The Trauma of Intimate Partner Betrayal
Why it hurts so much—and seven ways you can heal.
Posted Jun 08, 2018
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association revealed a new diagnostic formulation in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition (DSM-III). The new formulation was called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis was intended to capture catastrophic stressors that were outside the range of usual human experience such as war, disasters, rape, and tragic deaths.
The authors of the DSM-III considered traumatic events to be different from more common stressors, even though those might still be very painful psychologically. Stressful life experiences such as illness, financial setbacks, divorce, and interpersonal rejection were considered “adjustment disorders."
At the time, many of us considered this dichotomy to be a mistake when it came to rejection and divorce, especially when they involved intimate partner betrayal. In the subsequent revisions of the DSM, the traumatic stressor criterion has actually seemed to become even more narrow, focusing on threats of injury or death or vicarious exposure to severe injury or death. This has weakened even further the concept of intimate partner betrayal as a traumatic experience—which was, in my view, once again a mistake.
Betrayal as a Traumatic Stressor
It's easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend. —William Blake
So what is betrayal? You certainly know it when you experience it. It is a gut-wrenching experience, a searing knife into your heart. You feel it before you even think about it. Then, when you start thinking about it, it plagues you day and night.
Betrayal is treachery, deception, and violated trust. It can appear as a broken promise, duplicity, lies, sexual affairs, and even affairs of the heart. The injury is so great that some people seem to never recover.
We are taught that to be truly happy in life, we must learn to trust others. So, sometimes reluctantly, we let down our guard and we trust. When relationships become psychologically intimate, we have put our trust in another. We have made ourselves vulnerable to another person. We believe this person accepts us unconditionally, believes in us, and “has our back.” We cherish such a relationship because we believe our partner is understanding, faithful, and devoted in good times and bad.
In a psychologically intimate relationship, powerful attachments and bonds are formed. Not only does the bond let us know that we are understood, appreciated, and unconditionally accepted, it says we are safe. So powerful is this bond that there is evidence that the presence of a psychologically intimate partner can positively affect blood pressure and stress hormones. Psychologists have long known that the deepest cravings of human nature are the desires to be appreciated and to be safe.
Betrayal by an intimate partner violates these core human desires and needs. It destroys the core assumptions upon which all enduring relationships must rest. Dr. Jeff Lating and I have written extensively about the important role that violated assumptions (concerning yourself and others) play in the development of PTSD (Everly & Lating, 2013).
Betrayal represents a traumatic death—not of a person, but of a relationship. As you might expect, individuals who have been betrayed by a partner in a trusting psychologically intimate relationship experience many of the symptoms of PTSD. They will often report guilt, depression, psychological numbing, suspiciousness, hyper-vigilance, withdrawal from others, nightmares, and continually—almost addictively—reliving both the positive moments (longingly) and the negative moments (painfully) of the relationship, especially the moment of the revelation of the betrayal. Again, as you might expect, the betrayal engenders a terrible loss of self-esteem, the rise of self-doubt, the inability to trust again, and the desire to avoid relationships in the future.
Why Betrayal Trauma Hurts So Much
Intimate bonding with another person serves an important developmental role. It enhances the chances of survival in an otherwise hostile environment. As a result, there are biological substrates that support the formation of psychologically intimate relationships.
The hormone oxytocin, for instance, increases the likelihood of forming an intimate relationship. Deep within the center of the brain, the cingulate cortex is believed to play a role in fostering attachment and bonding with others.
Betrayal is likely to adversely affect these substrates. We know that violated attachments result in a rise in the immunosuppressive and catabolic hormone cortisol, along with an apparent hypersensitivity within the amygdalocentric fight-or-flight centers of the limbic system (see Everly and Lating, 2013). The psychological injury of betrayal is likely to create, in a sense, a functional physical injury within the brain that is challenging to recover from—but not impossible.
7 Ways to Heal Betrayal Trauma
There are at least seven things that appear to foster the healing of betrayal trauma.
- Do not blindly blame yourself. Do not denigrate yourself. Avoid self-destructive coping behaviors. Do not compromise your integrity, the person you are, or the person you believe you can be.
- It’s okay to look back on the relationship to find things you would have done differently. But again, it's critical to avoid the “blame game.”
- Avoid rebound relationships. They almost never turn out well. Resist the temptation to immediately fill the hole in your heart. Don’t rush to replace the loss. You need time to consider what happened—and being alone for a while is not a bad thing.
- Seek out success. Begin to focus on strengthening yourself and your self-confidence. Find something at which you can be successful. Start small, at first, if necessary. Remember Neitzsche’s declaration: What does not destroy you makes you stronger.
- Take care of your physical health. Avoid self-medication. Think about changes in your diet and activity levels. Exercise is a powerful antidepressant. Rest is essential.
- Think about keeping a daily journal. It can help you can track your ups and downs and can identify the factors that slow your recovery—as well as those factors that speed it up.
- In the final analysis, the best way to heal from betrayal trauma is to learn to trust again. It’s a risk, but anything worth having—like the chance to find a kind, compassionate, and unconditionally accepting partner—is worth failing for.
© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2018.
Everly, GS, Jr. & Lating, JM. (2013). Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response, Third Edition. NY: Pearson.