If you have betrayed your spouse and disclosed that betrayal to them, one thing you will have become very aware of is the rage that betrayal can cause. In our experience in working with couples, many people who are working through their own infidelity and trying to recover their marriage find that they aren’t sure how to respond to this rage or what to do with it.
Today we are going to look at why anger is a normal part of responding to betrayal, where it comes from, and how to best support your spouse in the face of it.
Anger Is A Common Reaction to Betrayal
When a person is betrayed, there are a lot of potential responses that often come in waves and in varying degrees of intensity. According to researcher MeowLan Chan (2009) “Typical responses to betrayal include: retaliation, reduction in trust, distrust or suspicion, increase in monitoring, negative emotions (e.g., anger, disappointment, frustration), deterioration in the quality or even termination of the relationship, withdrawal of effort and cooperation within the relationship, and demand for more legalistic forms of trust as substitutes for interpersonal trust.” These reactions affect both your spouse and your relationship.
One of the most prominent negative emotions is anger, or even rage. In all fairness, when anyone is faced with an extreme threat they will often respond with anger. Anger helps a person survive by shifting their focus toward doing the things necessary for survival.
Since a marriage is usually grounded on what was seen to be a reliable foundation of trust, when that foundation is shattered by betrayal, this significant breakdown in one’s foundation is often experienced as a threat to survival. Furthermore, anger is a common response to events that seem unfair or to circumstances that set you up to be a victim of the choices of others, especially a situation like a betrayal event.
Understanding Trauma and PTSD from Betrayal
The severity of a spouse’s response to betrayal can come as a surprise to the betraying spouse. Often, a betraying spouse wants to justify their actions and the way they may have gone against their values with those actions. They do this by denying and minimizing their actions in their mind. As a result, they tend to mentally turn the dial down on what the anticipated consequences will be.
Regardless of how much denial is occurring, it does not affect the severity of the impact on the betrayed spouse. Quite often, a betrayal becomes a traumatic event, even causing many of the symptoms of PTSD. Your spouse may experience other negative effects of trauma such as forgetting important parts of the traumatic event, exaggerating negative thoughts about oneself, others, or the world, distorted blame of self or others, detachment or estrangement from others, inability to experience positive emotions, lack of interest in activities, or globally negative experiences of fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame. This is all due to the trauma that frequently comes with betrayal. It’s such a blow to a person that it becomes a shattering event.
Looking at the rage response more specifically, some of the criteria for rage include:
- Having an experience that exceeds healthy anger.
- Losing the rational component of brain functioning that enables a person to think clearly and logically.
- Losing the ability to consider consequences for actions.
- Even seeking to hurt your spouse in a physical way.
It should be noted that these particular features of rage were observed in a study of violent women who experienced rage towards their partner, but not in a betrayal context. However, we hear about betrayed spouses experiencing the same symptoms when they have experienced spousal betrayal. It’s important to note that even when you have been betrayed, it is still not acceptable to resort to physical violence. Yes, it’s also unacceptable to be betrayed, but two wrongs won’t make a right and physical violence won’t help you feel safer.
Why Your Spouse Ends up Raging
Basically, the reason your spouse experiences rage is because the part of their nervous system that is responsible for calming and stabilizing him or her under stress breaks down under situations of extreme stress. It just cannot keep up with something as severe as betrayal. And in that scenario the part of their brain that helps with social engagement goes offline and they resort to more primitive fight or flight behaviors such as withdrawing or lashing out angrily. In any case, the important thing to remember is that this is a protective function that is active now.
In plain English: your betrayed wife is raging at you because she is trying to restore a sense of safety within herself. That safety was torn away by the betrayal. We all need to have a basic sense of safety that the people closest to us are trustworthy and reliable. And when they prove they are not through something like infidelity, our survival systems kick in to try to restore or bring us back to that place of safety. This happens at a very core level within our nervous system.
How to Respond to the Rage of Betrayal
Once again, we’ve created a bonus guide with additional supporting information for couples who are struggling through this part of their recovery and rebuilding after a betrayal. The extra guidance for this episode speaks to betrayed spouses and provides more detail about what you can do for yourself when you feel this anger or rage coming on. Obviously, that’s a very difficult experience for you as well, and often even one that causes some shame too. If you would like some help for that, this guide is a great starting point and you can get it by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
How to Respond and Support Your Spouse
1. During the rage
It is helpful if you can keep in mind that your betrayed spouse’s rage is an effort to restore safety that feels as if it has been torn from her (or him), then you will be in a better position to adequately respond to these very intense emotions.
If you can, try to hear what your spouse is saying and carefully note the underlying fear. The fear is often not overtly expressed, but it will definitely be there behind the rage. Responding in a reassuring and empathic way to that fear (and avoiding becoming defensive) will often calm the rage because it is showing your spouse that you get it: that you see what is happening for him/her and you are willing to acknowledge that reality.
When your spouse understands that you see, acknowledge, and are appropriately responding to their pain, then they can begin to feel safe again. Because all of us carry some faith in humanity that says, “If this person really sees and acknowledges how hurt I am they will do everything in their power to make sure I don’t get hurt more.” That’s what empathy does.
Of course, it’s difficult to respond with empathy in the face of rage. You likely won’t get it the first few times. But if you’ve researched this topic and found this episode/article, then you are likely starting to realize that it is much more effective to respond gently to your spouse, rather than meeting their rage with your own anger or defensiveness.
On a broader scale, there are a number of other useful strategies to help with your spouse’s betrayal trauma. These efforts will help reduce the amount of anger and rage your spouse feels as well.
2. Recognize That You Are on Different Timelines
A betrayal is traumatic. It takes time to heal. It comes with a flood of thoughts and feelings and confusion. Just like you would expect someone to need time to work through grief after the loss of a loved one, so your spouse needs time to work through the loss of the marriage they thought they had.
You may be feeling better almost immediately because your confession or disclosure has relieved you of this great burden of shame and secrecy that you’ve been carrying. But your spouse is going to be on a different timeline, so you should not have the expectation that they will feel relief from this as rapidly as you will.
Everyone is different, but in some cases, it would not be unreasonable to expect it to take a year or more to fully process through grief and forgiveness after a betrayal.
3. Offer Compassion, Comfort and Care
Your spouse’s rage or anger may activate those feelings of shame and guilt that you first experienced with the betrayal. But it’s important to work hard at staying non-defensive and refraining from responding with anger.
One common recommendation is to think about responding with compassion, comfort and care. Compassion is just extending the empathy and concern we talked about previously. Comfort is about providing reassurance and care attending to your spouse’s extra needs as they go through this difficult process. As you consistently provide these, it helps your spouse see you again as a source of comfort and safety.
4. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
It can be tempting to try to take your spouse back to the past and to resurrect that in the present. But that won’t work. Recovering from betrayal, especially a significant betrayal, means rebuilding your marriage. You will have to work together to build something new and beautiful, rather than trying to regain what was past.
The past is what brought you to a place where betrayal was possible and then it became a reality. A new trust, a new bond, and a new authentic vulnerability will need to be built between you.
5. Encourage Your Spouse to Get Support
Quite often, betrayed spouses feel very isolated. If they do reach out to a friend and disclose what has happened, then they bear the shame and stigma of being that poor wife/husband that got cheated on. On the other hand, being alone in your pain is a greater misery than just having the pain. This can leave them caught between a rock and a hard place.
Encourage your spouse to reach out to a trustworthy, confidential friend or two, or to family members. Ideally, if you want to save your marriage, these people should be friends of the marriage, and not just someone who is going to give your spouse pity or vilify you. Yes, they will need to provide support for your spouse, but they need to be able to do so with the aim of helping you rebuild your marriage.
As well, it is good to help your spouse understand what we have already discussed: that betrayal often causes symptoms of trauma. And while you have caused that trauma, you cannot heal it for him/her and so, regrettably, you have also tasked them with the need to get some counseling help as well. There are therapists who specialize in betrayal trauma: we offer this in our online counseling agency, and we can help people via secure video calls. In many parts of the country, these specialists are also available.
 MeowLan Evelyn Chan, “‘Why Did You Hurt Me?’ Victim’s Interpersonal Betrayal Attribution and Trust Implications” 13, no. 3 (2009): 262–74, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017138.
 “PTSD: National Centre for PTSD,” n.d., https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/anger.asp.
 J.S. Fraser, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Unifying Effective Pyschotherapies: Tracing the Process of Change, 2018, 20, https://doi.org/doi.org/10.1037/0000078-009.
 Kimberly Flemke, “Triggering Rage: Unresolved Trauma in Women’s Lives” 31, no. 2 (2009), https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-009-9084-8.
 Stephen Porges, Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation
(London, 2011), https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=0-nxBGHj36oC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=polyvagal+theory+rage&ots=tfyDgln2gk&sig=4rFi-k45sMVkXSYsq1BMaD–C1s&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=polyvagal%20theory%20rage&f=false.
 John Mark Haney and Leslie Hardie, “Psychotherapeutic Considerations for Working With Betrayed Spouses: A Four Task Recovery Model,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy 35 (2014): 401–13, https://doi.org/10.1002/anzf.1073.
 Carl Stewart, “3 Essential Responses to Your Spouse’s Betrayal Trauma Triggers,” CovenantEyes (blog), 2019, https://www.covenanteyes.com/2019/02/25/3-essential-responses-to-your-spouses-betrayal-trauma-triggers/.
 Haney and Hardie, “Psychotherapeutic Considerations for Working With Betrayed Spouses: A Four Task Recovery Model.”