Betrayal trauma is incredibly common, especially for people who’ve been hurt by infidelity.
Take Jenna, for example. She’d been living with Jake for only a few months when everything blew up. One evening, she stumbled across a message on his computer from another woman. When she tugged on that thread, her entire life began to unravel, and she learned that Jake had been cheating on her with multiple women for the past three years.
When Jenna and Jake arrived at my couples counseling office, they were hoping I could help them put a stop to the unending fights. They both said they wanted to recover from infidelity and save their relationship, but Jenna couldn’t seem to get over it, and Jake was tired of apologizing. After a few false starts at healing, Jake packed his belongings and left Jenna to recover on her own.
Jenna and I continued seeing each other one-on-one. Her heart was broken, but it was worse than that. She was having vivid nightmares about Jake having sex with other women. Sometimes when she was working or driving, she would suddenly feel overwhelmed by intense fear, as if she was discovering his cheating for the first time all over again. Worst perhaps, the shock of it all had so eroded Jenna’s trust in her own instincts that she wondered how she could ever allow herself to love someone again.
What Jenna was experiencing was betrayal trauma. When someone we love, trust, and rely on betrays us, it creates a deep, painful wound that can linger on for months or even years without the right care.
If you think you may be suffering from the after effects of betrayal trauma, I hope this article helps you understand why you feel the way you feel. Learning about the process of betrayal trauma recovery and finding effective support from a therapist who understands it can help you heal and move forward.
If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
What Is Betrayal?
We feel betrayal when someone we trust or depend on lets us down in a way we didn’t expect. Even relatively minor betrayals can have a powerful sting — like learning that a friend repeated a secret that you shared in confidence, or that a colleague took credit for your work. But big betrayals can be life shattering, especially when they’re not validated or attended to with care.
Betrayal stirs up a complex mix of anger, disappointment, sadness, shame, and guilt. It can also create a lot of self-blame, which can be the most painful part. As Jenna talked about Jake’s cheating, she often beat herself up for not knowing that something was wrong. Her self-esteem was in the gutter, and she didn’t feel that she could trust herself to keep herself safe.
It’s easy to look back with regret about not “trusting your gut.” But to heal from betrayal, it’s important that you have compassion for yourself. If you failed to protect yourself in the past, make a choice to protect yourself now from the harsh critic that lives inside of you. You can begin by making a conscious choice to treat yourself with love and respect as you heal and grow from this trauma.
Betrayal Trauma Symptoms
The symptoms of betrayal trauma fall into three buckets: intrusive, avoidant, and emotional. None of these symptoms are conscious thoughts. They’re instinctive, visceral reactions that don’t feel like a choice.
If any of these symptoms sound relatable to you, you may benefit from working with a therapist who understands betrayal trauma:
People suffering from betrayal trauma often have recurrent, involuntary, distressing memories of the traumatic event. Jenna couldn’t stop thinking about the horrible moment that she discovered the messages on Jake’s computer between himself and other women, for example. When she had these thoughts, she would feel emotionally flooded by fear as if something horrible was about to happen, even though she was perfectly safe.
Intrusive symptoms can be especially intense in moments that remind you of the betrayal. For example, if you have trust issues in relationships because of a former partner who cheated on you, you may feel triggered when a new partner tells you they’re going out with friends for drinks after work, if that’s what your Ex used to say when they were cheating.
Avoidance can show up in a few different forms after betrayal trauma. First, people may avoid things that trigger memories of the betrayal. They may also avoid relationships, or avoid being truly vulnerable in relationships. Avoidance can also look like escaping into self-destructive behaviors like addiction to avoid difficult feelings.
Finally, sometimes avoidance symptoms can take the form of controlling behavior. Someone might develop an unhealthy level of jealousy in a new relationship and try to stop their partner from spending time with certain people, for example, if they’ve been betrayed in the past. Or, they may create strict rules about what their friends can say around them, or which places are okay for them to go and which are off-limits, in an effort to avoid things that trigger painful feelings or memories.
Betrayal trauma also has emotional symptoms, particularly anxiety, anger, and depression.
If you’re experiencing anxiety because of betrayal, you may be hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for other signs that you’re about to be betrayed. You may feel a lot of anger about what happened to you, and you may have trouble letting go of your anger.
Feeling depressed is also normal. After betrayal trauma, your life may become smaller as you begin avoiding people, places and things that remind you of the betrayal. This combined with low self-esteem and a sense of hopelessness about the future can make fertile ground for depression.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Healing after betrayal trauma is not like flipping a switch. It can be a long journey, and many people require the support of a trauma-informed therapist to fully heal.
Processing trauma is not straightforward. Your instincts will be to avoid the source of your trauma, but what you actually need is safe exposure and to move those traumatic memories to a different part of your brain. I hesitate to list the “stages of betrayal trauma recovery” as if you should be able to check the boxes on this list all on your own, but I hope it gives you some ideas about what this work might look like and where to begin:
- Acknowledge the Betrayal & How It Impacted You
Betrayal is profoundly damaging. It is hurtful. The emotional fallout of a major betrayal can touch your life for years.
This is the truth, but for many of us, our first instinct is to avoid, minimize, or deny what happened and how profoundly it affected us. But acknowledging the fact that this was a betrayal and that it was traumatic to you is the first step in healing — especially if the people in your life or our culture at large have not validated that reality for you.
- Build Your Personal Resilience
What really allows you to heal after betrayal is building confidence in your own ability to protect and care for yourself. So ask yourself, what do you need from others that you’re struggling to give to yourself? And how can you change that?
No matter what other people do, you can always trust 100% in the relationship you have with yourself. This is what makes you feel safe enough to once again trust in others. Setting healthy boundaries in relationships, speaking up for yourself and honoring your own feelings, and building emotional intelligence skills that help you to manage painful feelings without turning them on yourself are all ways of becoming more resilient.
- Invest In Safe, Healing Relationships
Healing relationships could be with people who are already in your life, like good friends you can trust and rely on, or a safe, validating family member. A therapist could also provide a healing relationship based on trust, kindness, and respect.
To heal trauma, you need safety. You cannot begin to heal and process your trauma if you are still in the situation that traumatized you. This does not mean that you always have to walk away from relationships after infidelity or another form of betrayal, but the betrayal itself does need to stop before it can be healed.
4) Exposure Therapy
Safe exposure to the traumatic memories can be an important part of healing from trauma — but this is not something that you can do on your own. A trauma-informed therapist can help you go back into the memories and move them to the part of your brain where meaning is made and where thoughts are more powerful than feelings.
At that point, the trauma doesn’t go away, but your relationship to it fundamentally changes. It will always be part of your story, but it won’t have the same power over you.
5) Healthy Boundaries
Creating new, healthy boundaries can be an important part of healing from betrayal. It’s not about blaming others, but about thinking about how you would like to manage relationships differently going forward.
Maybe there are certain red flags that you’re unwilling to overlook the next time you get into a relationship, or certain types of treatment that you don’t want to accept anymore. When you set healthy boundaries and maintain them, you begin to feel better able to protect yourself.
Of course, there are some forms of betrayal that you can’t prevent, even with the world’s most perfectly healthy boundaries. That is actually okay. As you heal from betrayal trauma, your trust in yourself will grow and your relationship with yourself will be strengthened. At the end of this personal growth journey is a deep confidence that you can rely on yourself, no matter what anyone else does.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Therapists
I hope this article and podcast episode gave you a better understanding of betrayal trauma, and how it may be affecting you. It can be difficult to heal, especially when you and the people around you treat the betrayal like it’s not a big deal. If you’re hurting months or years after a betrayal, it is a big deal, and you deserve support from an effective betrayal trauma therapist.
Working with a counselor or a couples therapist can help you heal from the pain of betrayal and move forward, within your relationship or individually. If you’d like to meet with a clinician on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more help with recovering after infidelity, check out our “Affair Recovery” collection of articles and podcasts.
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Music in this episode is by Men I Trust with their song “Billy Toppy.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://menitrust.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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