How To Know If You're Suffering From 'Betrayal Trauma'

Being Cheated on might be affecting you more than you know. When you have been deeply hurt by someone who is supposed to love and protect you, it is called betrayal trauma. Betrayal can manifest in many different ways: physically, emotionally, or spiritually. When you are betrayed by a someone you trust, a cascade of feelings begin to unravel and your experiences with that person are forever altered.  Who you thought the person was is now challenged with the reality of that person's true character. You realize they have been hiding who they were from you for the entire relationship, whether it was one month or forty years. They kept a part of themselves secret and hidden from your view Perhaps you've discovered that your spouse cheated and broke your marriage vows. Or maybe you find out that your boyfriend has been sexting other women behind your back. You realize the whole relationship has been a lie.  The person who was supposed to love and cherish you has duped you. You have been betrayed. As you explore the devastation you feel, it’s as if you’re spinning out of control and don’t know how or where to land.
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Your whole reality has shifted in what seems a split second. This is betrayal trauma. To manage the shock, your brain goes into a fight or flight response. Cortisol rushes into your body and alarms you to danger. In prehistoric times, if a tiger wanted to eat you for dinner, your brain response was adaptive and helped you run away, fight the enemy, or freeze if you couldn’t do either of the other two options. Today, you don’t have to worry about a tiger eating you for dinner. However, when you experience a trauma like your spouse cheating on you, your brain’s amygdala doesn’t know the difference between a real danger like a tiger and a perceived danger like the emotional harm of betrayal. Initially, betrayal trauma starts as shock. You don’t want the discovery of the betrayal to be true.  You make excuses, maybe you even blame yourself. You think, “If only I had done… not done… said… not said…” You get the idea. The reality of betrayal is that you couldn’t have prevented it. You did not step out on your marriage vows. Your spouse decided to act out without coming to you and sharing their feelings, desires, or longings. Oftentimes, this type of sexual betrayal triggers years and years of smaller betrayals in your life — from exes, family, friends, and coworkers — that you had disregarded or ignored. Thinking back you may remember events like a time on vacation ten years ago when your spouse disappeared for two hours and had a flimsy excuse. Or the time when your spouse was supposed to pick your daughter up from school and didn’t show up and the school called you instead. Multiple omissions and lies will bubble up and expose your new reality. In your kindness, you gave your spouse the benefit of grace and didn’t challenge their inconsistencies. Now you begin to realize that the person you trusted the most manipulated your reality to keep from getting caught in their lies and betrayal. As the avalanche of feelings spills over you, each new discovery of unfaithfulness changes your reality. One memory at a time reveals the depth of the deceit. Intense grief consumes you. You fluctuate between feeling shock, murderous rage, sadness, loss, and sporadic hope that things will get better. Yet, with each round of new detail or insight, the grief twists and turns and comes back around, leaving you wondering if life will ever be normal again. The symptoms of betrayal trauma include significant levels of fear, anxiety, confusion, flashbacks, headaches, body pain, nightmares, GI instability, hyper-vigilance, anger, lack of motivation, tension, insomnia, withdrawal from social contact, and loneliness. Most survivors of betrayal trauma can have a mixture of these symptoms. Also, many people feel God (or their higher power) has betrayed them for not protecting them from the pain they are experiencing. This is yet another significant freedom that has been taken from the betrayed person. The strength of looking to a higher power is no longer the source of comfort that it once was. All of these challenges take time to work through and are normal to feel to some degree. If you have been touched by betrayal trauma, you are not alone.  Many people have been betrayed and have healed and found freedom from the pain. You don’t have to stay stuck in a lifetime of bitterness. By engaging with your experience and facing the pain, a new life can emerge for you. You may want to run away from the pain and pretend it doesn’t exist. Others reading this will feel stuck in the pain and can’t get out of it, much less through it. And some people are holding fast to the idea that they want their spouse to get better so they can feel better, too. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get help from a trusted professional who is knowledgeable about betrayal trauma. There is sound information that can help you walk through and actually heal from the multitude of hurts and betrayals you have experienced.
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You deserve to heal, learn, and grow. Your betrayal trauma and pain are real. Someone you trusted harmed you in the worst way possible by hiding broken promises from you. The devastation you feel seems to have broken you at your core. It feels impossible to see any way out to heal and recover. You can do this, too. Take one step toward your healing by educating yourself about betrayal trauma and learning how you can get through this painful time.

Teresa Maples-Zuvela MS LMHC CSAT EMDR therapist specializes in working with people to heal and mend traumas they have endured. She especially loves to educate and walk beside those who are eager to heal from the pain of betrayal trauma. Sign up for her online class here.