The discovery of an affair or act of infidelity is undoubtedly a traumatic event. When you find out your partner has been unfaithful, your brain is forced into disarray, busy recalculating everything you thought you knew about your relationship and its reality. While you may have a strong desire to heal quickly and move forward, more often, you feel like you’ve lost all stability, your identity, and even some of your personality. This is the impact of partner betrayal trauma.
During relational traumas, your brain is taking in information that directly contradicts your assumptions about yourself, your relationships, and your place in them. This reconfiguring of assumptions might sound like, “I thought I knew you, but now I don’t know. I thought we were happy, but now I don’t know.” When you became aware of your partner’s betrayal, you instantly moved from a state of relative safety, connection, and unity to a state of fragmentation, fear, shame, and powerlessness.
Healing from partner betrayal trauma is complex but possible. It’s helpful first to understand how it has affected and hurt you. Jennifer Freyd’s betrayal trauma theory is a great place to start. We’ll talk through the symptoms of partner betrayal and the three traumatic injuries that shed light on the extensive impact of betrayal: attachment injury, emotional and psychological injury, and sexual injury. Let’s dive in.
Betrayal trauma symptoms vs. PTSD
If you’re impacted by betrayal trauma, you may experience symptoms that mimic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This includes problems with mood, emotional regulation and attention, interruption of eating and sleeping patterns, changes in perception of the self and the betrayer, flashbacks, rumination, paranoia, and other intrusive thoughts (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1992).
Freyd explains that in traditional PTSD, for example trauma resulting from a terrible car accident or shooting, pathological fear during the event is what drives later trauma symptoms. In betrayal trauma, symptoms and behaviors are driven not by pathological fear, but instead by attachment injuries and profound relationship disconnection. The disconnection is a result of the betrayal of trust by someone you are dependent on in important ways, like in the case of children experiencing abuse from their primary caregivers.
In betrayal traumas, there is also a higher potential for dissociation from the external truth or internal emotion of the betrayal to avoid the loss of the betrayer whom you are dependent on. Freyd coins this phenomenon as betrayal blindness, which we’ll discuss more later. First, let’s dive more deeply into the attachment injury at the heart of betrayal trauma.
Betrayal’s attachment injury
Attachments are how we experience a sense of safety, security, and protection from danger at a physiological level spanning our minds, bodies, and emotions. The biopsychosocial nature of attachment, the intertwined nature of our biological, social, and psychological states in response to our attachment relationships, isn’t something we grow out of once we become more independent from our parents. Research shows that in long-term relationships, we bond and intertwine our lives so deeply that our new primary attachment figure can regulate our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood (Attached, Levine and Heller).
John Bowlby’s theory of attachment specifies that we each have an attachment style that reflects how securely or insecurely we attached to our parents as children and whether we felt we could rely on them during times of distress and need. We each have core attachment needs and relational desires, but we developed unique styles of seeking closeness to our partners and coping with relational disconnection. Different attachment styles shape each person’s experience of betrayal.
Betrayal represents one of the most significant relational threats we can experience, so it’s no wonder our attachment systems come online when we discover cheating. Its impact on the system is something called attachment ambivalence. With attachment ambivalence, we feel at war with ourselves. The person we love and trust — who can help regulate our body’s blood pressure and heart rate — is the same person who caused the distress and disconnection and who we now feel unsafe around.
Our response to betrayal is primal and not rational. Our attachment system says, “If you are distressed, reach out to your partner to restore connection and your sense of well-being.” Suddenly, though, you notice a sense of dread. Our threat-response system has turned on. It says, “You’re not safe, fight or run away from the danger.” This cycle of ambivalence is extremely confusing and dysregulating. Often, the betrayed partner feels crazy, ashamed, and as if they can’t trust themselves or their instincts.
Betrayal’s emotional and psychological injury
The cycle of attachment ambivalence is not the only injury that causes a betrayed partner to feel crazy and at war with themselves. Often the betraying partner has engaged in copious lying and gaslighting behaviors to hide their infidelity. These behaviors leave the betrayed partner questioning their five senses, instincts, memory, perception, and judgment.
For many partners, the impacts of hiding the infidelity are just as painful as the betrayal, sometimes even more so. In these cases, the betrayed partner is not experiencing post-traumatic stress but is still mid-trauma — in the middle of an unfolding nightmare that seemingly has no end. Omar Minwalla even categorizes this deceptive sexuality as a form of intimate partner violence.
The effects of gaslighting are layered and challenging to break free from, and it’s essential to seek professional support to explore how to regain trust in your instincts and confidence in setting boundaries. Lying and gaslighting disempower the betrayed partner and rob them of the right to choose the relationship they want to be in. It also creates a lot of shame for the betrayed partner who believed their partner’s lies – called “carried shame.” To heal, you have to release carried shame, acknowledging that it was the betrayer who behaved badly, not you.
Another common response to lying and gaslighting is Freyd’s “betrayal blindness.” Often, because of our biopsychosocial and sometimes literal dependence on the betraying partner, it feels unbearable to cope with our loss of connection. Thus, the attachment-driven survival strategy of numbness, avoidance, and dissociation from truth becomes the next best option.
This may not always mean disbelieving the betrayal actually happened, but perhaps denying the extent of the betrayal – “well, they said it was just one time.” It may mean minimizing the reasoning for betrayal – “they said it didn’t mean anything.” It could even mean simply detaching from their true emotions about how much the betrayal is impacting them – “they said they need me to move forward with them, so I stopped bringing it up.”
It’s crucial to practice compassion for yourself and understand the activation of your primal attachment system. Your response to the betrayal is meant to be adaptive and protective from something that feels even more distressing.
Betrayal’s sexual injury
Finally, we must seek to understand the impact of betrayal on an individual’s and couple’s sexuality, which is highly influenced by the attachment and emotional/psychological injuries. Sex is just as much about pleasure and procreation as it is about our core desires for bonding, belonging, and significance. Sex in long-term, committed relationships is linked to our deepest attachment needs to feel desired, wanted, known, loved, accepted, connected, noticed, and important. These emotional states are foundational to our sense of identity. When we are desired, we are desirable and accepted.
When we connect sexually and feel affirmed, we feel a sense of warmth and well-being. Thus, it can feel like a devastating blow when you discover your partner has cheated and had some of their core needs met outside your relationship. It is a deep loss of our sense of safety, belonging, and significance. The loss of these core needs can force the betrayed partner into a traumatized state of questioning why they weren’t enough, comparison to the affair partner(s), carried shame around sexual functioning, libido, sexual self-esteem, and body image.
Many betrayed partners describe common experiences after sexual betrayal trauma. These include avoiding or being afraid of sex, seeing sex as an obligation, feeling anger, disgust, or guilt with touch, difficulty becoming aroused or desire with sex, or not feeling present during sex. Others may even experience intrusive thoughts and images during sex or notice pain or orgasmic difficulties with sex.
How to heal after betrayal
In her book The Betrayal Bind, Michelle Mays, clinical counselor and certified sex addiction therapist, states, “If relational trauma happens in a relationship, then it makes sense that our healing and restoration must also happen in relationship with others and with ourselves.” As we’ve explored, betrayal trauma is incredibly complex. As you set off on your journey toward healing, consider doing so with the help of those you trust
We offer a betrayal support group for women and individual therapy with availability for in-person sessions at our Charlotte, NC office or virtual sessions for residents of NC and SC. We also provide couples therapy and couples intensives with in-person appointments in Charlotte, NC, and Carefree, AZ. We also have virtual sessions for couples available for those who live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started.