Marriage and other forms of committed relationships bring great joy but they can also be challenging to navigate. A long-term healthy relationship depends on how well couples manage their challenges. Some factors, unfortunately, can introduce catastrophic ruptures in relations. Unresolved hurt and anger can lead to contempt, a leading predictor of the end of a relationship. Another profound threat to a long-term bond is loss of trust which often leads to profound and deep betrayal trauma.
Betrayal Trauma in Relationships
Betrayal trauma is the deep sting one feels when someone you trust shatters the foundations of your relationship by breaking that trust. The resulting trauma can be severe. The concept of Betrayal Trauma was first conceptualized by Dr. Jennifer Freyd in 1991. She identified how individuals can experience it in both personal and professional settings:
- Parental Betrayal: Children require love and protection from harm. They can experience severe trauma when subjected to abuse at the hands of people they trust and depend upon, like parents and guardians.
- Intimate Partner Betrayal: Infidelity in relationships, whether emotional or sexual, can shatter trust and result in trauma. This is quite common when one partner has an active sexual addiction. There are also other types of betrayals one can experience in romantic relationships such as financial deceit, or persistent emotional neglect among other things.
- Interpersonal Betrayal: Individuals might experience trauma when a friend or colleague they depend on to respect their needs violates the trust you placed in them.
- Institutional Betrayal: Employees can feel deeply betrayed when supervisors and managers treat them unfairly or in contradiction to the business values. Furthermore, they can end up feeling completely victimized when human resources personnel opt to toe the party line instead of supporting them.
Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma
Although not an official diagnosis, experiencing betrayal trauma can cause significant suffering. Individuals interpret and react to betrayal trauma in many different ways. A common response is to pull away from the person who betrayed you. However, when you heavily depend on that person (or institution), like a child to a parent, walking away from the relationship may not be an option. This is when responses become complex.
Physical symptoms: Experiencing headaches, stomach aches, sleep issues, gastrointestinal issues, chronic fatigue, laryngitis, and a weakened immune system commonly follow traumatic experiences.
Anxiety: You may also experience generalized anxiety or specific fears related to betrayal.
Dissociation: The human nervous system is wired to protect itself, so it down-regulates to shut off all emotions when matters become intense. Psychotherapists refer to this as dissociation. It can leave you feeling numb or faintly aware of your feelings and emotions. Zoning out or being on “auto-pilot” mode are examples of mild dissociation.
Alexithymia: Dissociation on a chronic basis causes individuals to eventually disconnect from their thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and sense of self. This occurs when you bury trauma to survive a relationship that you cannot escape from. This ability to “forget” may help you cope, but leaves you unable to experience the full range of your human emotions.
Depression: When you cannot list, feel, and name your emotions, depression is likely to follow.
Separation and Divorce
Infidelity in intimate partner relationships almost always sparks heated debates about separation and divorce. This is a time when both parties will experience a wide array of extreme emotions, including anger, blame and self-blame, frustration, confusion, shame, sadness, and grief. These can be very difficult to navigate. Some relationships are not conducive to reconciliation. However, making the decision to separate and divorce should not be made hastily either, because, with support and time, it is possible for relationships to heal, and even strengthen beyond betrayal.
Working with a Therapist
Speaking to a trained therapist can help you gain perspective when you are on the precipice of deciding whether to continue working on your relationship or end it. Couples’ therapists receive extensive training drawn from decades of proven research into what makes relationships work. This specialized knowledge allows them to understand relationship dynamics with far more insight than laypersons.
Once your therapist identifies the nature of your issues, they can deploy one of many treatment methods to help you. Some include:
- Gottman Method
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Discernment counselling
- Emotion-focused therapy
- Imago relationship therapy
- Narrative therapy
- Solution-focused therapy
If reconciliation is your goal, then your therapist will approach the matter non-judgmentally and with compassion. One part of the process would involve managing betrayal trauma, rebuilding self-esteem, overcoming self-blame, and coping with difficult emotions. The other part will focus on atonement and addressing the reasons for the betrayal. Your therapist will then help you explore how to rebuild trust, heal as a couple and develop a deeper and more sturdy relationship than ever before.
If on the other hand, you must end the relationship but continue to co-parent after a divorce, then your therapist can help you manage this with less animosity towards each other and to the benefit of your children.