Discovering that your spouse has had an affair or has in some way been sexually unfaithful is often an extremely traumatic event. You’ll feel like the boundaries of your marriage have been violated, your trust in your spouse has been destroyed, and even your own identity has been shaken.
Betrayal As Trauma
The first thing we want to do is just confirm that a betrayal can represent trauma.
Trauma has been happening since the dawn of time, but as a psychological concept, I think the Vietnam war really put it on the map as veterans came back and many of them with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And for a long time trauma was considered something that happened mainly to war veterans, often police officers and other first responders.
Not to make light of any of what those men and women go through in service for our freedom and safety, but we have also come to realize that trauma is actually an even more widespread experience.
Think, for example, of the core elements of trauma from war: near-death experiences (or having witnessed others die suddenly), feelings of overwhelm and helplessness, or when too much happens too fast and too soon.
Well, in a relational context if you consider your marriage a safe zone — and you should, if your marriage is healthy — and then all of a sudden you find out that what you thought was safe is actually very unsafe and threatening through the disclosure of an affair, as an example, then you have trauma. You have too much happening too fast and too soon. Your world implodes, you may even feel that your safety is incredibly threatened — do I have an STD now? There is often overwhelm as your world crumbles and a feeling of helplessness because you cannot undo what has already happened.
The disclosure of betrayal then quickly shakes the foundation of your life and marriage, leading to symptoms of trauma similar to what veterans experience[i].
Betrayal Trauma Symptoms and Effects
Viewing betrayal as a trauma event can prepare you to make sense of the effects. It helps you understand what you are feeling and why. So let’s look at four of the major feelings and effects.
The betrayed spouse can feel an intense sense of loss following an affair. They feel that their marriage and their life as it was is now gone, and go through a grieving process. These spouses may also feel a loss of innocence, loss of safety, loss of purpose and loss of self-respect following an affair[ii].
The betrayed spouse has to deal with the “unnerving experience of feeling as though one has not the foggiest idea who this person is to whom one had pledged oneself in a committed relationship[iii]“. Since marriage is such a core part of a person’s identity, they may also be so shaken that they start to be unsure who they really are. This can lead to a state of emotional turmoil due to the rapid experience of all kinds of emotions (anger, sadness, hopelessness, fear, vulnerability etc)
Going through traumatic events such as betrayal often leads to high levels of emotional reactivity[iv]. Individuals who have gone through trauma often react very strongly to any trigger or situation that reminds them of the trauma. They can also have trouble regulating their emotions generally, leading to emotional outbursts, mood-swings or over-reactions to minor problems[v].
This is not meant as criticism but just to normalize that these kinds of behaviors are really just cascading effects of having gone through the profoundly difficult experience of betrayal trauma.
Betrayal can destroy all sense of trust between spouses so that trusting each other on little things becomes difficult. This means that conflict over little things is also much more likely, as the betrayed spouse can no longer trust that their husband/wife is being honest and has their best interests at heart[vi]. Often the lies and secrecy that surround an affair can be just as damaging as the act itself (if not more so), leading the betrayed spouse to be distrustful of anything their husband/wife says.
Making sense of Betrayal Trauma
Obviously, there are a lot more feelings and thoughts to process around a betrayal so the bonus guide for today’s episode does step you through all of that in much greater detail. The goal with trauma is to process the trauma so you don’t remain stuck in it. Trauma does not have to be the new you — rather, it is something you didn’t sign up for nor do you want but it is something that you can heal from. That’s what today’s bonus guide is intended to help you with. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Let’s turn towards helping our readers who have experienced betrayal trauma begin to manage that better and work through it.
As always, here at OnlyYouForever we have an online counseling agency with some of our therapist specializing in helping couples heal from betrayal and infidelity. To learn more about that counseling, just head over to the counseling menu and look for Infidelity Counseling to learn more about that.
How To Overcome Betrayal Trauma
One of the early goals for a betrayed spouse is to come to a place where you can feel safe in the marriage again. Re-establishing trust is a big part of this. That’s a process of course but as trust returns it helps you become less reactive to trauma triggers and it begins to make space for you to start processing and making sense of what happened.
From that place, the couple can work on more classic marriage issues like conflict resolution, learning new relationship skills, and eventually moving towards forgiveness and reconciliation[vii].
Safety is re-established through:
Honesty: the betraying spouse needs to fully disclose the extent of the affair. Thing like how long it went on, the identity of the affair partner(s), where you met, how often etc. It is not recommended that you share more detail than that or the details about the sexual encounters. This often just deepens the trauma, but knowing who when and where type details helps to establish safety.
The betraying spouse then needs to work on being fully transparent with their spouse, so as to “give them no further reasons for doubts or suspicions regarding one’s behavior”. So this could mean being fully transparent with your schedule, places you go, people you are seeing. Giving the betrayed spouse access to your phone/emails could also be useful to remove any suspicion[viii]. Be prepared to be far more honest and transparent than what is required in relationships where betrayal has not occurred.
Boundaries: clear boundaries need to be set up regarding the affair partner. For example, the betraying spouse might need to promise never to see that person again, or if the affair partner was a work colleague, specific boundaries may need to be set up as to what is acceptable so the betrayed spouse can feel safe. Telling your spouse if the affair partner has tried to get in contact with you may also be a rule the couple want to agree on, to remove any doubt[ix].
Again, remember that it is the lies that hurt more than anything so honesty around boundary violations, even if unintentional, is very important.
Expression: an important recovery step for the betrayed spouse is expressing to the betraying spouse how deeply you have been hurt by the affair. Aim to express the different ways it has impacted you, how your view of the marriage/your spouse has changed and how all this has made you feel[x].
Note that you are describing your experience primarily. Expression should be honest, but if expressed repeatedly with too much intensity or anger it may lead to escalating conflict. That’s a tough balance to find because you are allowed your anger, but if you cannot get off the attack mode it will become counterproductive at some point. Clear and honest emotional self-expression is needed here, which is often learned as part of marriage counseling.
Validation: the betraying spouse should try to understand and validate the emotions which the betrayed spouse is feeling. A key aim here is “To demonstrate to the hurt partner one’s care, concern and love by way of connecting with, accepting and validating the hurt partner’s emotional experience[xi]“. Often you may find yourself tempted to say, “No, you shouldn’t feel that” but it’s more important to validate the betrayed spouses experience rather than try to modify it to what you think it should be.
Recognition: when the betraying spouse starts working on the above things, the betrayed spouse should try to make room to recognize that he/she is making this effort to re-connect with them and rebuild the trust between them. Recognizing the fact that your spouse is making this effort can help rebuild the trust between you[xii].
Other Betrayal Trauma Tips
Look After Yourself
The intense emotional turmoil of a betrayal can cause both spouses to take less care of themselves physically (eating less/more, not sleeping enough, no social contact etc). This might seem like a really simple one but as we heard in our recent interview with associate therapist Sharon Snooks, it’s an important one too. Poor physical health can increase stress and make everything harder to deal with, so it is wise and helpful to just make extra time to take proper care of yourself[xiii].
Hold Onto Hope
Once the couple has started working on re-establishing emotional safety they should try to hold onto hope that the marriage can be restored. Aim not to see your marriage bond as being totally destroyed or lost, but rather believe that it can be restored. This hope is very important to help you keep going with the recovery process[xiv].
Dealing with the betrayal trauma is often considered the first stage of recovering from an affair[xv]. After this couples need to explore other issues, such as what happened in the marriage to allow the affair to take place, restoring intimacy and sex, and how they can start working towards forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our bonus content will look at this, but marriage therapy can often help couples look at these issues too, so please reach out if you’re going through this and you don’t know what to do.
[i] Robert F. Scuka, “A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Couples Heal from the Trauma of Infidelity,” Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy 14, no. 2 (April 3, 2015): 141–68, https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2014.953653.
[iv] Christal L. Badour and Matthew T. Feldner, “Trauma-Related Reactivity and Regulation of Emotion: Associations with Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms,” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 44, no. 1 (March 2013): 69–76, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2012.07.007.
[v] Badour and Feldner.
[vi] Scuka, “A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Couples Heal from the Trauma of Infidelity.”
[vii] Kristina Coop Gordon, “Forgiveness and Marriage: Preliminary Support for a Measure Based on a Model of Recovery from a Marital Betrayal,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 31, no. 3 (June 2003): 179–99.
[viii] Scuka, “A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Couples Heal from the Trauma of Infidelity.”
[ix] Gordon, “Forgiveness and Marriage.”
[x] Kristina Coop Gordon, Donald H. Baucom, and Douglas K. Snyder, “Optimal Strategies in Couple Therapy: Treating Couples Dealing with the Trauma of Infidelity,” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 38, no. 3 (September 2008): 151–60, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10879-008-9085-1.
[xi] Scuka, “A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Couples Heal from the Trauma of Infidelity.”
[xiii] Gordon, Baucom, and Snyder, “Optimal Strategies in Couple Therapy.”
[xiv] Scuka, “A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Couples Heal from the Trauma of Infidelity.”
[xv] Gordon, Baucom, and Snyder, “Optimal Strategies in Couple Therapy.”