the incredible pain of betrayal. Nevertheless, betrayed partners are often blamed for the marital crisis and judged and even pathologized for their explosive overreactions.
Therapists and betrayed partners must understand that a betrayed partner’s emotional volatility is not reflective of an emotional or psychological issue within the betrayed partner. Rather, it is a normal and expected symptom of the relationship betrayal, the same as any other reaction to deep trauma (such as death in the family, loss of a job, serious illness, etc.) Without this knowledge and approach, treatment of betrayed partners will be ineffective, and the clinician may further harm the client.