How to Heal from Betrayal Trauma
A Heroes’ Journey Through Betrayal Trauma
Chris’ life has just been turned upside down, picking up her husband’s cellphone and discovering a loving message to his affair partner. Her brain is spinning; her emotions are all over the map. She feels embarrassed and alone, disconnected and detached from reality, questioning whether her entire relationship has been an enormous lie, questioning her attractiveness, her sexuality, and her ability ever to trust anyone again. She feels as if she were just pushed out of an airplane and falling with no parachute.
As therapists specializing in out of control sexual behavior, infidelity and trauma, We’ve seen firsthand that betrayal Trauma is real. The shock is debilitating and can last for years. Betrayed partners’ lives are broken to pieces, overwhelmed with shame, thinking, “how could I be so stupid not to realize what was happening right under my nose?” “I’m such a fool for trusting him.” They feel they are going crazy. But these feelings are all normal. This is probably the most shocking and confounding crisis they have ever experienced. Most partners say discovering that their beloved betrayed them is by far the worst crisis of their life. After all, they thought they knew him and never thought he would cheat. It rocks the very foundation of the values they believed in and lived within. What is most disturbing is that they were going about their daily routine in the safety of their own home, and, in an instant, a discovery upends their world. It happens through a knock at the door, a random text, the ring of the telephone, a call from a disgruntled affair partner, or the most common form of discovery–turning on the computer to check email.
The shock is so profound in the first moment, the first hour, and the first day that it is hard to comprehend. It feels as though it can’t be happening and is surreal. It feels as if you are suddenly outside of yourself watching a movie, watching yourself react and not feeling connected to your own body. International Trauma Expert Dr. Peter Levine states that when we are in a situation that our brain experiences as frightening, we automatically go into a freeze
response. We are thrust into a primal survival strategy, commonly referred to as being like a “deer in the headlights.” It is the state of being “beside yourself.” Partners describe it as being frozen, numb, like being in an altered state. Being lied to in such a profound manner by your partner, lover, sweetheart, beloved is abnormal and unprecedented.
Answering the Why Question
The ‘why’ question is what betrayed partners find themselves coming back to over and over again. ‘Why did you engage in this behavior?’ ‘Why did you lie…repeatedly?’ Betrayed partners often feel they can’t move on and find closure without knowing the answer to the ‘why’ question. The painful truth is that there is no good reason, and for the partner, no right answer. It can be challenging for betrayed partners to hear and can take time to process fully. Though they may not understand the ‘Why?’ behind the behavior, betrayed partners can gain answers that help provide clarity and make healing possible for you and the relationship.
Daphne, a heartbroken partner, describes her ‘why’ questions; “WHAT were you thinking? Was I the only one longing to share my life with you? What makes you think you can take a stripper and her child to Disneyland, tell me, and then expect me to stand for it? How could you use my faith and religion against me by saying, “aren’t you supposed to forgive”? Judge not that you yourself be judged” and, most offensive, “I think you were put on this earth to save me…” Why did you even marry me? Why did you stay married to me? What does love mean to you? You obviously have no heart. How could you look me in the eyes and see how much pain I was and how unloved I felt and continue giving our money to your girlfriend? Why did you promise me that you wouldn’t ever cheat on me as my father had done? How can you say, “it’s not about you?” You admitted to me that you never considered my feelings- Why? You acknowledged that you lied to your family about me, portraying me as a horrible spouse so that you would feel justified to continue your affair. Why did you need to go that far?”
These are the questions that every betrayed partner asks. Betrayed partners believe they can not heal without knowing why their beloved cheated on them. Like the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the reasons lie deep below the surface for chronic betrayers.
The question is, “Why would someone who appears to be functioning well act against their morals and values?” Are these folks sex addicted, or is sex addiction an excuse for bad behavior?
Dr. Lori Gottlieb, in her weekly column in New York Magazine (May 11, 2017), Welcome to What Your Therapist Really Thinks, wrote a piece entitled, “Is My Husband Having an Affair?”
In her response to a letter from a reader, she mentions that whenever somebody comes into her office to discuss infidelity, she wonders what other infidelities might be going on. Not necessarily other affairs – but the more subtle ways of straying from our partners can also threaten a marriage.
Patrick Carnes, Ph.D. in Contrary to Love, states his research indicates that 97% of sexual addicts were emotionally abused as children. They were raised in unhealthy or dysfunctional homes with parents who did not give them the care essential to their healthy growth and development. Poverty, mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, or crime are among the many reasons individuals turn to sexually compulsive behavior as adults. As a result, sexually addicted people have negative core beliefs about themselves. They feel alone and afraid and believe they are unworthy of love; they believe that no one can truly love them because they are unlovable. Therefore, they learn from a very young age that intimacy is dangerous in real life and that they can only trust themselves to meet their needs.
In an article entitled “Can Serial Cheaters Change” at PsychCentral.com, Dr. Linda Hatch discussed two reasons people cheat, both due to deep insecurities. Some who cheat feel intimidated by their spouse in the same way they felt threatened in their childhood homes. A real-life connection is terrifying to someone who was not shown love as a child. They seek affair partners, pornography, or pay for sex to avoid “real life” connections. Dr. Carnes’s second book, Don’t Call It Love, is aptly titled; acting out is not about love or sex but instead, acting out numbs the overwhelming agony of being loved by a real-life partner.
The Root of Addiction is Trauma
At the root of addiction is trauma. Trauma is the problem, and for some, sexual acting out is the solution – until the solution fails. And it always fails and results in more trauma. Deep wounds suffered young cause a level of pain that overwhelms the child. Because human beings are built to stay alive, the brain banishes the ordeal’s worst feelings and memory. It locks them away to keep the child alive. Understanding the brain science of trauma and addiction enables the betrayed partner to see the big picture. The acting out had very little to do with the relationship or the partner.
The Brain Science
Many mental health professionals do not believe sex addiction is a legitimate disorder. Therapists often think that the partner is the problem because they’re “not enough”; not attentive enough, not available enough, not sexual enough, not thin enough, not voluptuous enough. Sex therapists (not to be confused with sex addiction therapists) believe that sexual expression is healthy – regardless of the behavior. Understanding the science that drives the addictive process is vital for your wellness, lest you take responsibility for your betrayer’s acting out. Understanding the brain science that causes a process addiction is essential to understanding how something that isn’t a chemical substance can be addictive.
In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate, M.D. describes childhood adversity and addiction, noting that early experiences play a crucial role in shaping perceptions of the world and others. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1998 explains that “Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs (e.g., a child being abused, violence in the family, a jailed parent, extreme stress of poverty, a rancorous divorce, an addicted parent, etc.), have a significant impact on how people live their lives and their risk of addiction and mental and physical illnesses.”.
There are two types of addictions; substance and process (or behavioral) addictions. Process addictions refer to a maladaptive relationship with an activity, sensation, or behavior that the person continues despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to maintain mental health and function at work, home, and community. Surprisingly, an otherwise pleasurable experience can become compulsive. When used to escape stress, it becomes a way of coping that never fails. Typical behaviors include gambling, spending, pornography, masturbation, sex, gaming, binge-watching television, and other high-risk experiences.
Process addictions increase Dopamine. Dopamine is a naturally occurring and powerful pleasure-seeking chemical in the brain. When activities are used habitually to escape pain, more Dopamine is released in the brain. The brain rapidly adjusts to a higher level of dopamine. The “user” quickly finds themselves on a hamster wheel, seeking more exciting, more dangerous, more erotic, or more taboo material to maintain the Dopamine rush. The brain has adapted to the ‘new normal.’ The brain depends on a higher level of dopamine to regulate the central nervous system. It quickly becomes the only way to reduce stressors; the person struggling with addiction ends up doing and saying things they will soon regret but cannot seem to stop on their own. Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., aptly refers to this as the hijacked brain.
Once the brain is hijacked, the downward spiral of craving more and more dopamine affects higher-level thinking and reasoning.
The Formal Disclosure Process
Healing begins with a formal disclosure process guided, ideally, by Certified Sex Addiction Therapists. Betrayed partners often have difficulty making sense of their reality on their own. There are so many unanswered questions, and each question has ten questions behind it. Betrayers are reluctant to answer questions because they fear the answers will cause the betrayed partner more harm and, therefore, will cause them harm. However, withholding information causes harm! Betrayed partners report difficulty getting the whole truth on their own. If their betrayer does break down and answer questions, they will not get the entire story because the betrayer is in denial. They are in denial that they are in denial! A CSAT-led disclosure is the best way to get the information necessary to make the most important decision of their life. Will the betrayed partner stay in the relationship or leave?
Let the Healing of The Tattered Heart Begin
Maya Angelou said, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”
Partners who continue to be consumed with seeking information are tortured – not by the behavior but by their unrelenting quest to uncover all of the lies. Initially, information-seeking helps decrease panic and the horrible loss of power experienced after discovery. However, searching for information or signs of acting out quickly becomes all-consuming. Without intervention, intense emotions lead to faulty thinking, which becomes a force from within which fuels anger, rage, and revenge. The powerful energy inside can be like a runaway train gaining speed until it crashes.
Betrayed partners learn that betrayers live in a state of secret destructive entitlement. There are no reasons that excuse their behavior. Although no amount of abuse or suffering that one endures excuses inflicting harm on those they love the most, it helps to make sense of their deception. Education about the conditions that led to the betrayer’s choices and decisions is essential for the betrayed partner’s healing. Still, it is in no way a justification or vindication of egregious behavior. It is complicated to understand that there are two truths for people who struggle with sex addiction: they love their partner (the way they know love) and act out sexually with themselves or others. Betrayed partners come to understand that addiction is, literally, a division of the self.
Reflection & Reconstruction
Betrayal trauma causes a fracture in the foundation of a relationship and the foundation of self. The secrets, lies, gaslighting, and deception throughout a relationship are a silent cancer that consumes the infrastructure. The most devastating aspect of discovery is that the entire system that holds one together begins to collapse into itself.
For the betrayed, healing involves self-reflection. Although they didn’t create the problem, their mental health requires them to face aspects of themselves that have been affected by infidelity and deception. During their therapy, partners face the reality of their relationship and reflect on what they need to let go of, grieve what was lost, and learn to let go of anger. Letting go creates space to build inner strength and accept love back into their hearts.
In 1711, Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
Healing of the mind, heart, and soul can happen regardless of the magnitude of the deception. Without a healing/recovery process, the betrayed partner’s anger intensifies and can cause them harm. As anger ferments, it can lead to rage. Rage can wreak havoc on the body leading to health problems. The solution is forgiveness. Many partners worry that they are expected to forgive their betrayer. The behavior is unforgivable. To be clear, forgiveness frees ones’ own heart from the prison of anger.
Forgiveness is not forgetting or approval. Forgiveness is not condoning bad behavior. Forgiveness is a process of opting out of anger and the need for revenge–forgiving the human qualities that lead people to act in terrible ways. Forgiveness is a decision that is made daily.
Release: Facing the Heroes’ Journey
After discovering a beloved’s infidelity and deception, when a partner accepts the call to action, they turn inward and begin their own heroes’ journey. This journey requires courage, loyalty, and temperance. Each phase of the journey is purifying, grinding down, shedding, and brushing away unhealthy attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Your heroes’ journey brings the betrayed to a state of letting go to receive.
The Dark Night of the Soul
Eckart Tolle describes the dark night of the soul as a collapse of the perceived meaning of life, the meaning they gave to their life. The discovery of infidelity, deception, and trickery causes a shattering of all that defined the partner’s life – accomplishments, activities, everything that they considered important was invalidated.
At the bottom of the abyss is salvation; the blackest moment is the moment where transformation begins; It is always darkest before the dawn. The only way to heal is to head straight into the fire toward restoration.
The restoration phase is all about finding meaning in life again. This doesn’t mean the partner won’t have any feelings of sadness or longing, but they will also have moments of happiness again. There are two tasks in this last phase of the heroes’ journey: reclaim their life with a new story that includes the bruises and scars bound together with integrity and pride and restore oneself to wholeness. The heroes’ journey elevates the suffering to a sacred place. Before putting it all back together, partners must find their meaning in their own personal heroes’ journey.
To accomplish this, partners have to discover how to make meaning out of suffering.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1945), Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, said that, even in the worst suffering, having a sense of purpose provides strength. He said there is no hope to survive if suffering is perceived as useless. Finding purpose transforms suffering into a challenge. Dr. Frankl believed that in the worst of circumstances, there are two choices; To assume that we cannot change what happens to us, leaving our only option to be a prisoner of our circumstance; or to accept that we cannot change what happened to us but that we can change our attitude toward it. A more potent, resilient, and positive attitude allows us to realize our life’s’ meaning. Through their heroes’ journey, betrayed partners learn that their brokenness leads to wisdom and deeper meaning in their lives.
Michele Saffier, L.M.F.T, C.S.A.T-S
Michele Saffier has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist since 1993. As Clinical Director and Founder of Michele Saffier & Associates, she and her clinical team have worked with couples, families, betrayed partners, and people recovering from sexually compulsive behavior for twenty-four years. She lectures to professional audiences on betrayal trauma, including the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Therapists (IITAP), the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), S-ANON (12-step program for families of people with sexual addiction), among others.
Michele is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist and Supervisor, Level III Attachment-Focused EMDR Practitioner, Level III trained in Gottman Method, Certified Clinical Trauma Practitioner, Certified Adolescent Group Psychotherapist, received advanced training in psychodrama and experiential methods, and currently a Level I Internal Family Systems practitioner.
As Co-Founder of The Center for Healing Self and Relationships, she facilitates outpatient treatment intensives for individuals, couples, and families healing from the impact of betrayal trauma. A sought-after master clinician, Ms. Saffier consults with treatment centers on program development, trains clinicians on sex addiction and betrayal trauma, facilitates workshops in retreat settings, and maintains a private practice in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at www.TraumaHealingPa.com.
Allan J. Katz, LPC/CSAT is the co-author of Ambushed by Betrayal with Michele Saffier, LMFT/CSAT-S. Allan is Products Co-Chairman at the Association of Specialists in Group Work and the author of 5 books including Experiential Group Therapy Interventions with DBT, Help Her Heal with Carol Sheets, Hey! What About Me and Addictive Entrepreneurship. He has a private practice in Memphis, TN and can be reached at https://allanjkatz.com .