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Types of Intimate Betrayal

And why they feel so bad

If you’ve ever felt betrayed by a lover in a committed relationship, you know all too well that intimate betrayal is a pain unlike any other, striking at the core of our capacity to trust and love.

The destructive force and lasting effects of intimate betrayal come from its violation of the implicit promise that gives us the courage to love in the first place:

No matter what happens, the person you love and trust will care about your well being and never intentionally hurt you.

These two key elements classify the types of intimate betrayal. Behaviors that intentionally hurt include most emotional abuse, verbal aggression, and domestic violence. Failure to care about your well being covers most deceit, infidelity, covert misuse of communal resources, continual resentment, anger, criticism, stonewalling, and other isolating or hurtful behaviors.

There are compelling biological reasons that intimate betrayal hurts so bad and is so hard to overcome. Love relationships are held together by deep emotional bonds that were crucial to the very survival of our species.

Most anthropologists agree that early humans could not have survived without strong emotional bonds that made us cooperate in food gathering and territorial defense. Not surprisingly, we have developed pre-verbal, pre-rational, automatic emotional reactions to behaviors and attitudes that threaten emotional bonds. These developed in our brains in prehistoric times, when to leave the kinship of the tribe meant certain death, by starvation or saber tooth tiger. The reactions to intimate betrayal often include a vague feeling that you might die. The feeling is highly irrational, because it emanates from a primitive part of the brain, but it is nonetheless forceful and real. Indeed, most suicides follow attachment loss, as do most intimate homicides.

How it Hits You

Intimate betrayal upends your life in one of two ways: by sudden revelation or gradual realization.

With deceit, embezzlement, and infidelity, you discover that your partner has lied, manipulated, stole, or cheated. You may have guessed that something was amiss, but no amount of suspicion could mitigate the shock and hurt when struck by your partner’s confession, an eye witness account, uncovered emails/texts/phone messages, or other incontrovertible evidence. You became aware in an instant that your life would never be the same.

Some faces of intimate betrayal, such as abuse or being forced to walk on eggshells to appease a partner who is chronically resentful, angry, critical, stonewalling, or self-obsessed, strike just as forcefully but in a more gradual realization of what your life has become. You may have tried for a long time to make the best of your partner’s bad behavior—overlooked it, made excuses for it, or simply refused to identify it. Your instinct to adapt, cooperate, and trust would have benefited most relationships. Yet your noble efforts to preserve emotional bonds with your partner (and protect your children, if you have them) may have delayed recognition of the betrayal you have suffered.

The Floor of Security Crumbles

Whether it crashes upon you in revelation or seeps into consciousness via delayed realization, intimate betrayal snatches the floor of personal security from under you. Most of my clients describe the initial aftermath of revelation and realization as a kind of freefall, with no bottom in sight. Shock and disbelief are punctuated by waves of cruel self-doubt:

Was I attractive enough, smart enough, successful enough, interesting enough, present, attentive, caring, patient, or sacrificing enough?

If you’ve recently left a relationship in which you were betrayed by your partner, it can feel like your emotional wounds will never heal. Whether you experienced abuse, deceit, or infidelity, you may now find yourself struggling to create meaning in your life, trust others, and build new and loving relationships. Recovering from a partner’s betrayal isn’t easy, but there are ways that you can heal and learn to love again.

Living and Loving after Betrayal: How to Heal from Emotional Abuse, Deceit, Infidelity, and Chronic Resentment