The Trauma of Betrayal

The prevalence rate for infidelity over one’s lifetime ranges from 25 – 40% for men and 20-25% for woman. If you take an average U.S. population of 350,000,000 and multiply it by 25%, you come up with 87,500,000 people who have engaged in, or been the victim of, a relational betrayal. 

When you are experiencing such an event, it can feel like you are the only one who has ever been through it. But these statistics reveal you are not alone. Going through any level of infidelity can be very isolating for a couple: you don’t want others to know what has occurred due to shame and embarrassment; or you remain silent in an attempt to protect your partner. 

You Can Recover

Everyone is so certain of how they would respond until they are actually in these shoes. The vast majority of the couples I work with never believed in a million years they would be sitting in my office under these conditions. I often hear comments such as, “I used judge couples going through this. Now it has completely humbled me.”

The complexity of recovering from an infidelity is considerable. In my experience, I don’t believe there is any couple that is capable of fulling addressing all the issues involved without outside assistance. However, I want to be clear, you can recover from a betrayal to your attachment. It can also be the catalyst to creating a much deeper and more rewarding relationship. 

All those issues you have been sweeping under the rug as a couple are now exposed. You now have to make a decision whether to address them or try and stuff them back where they came from. I can assure you the latter will not end well. I heard a quote early in my career by renowned therapist Pia Melody, “If you don’t hug your demons, they will bit you in the ass.”

The First Step

The first step is managing the crisis. All infidelities are not created equal. There are many variables contributing to how traumatic the event is for the betrayed partner, such as the frequency and duration of the relationship, who the person is in relation to the couple or individual, and how the discovery came about, etc.

Although still painful and traumatic, a drunken one-night stand is less complicated to deal with than a two-year affair with one’s best friend. Moreover, it is extremely rare, in my experience, for the offending party to initiate the disclosure. In today’s culture, the betrayed partner almost always learns of what has occurred through text messages, social media, or email. 

Betrayal and PTSD

Another primary factor in coping with the initial crisis is addressing the post traumatic stress symptoms of the betrayed partner. I have worked with a few hundred infidelity cases. In almost every instance, the victim of the betrayal meets criteria for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). If this person does not get aid in processing the trauma, it becomes one of the major impediments to recovering from the attachment injury. 

Being betrayed by a spouse or partner is comparable to what occurs with an abused child. As human beings, we have a neurological attachment system. In times of crisis, it triggers a behavioral impulse to reach for safety and support from an attachment figure (parent, spouse, partner). When a child is being treated abusively by a parent, they are caught in a dilemma: the source of potential safety and support is also the threat. 

This places the child in a no-win situation. In psychology, this is termed “Fright without solution.” What then occurs is a neurological process referred to as dissociation. The most primitive part of the brain splits off what the child cannot regulate into an area low and right in the brain to protect the upper brain from being damaged. When severe enough, this is what is referred to as PTSD. 

Fragmented Reality 

The same thing takes place in a relational betrayal: I am wired to reach for my partner for comfort and security, but they are the source of the pain and threat. You can scream, curse, and break things, but it will not bring the intended relief. There is a tremendous amount of energy that gets dissociated leading to the development of PTSD

Furthermore, there is cognitive overload. Who I thought you were, I am, we are, and what reality looks like just exploded into a million pieces. You are in freefall with no bottom. And this is just the starting line. If you doubted what I was saying about no couple being able to handle infidelity on their own, you are starting to get the picture. 

Implicit Memory and “Triggers” 

When all this emotional energy gets split during dissociation it goes into what is referred to as implicit memory. This type of memory stored as a felt sense in the body. There are no thoughts, words, or images. Moreover, it cannot distinguish between people, time, and place. Anything that is even remotely associated with the original event, even if it is outside of conscious awareness, will “trigger” the implicit memory in the body. It will feel like it is happening now, even if it was decades ago. 

To sufficiently clear this type of memory from the body requires working with a professional who can assist you in doing so. You will not be able to do this on your own. Managing the moments when the betrayed partner gets “triggered” is one of the biggest challenges in resolving the infidelity. Contrastingly, these moments hold great potential for healing what occurred when a couple receives support in doing so. 

Steps Two and Three

Once the crisis has been managed and the offended party’s trauma symptoms have reduced, there are two additional chief areas to be addressed: what were they underlying causes of the betrayers actions; and what were the areas in the relationship in terms of emotionally secure attachment that were not functioning adequately. 

Let me be clear on this point. I am not blaming the infidelity on the relationship. The partner who engaged in the infidelity needs to take one hundred percent responsibility for their actions; they had choices – they could have sought help for the relationship, ended it, stayed unhappy, or engaged in infidelity. They chose door number four. 

It is a bit of a tightrope for me as a therapist navigating this process. I don’t want the betrayed partner to feel blamed for the affair, but neither do I want them to be here in the future for a similar situation. In helping couples recover, I have always found things in the relationship that were not working well on some level. 

A Non-Linear Process

It really comes down to timing: crisis management, which includes trauma therapy for the betrayed partner; addressing the issues in the offending partner, which is also eventually safety building for the betrayed partner; and resolving attachment issues in the relationship. I would also like to add this is a non-linear process. A couple could be working on the relationship and a trauma trigger or new information pushes them back into crisis management. 

In addition, they could be in the crisis management stage and learn how to communicate more effectively and develop more functional attachment behaviors while simultaneously stabilizing from the crisis. Although this is just a surface level view of recovering from infidelity, I hope it gives you a better understanding of why betrayal is so traumatic and how to begin the process of recovery. 

There Is Hope

In concluding, I want to emphasis hope. The couples I have worked with who have stayed committed to the process have built a relationship they never would have otherwise. Making it through difficult or traumatic times together is very bonding. However, infidelities are what is referred to as an “Attachment Injury” in couples therapy. 

When one occurs it needs to be fully addressed or it will remain. Infidelities are not the leading cause of relationship termination; it is contempt. Contempt is criticism and judgment from an elevated position. You have bitterness, resentment, and disdain for your partner. Unresolved “Attachment Injuries” will breed contempt. 

It does not have to be this way. You and your partner can not only recover from an infidelity but use it as the motivator to build a much more secure, fulfilling, and satisfying relationship. If you would like to learn more about this process or schedule a time to meet contact or call Gateway Counseling at 561-468-6464.

Boynton Beach Counseling Center
Gateway Counseling Center
1034 Gateway Blvd. #104
Boynton Beach, FL 33426
Phone: (561) 468-6464
Phone: (561) 678-0036

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