Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Betrayal Trauma

By Kara Facundo

I remember going to the local rodeo in our hometown that has a large military population. Although it was not unusual to be sitting amongst those in uniform, my attention was drawn to a particular young man, dressed in fatigues, who walked in and sat close by with what I can only assume were his parents. I felt a strong sense of joy for that Mom and Dad who had their son nearby, safe and seemingly well, singing the national anthem with hands over our hearts.

The rodeo did not disappoint and as the evening wore on and the activities wrapped up, we heard the first powerful blast of the fireworks . While all eyes looked up in anticipation of bright colored twinkles descending in the sky, mine caught the dive of that young soldier hitting the ground, shaking in fear. I saw his parents instinctually surround his trembling body with theirs in a protective embrace of comfort and security. Again, my hand went to my heart, filled with compassion and honor of a young man whose life would be forever impacted by unseen pains. Slowly, the crowd around him quieted, somber with a reverence that comes in recognition of a soldier re-experiencing his trauma.

I think of this man often as I work with clients fighting to recover from their own enduring pain of post-traumatic stress disorder. As a community, we would never look at this soldier and say, “what’s the big deal, we’re at a fireworks show, not in a war zone. This happened to you months ago, why aren’t you over this by now?” Instead, we reach out in compassion and understanding of a man who has been through something life altering. We recognize it as significant, to which we cannot not turn a blind eye and tell him to forget about it and move on with his life.

Likewise, betrayal trauma leaves an explosion of emotional and physical stress and catastrophic devastation. This trauma differs from other types of trauma because it involves not only the traumatic experience itself, but also the experience of being betrayed by someone we trusted in a primary relationship. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) manifests itself in Betrayal Trauma just as it does with other forms of trauma, after experiencing an event or events that are considered extremely disturbing or damaging. Research suggests betrayal trauma symptoms are profoundly impactful and can have long-term effects on one’s mental and physical health. Research by Dr. Kevin Skinner confirms that according to the diagnostic and a statistical manual for mental disorders.”(DSM-5), those experiencing Betrayal Trauma qualify for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder according to the symptoms and criteria reported as follows:

Criteria A: Exposure to a traumatic event-Actual or threatened death or injury to the physical integrity of self or others with a response of intense helplessness, fear, or horror. This may not mean the betrayed worries about being killed, however, the research shows that over 60% of participants in Dr. Skinner’s studies were afraid of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, which would undoubtedly be considered one form of threat to life. Additionally, the betrayed may also worry the life they once had is no longer a reality or possibility.

Criteria B: Reliving the event

Recurrent, involuntary, distressing thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares

Criteria C: Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the event

Betrayed partners often start avoiding because they do not feel safe. It is common for places, conditions, or people to trigger reliving the experience, including avoiding talking or thinking about the traumatic event/events.

Criteria D: Negative alternation in thought or mood

It is common for betrayed partners to experience uncharacteristic mood swings. Many hurt partners report increased irritability and lower patience in relationships outside of the betrayal, including strangers, friends, and children with negative expectations about oneself, others, or the world.

Criteria E: Marked alterations in reactivity associated with the traumatic event

Irritable behavior and angry outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behavior, problems concentrating.

Criteria F: Symptom duration for more than 1 month

Criteria G: Clinically disturbing distress

Impairment to social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Historically, typical betrayal trauma responses have been mischaracterized in the therapeutic world as co-dependency, with the hurt partner perpetuating attitudes and behaviors that serve to increase problems within the relationship instead of decreasing them. So, in essence, saying to that young soldier, “you put yourself in proximity to that bomb and now you are paying the price. This trauma is your fault.” In the world of betrayal trauma recovery, we no longer follow the co-dependency model. Rather, a Trauma Model is more likely to explain typical symptoms, thoughts and behaviors of partners experiencing post-traumatic distress. According to Dr. Doug Weiss, PhD, “people who have experienced trauma of all kinds respond in predictable emotional, behavioral, and physiological ways as their minds and bodies attempt to survive and adapt to a shattering and/or dangerous situation.”

We are surrounded daily by those in our communities that wear unseen emotional or physical fatigues of one type or another. Whether it manifests like it did for the young soldier shaking on the ground during a fireworks show, or like it does for the parent silently trembling in the after school kid’s pick-up lane, these individuals are in desperate need for protective arms to surround and comfort them. They need reverence and honor for their life altering trauma. They need support in recognizing the toll it continues to take on their physical and emotional well-being. Most of all, they need encouragement in hoping they can one day enjoy the rodeo again.

If you or a loved one is experiencing Betrayal Trauma, we are here for support. Join us in research based, individual therapy or group counseling courses designed to help you gain a clear understanding of how you are being impacted by betrayal. We can assist you in developing strategies you can implement to begin the healing process now.