Betrayal Trauma: Why Can’t I Get Over This?

By Rob Jensen

Have you ever heard of Pavlov’s Dogs? Ivan Pavlov was a Russian practicing in the late 1800’s. He conducted an experiment where he taught dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. That experiment led to an expansive understanding of how our brains, learn, remember, and respond to information. Since then, there have been many other groundbreaking experiments and a number of theories about how we learn and retain information for both the short and long term. We call this learning and memory.

Most people, in most conditions, require repetition and practice to learn new information. Think of when you were first introduced to algebra. For me, I needed extensive repetition and practice, and still do, to recall how to properly perform algebra. This learning process is the same across almost all aspects of knowledge and skills that people try to learn, e.g. learning languages, playing instruments, learning athletic skills like dribbling a basketball, or riding a bike. Interestingly, once the learning is performed and some level of memory is formed then the brain is able to recall that information, or at least it can seem familiar, for an extremely long period of time. It’s just like when we have some learning in bike riding or playing piano, if we don’t do that for a while the recall may be a little fuzzy but the learning is rarely completely forgotten.
Many of us aren’t aware that the brain is capable of a different kind of learning which creates long-lasting memories, and even produces physiologic responses (feelings and body reactions) after a single exposure to something. This type of learning is called “One-Trial” learning. Sounds pretty good right? Here is the problem: the only time the brain produces this type of learning and memory is when the fear system is triggered in a part of the brain called the Amygdala. Unfortunately, the Amygdala spends most of its time creating fear and threat responses, rather than assisting in learning sweet basketball skills. This is typically referred to as “fear conditioning” in the literature. This concept seems a bit technical, but it is present in all of our lives everyday. For example if a person had a terrible experience at a violin recital as a kid where they froze, they may never play violin again due to fear. A very traumatic break up can have long lasting effects on fears related to relationships. Even eating a food then throwing it up can be traumatic enough to forever repulse a person from that food. The examples are endless. Sometimes it’s not even the thing or event itself, but a reminder of the event, that can trigger the fear response; a sound, smell, memory, thought, action, feeling. It can be anything. The other incredible thing about fear conditioning is that it can cause “long-term potentiation” where the learned fear response can last years after the traumatic event, if it ever is forgotten at all. Not all fear conditioning is bad, in fact it can be quite useful. It is believed that its purpose is adaptive, meaning that it is meant to help us learn quickly, to keep us alive and help us remember life threatening events.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, “One-trial”, fear response learning can seem maladaptive. Let’s consider a person who learns that their significant other has been unfaithful. The betrayed spouse will, likely, feel that their life, as they knew and dreamed it would be, is over. Indeed their very foundation has been shaken and they experience significant emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical trauma. This betrayal can, and usually does, cause “One-trial” learning through the Amygdala with “long-term potentiation.” What that means is, from that moment on, their spouse and everything about life with that spouse since the betrayal, can trigger a fear response. If the couple tries to reconcile, often both partners struggle to understand why, even with time, it is so hard to “get over it”.
The type of healing needed for One-trail learning is not linear like healing a broken bone where the bone is reset, then casted, and all that is needed is time. Betrayal trauma is more like someone who has a spinal cord injury and loses complete control of their musculoskeletal system. The injury is at the core of functioning and relating. With this type of injury the person must learn to do everything over again from walking to feeding themselves, all the way back to running a complex life in the way they were used to before the injury.
With this understanding it is easy to see why a betrayed spouse would struggle. They have to rely on their normal learning pathway of repetition to relearn how to do everything without the threat response, but in this scenario everything is experienced as a threat! For the betrayed spouse simple things can be triggering like eating, texting, having sex, being apart, being together, driving, parenting, going to the movies, sitting on the couch together, and on and on and on. After the betrayal they must rely on repetition to teach themselves to not feel the threat response around anything, and often everything, about their spouse. It is certainly possible to overcome these types of “fear conditioned” lessons, but it does not happen overnight, and most people will need help and guidance.
In addition to the re-learning the injured partner has to do, the involved partner must learn to do things differently as well and understand both types of learning. What was taken for granted as the “normal” way of doing life, talking, feeling, expressing thoughts, leaving, coming home, eating dinner, watching a movie, etc. must now be viewed through the lens of how each action may contribute to the injury of betrayal. For example, feeling frustrated is a normal human experience. However, now frustration, rather than being a clean emotion, may be experienced as a rejection, criticism or indicator of harsher words or actions directed at the hurt partner. The involved partner would be wise to re-learn how to convey thoughts and feelings in ways that are perceived as safe to their partner if they want to assist in the healing process.
Again, imagine you are the involved partner who injured your partner, now in a wheelchair, not a cast, and they have to relearn everything. It would be normal to feel frustrated and upset at having to adjust to a partner who can’t do what they used to do so easily. If, as you assist in feeding, walking and other basic activities, your emotion is frustration, this will deter your injured partner from trusting you for the help needed to heal. It could even set back the healing process. On the other hand, if you develop patience, compassion, empathy and humility, as you help your partner re-learn to function, you will offer repeated experiences that show your partner that you are safe, kind, reliable, and trustworthy as they heal.
In our work with couples experiencing betrayal trauma, understanding these 2 types of learning and the processes of healing is vital for both partners. Without it, any one of us could hold unrealistic expectations for the healing process and our partners. With it, we can adjust our efforts to be far more effective, adaptive, and ultimately attaining the healing so very much desired and needed.