Betrayal Trauma Theory was first developed in the 1990’s by Dr. Jennifer Freyd, whose initial target population was those who survived childhood sexual abuse, she herself grappling with memories of her father’s abuse. Since its origin, betrayal trauma theory has expanded to include any betrayal by a person or institution upon which the victim relies for survival, in all senses. The reliance on another for financial support, physical sustenance, or emotional connection all qualify as survival dependence. As betrayal trauma theory gained steam and research emerged to support Freyd’s work, it has been applied at macro levels regarding government betrayal of its citizens, for example, as well as the micro level of interpersonal abuse or violence. Betrayal trauma has come to describe what a person experiences upon discovering their partner’s sexual betrayal.
When I was a student therapist, I was invited to join a small group of fellow graduate students to run the Las Vegas branch of a successful addiction recovery program. I hesitated to join this endeavor mostly because I felt stretched a little too thin between graduate school and family life (my husband was deployed and I was expecting my second baby while caring for our eldest alone). It only took 24 hours for me to realize this invitation presented a valuable long-term opportunity, and any short-term stressors would be just that: short-term. So I said yes and immediately started reading the prescribed book list.
In all the reading I did over the next two years, in all the conferences I attended on addiction and sexuality, in all the groups I led and sessions I held with clients, I never once heard the term “betrayal trauma.” It wasn’t until I began working with a different, newer addiction recovery program that I was first introduced to the concept. Turns out, betrayal trauma is exactly what I’d been helping dozens of women navigate in the aftermath of their husbands’ addictions, but the label had never been presented to me (nor had I known to look for it). I’d been grappling with language, trying to find the right verbiage to describe what was happening to all of these people, using phrases like “partners of those struggling with addiction” as an effort to honor the effects others’ addiction had on them while simultaneously rejecting harmful labels like “codependents” or “co-addicts.” “Betrayal trauma” came to embody, in a validating and honorable way, what I’d seen firsthand with so many women.
Finally, the language felt right. But what really fascinated me was the science behind the words. Betrayal trauma has been found to mirror the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Below are the criteria for PTSD diagnosis, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5), published by the American Psychological Association:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through one or more of the following: flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and emotional distress and/or physical reactivity to triggers.
- Avoidance of triggers, either emotional/mental or physical/literal.
- Development or worsening of negative thoughts or feelings in two or more of the following ways: inability to recall key features of the trauma, overly negative thoughts or assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma, negative affect, decreased interest in activities, feeling isolated, difficulty experiencing positive affect.
- Arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the trauma in two or more ways (irritability or aggression, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilance, heightened startle response, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping).
- Exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence via direct exposure, witnessing the trauma, learning that a relative or loved one was exposed, indirect exposure to aversive details of trauma (usually in the course of professional duties, e.g. first responders). (Thanks to the National Center for PTSD for much of the language used here.)
I had witnessed every single one of the criteria above in my work with clients, most of whom came to me for help in the direct aftermath of their partner’s sexual betrayal. These weren’t car accident survivors or abuse victims or war veterans: these are women who felt blindsided by the revelation of their husband’s infidelity. Dr. Kevin Skinner’s research reveals the overlap between the symptoms of those who experience sexual betrayal and the criteria described above. To put it simply: betrayal trauma creates post-traumatic stress. And at times, PTSD is the appropriate diagnosis for those in betrayal trauma.
In short, what sexual betrayal and the ensuing betrayal trauma is:
- Experienced as a direct threat to the survival of self and dependents.
- Manifested through intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, and somatic reactivity.
- Effects cognitive abilities (recall is impaired, memories are lost).
- Significantly alters view of self, view of other (partner), view of the relationship, view of the world, view of the future.
- Aggravates already existing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
- Unpredictable, crazy-making, sense of loss of control.
- Activates grief, shame, self-blame, and any prior traumas.
What betrayal trauma from sexual betrayal is not:
- Abnormal. This is a normal response to an abnormal situation.
- Inappropriate. This is an appropriate response to an inappropriate situation.
- Codependency. If your betrayal trauma is due to your partner’s addiction, your being affected by it is NOT because you are codependent. It is because you are human (having, again, a normal and appropriate response to trauma).
- Co-addiction. Your partner’s problem with addiction does not automatically create addiction in you.
- Your fault. You have made some mistakes in your relationship, yes. You may have even practiced some enabling behaviors, maybe haven’t had strong boundaries, maybe lived in some denial or even turned a blind eye to sexual betrayal. And still, this isn’t your fault. You can’t read minds and you cannot control anyone outside yourself.
- Crazy. You aren’t going crazy, even though you may feel like you are. You aren’t crazy for reacting strongly or being affected by sexual betrayal. In fact, the opposite is true: you are very sane because your mind and body are responding the way they’re designed to.
- Predictable. You will get a handle on your post-traumatic stress and feel like you know what to expect. Then things will change, and you’ll adjust again. Sometimes betrayal trauma is predictable, but most of the time it’s not.
- Stagnant. Because so much changes as our brains and bodies try to heal, there may be conscious or subconscious trial and error. As you read and learn more, go to therapy, get good at self-care, you’ll try new things, and those new things will affect you differently than the old things. This may be good and right, this may not work for you and you’ll try something else new or go back to your old ways. It will all change.
- Forever. As long as you work, as long as you face the trauma, as long as you keep at it, betrayal trauma will not run your life forever. It will never have not happened, and it will not be in control for the long-term. With consistent work over a relatively short period of time (given how long most lives are), you will heal.
Education is a vital part of healing from trauma due to sexual betrayal. Arm yourself with information. Bookmark this article and others like it. Read books (such as Dr. Skinner’s Treating Trauma from Sexual Betrayal) to dig deep into what it takes to heal. Follow Instagram accounts like mine to get bits of education and support. The more you learn, the more you’ll want to learn, and the better you’ll feel about how to actually heal.