Trauma is often discussed in the context of significant disturbing events such as sexual assault, near death experiences, combat, natural disasters, and more. However, the less talked about trauma is the one that comes about after an individual has been betrayed by their romantic partner. Betrayal trauma often shakes up the world, reality, and beliefs one had for their partner before the betrayal. The symptoms experienced can vary, but often times are debilitatingly painful, confusing, and often lonely. The betrayed partner often experiences myriad emotions ranging from sadness to anger to wanting revenge to wanting to go back to when things were normal, and even guilt. To best understand the way betrayal trauma impacts a betrayed partner’s life, it may be helpful to further unpack the definition and presentation of betrayal trauma.
What is Betrayal Trauma?
Similar to other forms of trauma, betrayal trauma can occur after one has experienced an event or betrayal of one’s primary relationship that one considers extremely disturbing or damaging. According to Bessel van der Kolk, expert on trauma and author of renowned book, The Body Keeps the Score, trauma is defined as, “an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories.”
The symptoms of betrayal trauma are deeply impactful and can have long term affects to one’s mental health. Experiencing betrayal can cause various post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and impaired sleeping, depression, anxiety, brain fog, distrust, dissociation, and more. Betrayed partners often feel as if their reality has been shaken to its core. The betrayal(s) have exposed their partner as someone they do not recognize, which can be disorienting and heartbreaking. The betrayed partner now is left with a decision. Should they stay or should they go?
What is the Definition of Betrayal?
Many instances can be considered betrayal. There are the more obvious betrayals such as infidelity, secrets, and lies. Other less commonly discussed forms of betrayal can be discovering one’s partner is a sex addict or demonstrates sexually addictive behaviors. When one discovers that their partner experiences compulsives sexual behavior, it can shatter the view they once had of who they believed their partner was, which can absolutely be painful and traumatic. Additionally, experiencing types of abuse such as domestic violence, emotional, spiritual, sexual, or financial abuse can be a form of betrayal trauma.
Overall, betrayal trauma manifests when one’s reality of their relationship has been upended. The survivor believed their partner was a certain person with certain values and they have learned that not only can they not trust their partner, but question if they can even trust themselves. The betrayed partner will likely grapple with guilt and blame themselves for what they did or didn’t do.
What are the Common Impacts?
The impact of betrayal can onset a wave of questions and emotions regarding their partner and relationship. A betrayed partner may question the authenticity of the relationship, speculate how their partner was able to commit such a considerable act of betrayal, and wonder if the relationship as well as their own health will ever feel normal again. Whether the victim has discovered their partner’s betrayal was on-going or a singular incident, the impact of the trauma can cause severe panic, terror, and helplessness.
Betrayal not only affects the betrayed partner on an emotional level, but physically as well. Physical symptoms the betrayed can experience include their view on their body image, weight loss/gain, sleep disturbances, expressions of rage, stomach sickness, aversion to intimate touch, crying episodes, vomiting, hair loss, and more.
A betrayed partner may experience intrusive thoughts about the betrayal. A heightened state of paranoia and hypervigilance is common and can result in the betrayed partner obsessively searching for evidence of continuing betrayal through means of analyzing their partner’s phone records, internet browser history, and bank statements. Due to the immense amount of thought and cognitive energy going into processing the betrayed, the betrayed partner may struggle to muster up additional concentration ability for other aspect of their life.
Despite the betrayed partner not being at fault for their partner’s betrayal, the betrayed will often experience feelings of shame, guilt, and/or embarrassment around their partner’s betrayal. The betrayed may experience a sense of inadequacy, It’s often common for a betrayed partner to think they could have either provoked their partner or that there was more they could have done to satisfy them.
Daily Living Stressors
Betrayal trauma impacts a partner’s day-to-day existence as much as it impacts their short and long term emotional, physical, and mental health. The betrayed may go into survival mode, especially when dealing with aspects of the relationship in which they depend on their partner. This can look like financial anxieties if the betrayed partner is considering ending the relationship with their partner who they are financially dependent on. Additionally the trauma symptoms can impact the way the betrayed partner shows up for his or her children, at work, with friends and family, and other domains of their life.
Lack of Support
Betrayal can be an isolating experience for a partner. Due to the stress, shame, and embarrassment, a betrayed partner could feel conflicted about reaching out for support. They may not want their family and friends to know what they are going through for several reasons. They may feel as if they betrayal reflects on them in some way or even feel a desire to protect the reputation of their partner.
Betrayal can be incredibly painful and earth shattering. It can be hard to know what to do when faced with a traumatic experience within a relationship that is so significant. If one is experiencing the debilitating symptoms of betrayal trauma, it’s okay to ask for help, lean on one’s support network, and ultimately validate their experience as one that matters and is deserving of empathy. Couples who practice mindful attunement have a stronger chance of healing.