Understanding Betrayal Trauma, And Why it's so Hard To Love Again

By Lisa Bigelow | | Dating
Understanding Betrayal Trauma, And Why it's so Hard To Love Again
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Trust. Safety. Security. These feelings form the bedrock of stable relationships and the themes that arise again and again when listening to stories of those recovering from betrayal trauma. When you discover that what you once knew as truth is actually a lie, suddenly nothing—and no one—is trustworthy.

“Betrayal trauma is different from other forms of trauma in that it is perpetrated by someone who is supposed to care for, nurture or protect you,” said Katie Lear, a professional counselor specializing in trauma.

“Child abuse is often a form of betrayal trauma, because the abuser is often a parent, relative or caregiver who is very close to the child. However, betrayal trauma can also occur in other settings: for example, a spouse who is physically violent or a doctor who performs unethically.”

Infidelity by a long-term partner is a common cause of betrayal trauma.

“When you are betrayed by someone you loved and trusted, it leaves an emotional wound, a trauma, that can result in low self-esteem, fear of getting hurt again, and anxiety or depression symptoms,” said psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, author of “It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction.”

“The first thing you need to do is accept the betrayal,” Tessina said. “Don’t blame yourself. The fault is with the person who betrayed you. Once you are betrayed, the healing process is to learn to develop trust again.”

Understanding betrayal trauma

The feelings of safety and trust that we take for granted with our partners contribute meaningfully to our sense of well-being. But discovering an unknown truth, such as infidelity, dramatically alters how we perceive ourselves and others, leading to feelings of emotional, psychological and physical devastation.

That occurs because the betrayer often uses lies, denial, manipulation or minimization to gaslight the victim into believing that valid suspicions are really the work of a paranoid or “crazy” mind.

“When trauma is inflicted by someone who is close or trusted, the traumatic effects are often more intense and specific because the survivor has to confront not just the details of what has occurred, but a challenge to his or her worldview,” said Lear.

“The world may feel unsafe, and it can be extremely difficult to trust people,” Lear added. “People with this kind of trauma may be more likely to experience dissociation, a coping mechanism in which people detach or distance themselves from reality in order to handle an overwhelming situation.

“Sometimes, when an abuser is a parent or loved one, it can be difficult to reconcile feelings of care for the person with the reality of what they have done, which can cause deep conflict for the survivor.”

Betrayal trauma symptoms

Because betrayal trauma can only occur when a true bond is broken, the effects can reverberate for years. Sometimes, people never seem to recover. But others take the experience and use it to help others.

“I experienced betrayal trauma,” said survivor Ron Blake. “I almost lost my life one night from domestic violence. He was my partner of 10 years.”

Blake opened up about his experience through a TEDx talk and at events around the United States.

“I have personally walked up to and met nearly 32,000 strangers, one by one, who have shared their own stories of traumas and triumphs,” Blake said. “These individuals have shared those stories in 93 languages on 486 giant foam poster boards I have.

“I will for the rest of my life work on reconciling love and betrayal.”

Author and founder of Consent Awareness Network Joyce Short took a similarly effective route.

“I’m the author of ‘Carnal Abuse by Deceit, How a Predator’s Lies Became Rape,’” Short said. “My book was the first to chronicle a true story of rape by fraud and identify the elements that make betrayal trauma a crime.”

The Consent Awareness Network fights for new legislation around the U.S. and the world to codify consent in our laws.

“People who betray you deceive you into a sexual contract,” Short said. “They’re not seducing you; they’re sexually assaulting you. Properly defining consent in our laws will prevent betrayal trauma.”

Blake and Short took an aggressive approach to their recovery, but most who experience betrayal trauma won’t embark on a lifelong journey to educate others or effect change. Common effects of betrayal trauma include:

  • Damage to other relationships due to emotional volatility or problems trusting others.
  • Loss of interest in important priorities, such as work or religious practices.
  • Fear of or lack of interest in physical or sexual intimacy.
  • Feeling guilty because you’ve been told you’re “co-dependent” or “enabling” the betrayer—this may even occur in therapy.
  • Fear of vulnerability that prevents forming new relationships.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or unable to manage everyday tasks because of the betrayal, such as unwillingness to leave home or spend time with friends and family.

Signs of betrayal trauma

Couples counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center Raffi Bilek believes that people with signs of betrayal trauma behave similarly to those with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“I specialize in working with couples where there has been infidelity,” Bilek said. “This is often a cause of betrayal trauma. The traumatic reaction some people have when they have been cheated on, in fact, looks an awful lot like PTSD.”

Bilek has observed:

  • Complaints of intrusive thoughts that the victim cannot get out of his or her mind.
  • Hypervigilance and hyperarousal, where the victim lives in fear while waiting for the other shoe to drop.
  • Numbness and emotional constriction.

Symptoms commonly associated with PTSD are common in people experiencing betrayal trauma, but “I’d say more people struggle with minimizing their hurt and excusing their partner’s behavior, rather than having too strong a reaction to betrayal trauma,” said marriage counselor Brent Sweitzer.

Those who aren’t sure whether they’re experiencing true betrayal trauma should seek professional counseling to determine the severity of their symptoms. In general, true betrayal trauma includes:

  • Social isolation and withdrawal from others.
  • Becoming obsessed with mentally revisiting positive and negative moments.
  • A loss of self-esteem and a rise in self-doubt.
  • Reduced ability to trust others.
  • Nightmares.
  • Hypervigilance and suspiciousness.
  • Avoidance of new relationships.

Betrayal trauma recovery

Don’t underestimate how the sometimes-subtle effects of betrayal trauma can affect your well-being. If you believe you exhibit signs of betrayal trauma, it’s best to seek professional help. But as you work through recovery, George S. Everly, an author in Psychology Today, suggests:

Exercising caution when looking back. Those who experience betrayal trauma sometimes blame themselves, and when that occurs, so can self-destructive behavior. “Do not compromise your integrity, the person you are, or the person you believe you can be,” Everly said. These behaviors could include abusing alcohol or drugs, or even a rebound relationship.

Practice success. In addition to avoiding self-destructive behavior, actions such as eating a diet of healthy foods you like, continuing to participate in loved activities, exercising and getting enough rest are habits that are good for you (and feel good doing).

Be honest about what’s best for you. Keeping a journal and being honest about your ups and downs can help you recover. Spend time with friends and family who care about you and will support you as you recover. “If the people around you aren’t reliable, you’ll behave more like them,” Tessina said. “Hang around trustworthy, reliable people who keep their word and don’t make promises they can’t keep. Your behavior will improve and so will your self-trust.”

Take a healthy risk. Learning to trust again can help you find a partner who will accept you for who you are. And that can help you live the life you deserve. “If you have a lot of anxiety, you don’t trust yourself,” said Tessina. “Learn to face your fears and figure out what to do if anything you’re afraid of actually happens. Once you know how to take care of yourself, your anxiety will fade and your trust will grow.”

It’s always worth it to try again

Ultimately, controlling anxiety and gaining control are essential to recovery, as self-trust encourages the development of new relationships. But building trust with others also includes being trustworthy yourself.

“Keep your promises, especially to yourself,” said Tessina. “Be fair, be nice, and don’t take advantage of people or let them take advantage of you. When you feel trustworthy, you’ll trust yourself.”

It’s also important to know yourself, both emotionally and practically. And when you trust yourself and know your worth, you’ll attract those who share those same values.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.