These days, the word “trauma” has become commonplace, often describing any number of minor discomforts. As a result, the notion of being traumatized by a partner’s betrayal might seem like an exaggeration, minimizing the validity of this life altering reality for many who are significantly impacted and in pain.
One client recalled the discovery of their partner’s betrayal as follows. “I was alone. I went downstairs and curled up on the couch. I felt like a huge part of me had died. I waited there nearly fainting from shock until my partner came home. I felt paralyzed with nausea, racing heart. I didn’t know what to think.”
Betrayal trauma is the result of the violation of a deep attachment with an individual who was relied upon for safety and well-being. Unlike other types of trauma, Betrayal Trauma involves not only the experience itself, but also the experience of being betrayed by someone in a key relationship.
For example, say someone was walking down the street and got hit by a runaway car. The physical wreckage alone would be life altering. Later, further investigation reveals that their partner was the one driving, hit them, and sped away leaving them alone to call for help.
Those affected by betrayal trauma are often laying in a metaphorical hospital bed after the hit. Much like other forms of trauma, they are in shock, confused, bewildered. “Where am I? How did this happen? What is the extent of the injury?” Their first response is a sense of disbelief or denial. “My partner would not have done this. They must have fallen asleep, been distracted, not seen me. This can’t be what it seems.” Perhaps they blame themselves for being on the sidewalk. “I must have been too close to the street. I shouldn’t have been walking there. What could I have done so that my partner wouldn’t have hit me?” Mere days or weeks after the injury, they wonder why they are not yet healed. “What’s wrong with me? Why am I still in pain?”
Physical injury can be easily detected. There is an awareness of the broken bone, the bruised forehead or scratched face. Many times, however, it is the emotional injury that causes enduring, unseen pain, remaining undetected and under treated.
Research by Dr. Jill Manning indicates common effects after discovery of betrayal including intense emotions and difficulty regulating emotions, changes in weight, body image, sleep, appetite or libido. 69-71% of sexually betrayed partners meet criteria for PTSD, 48% within a range of moderate to severe. Others experience anxiety suicidality or depression.
With intense disruption to their lives, survivors may engage in protective behaviors like policing or investigating their partners activities or motives in an attempt to re-establish safety. They want to know if they are safe to walk on the sidewalk again. Like the physical healing of broken bones, healing emotional injuries requires time and proper setting with the support of a trained professional.