The Trauma of Intimate Partner Betrayal!

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association revealed a new diagnostic formulation in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Third Edition (DSM-III). The new formulation was called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis was intended to capture catastrophic stressors that were outside the range of usual human experience such as war, disasters, rape, and tragic deaths. The authors of the DSM-III considered traumatic events to be different from more common stressors even though they might be very painful psychologically. Stressful life experiences such as illness, financial setbacks, divorce, and interpersonal rejection were considered “adjustment disorders. Many of us considered this dichotomy to be a mistake when it came to rejection and divorce, especially when they involved intimate partner betrayal. In the subsequent revisions of the DSM, the traumatic stressor criterion has actually seemed to become even more narrow focusing on threats of injury or death or vicarious exposure to severe injury or death. This has weakened even further the concept of intimate partner betrayal as a traumatic experience. Once again a mistake.

                                              BETRAYAL AS A TRAUMATIC STRESSOR

        We are taught that to be truly happy in life we must learn to trust others. And so, often reluctantly, we let done our guard and we trust. When relationships become psychologically intimate, we have put our trust in another. We believe this person accepts us unconditionally, believes in us, and “has our back.” We cherish such a relationship because we believe our partner is understanding, faithful, and devoted in good times and bad. In a psychologically intimate relationship there is a powerful attachment and bond that is formed. Not only does this bond say to us we are understood, appreciated, and unconditionally accepted, it says we are safe. So powerful is this bond that there is evidence that the presence of a psychologically intimate partner can positively affect blood pressure and stress hormones. Psychologists have long known the deepest craving of human nature is the desire to be appreciated and to be safe.

        Betrayal by an intimate partner violates these core human desires and needs! It destroys the core assumptions upon which all enduring relationships must rest. Dr. Jeff Lating and I have written extensively about the important role that violated assumptions concerning yourself and others plays in the development of PTSD (Everly & Lating, 2013). Betrayal represents the traumatic death, not of a person, but of a relationship. So as you might expect individuals who have been betrayed by a partner in a trusting psychologically intimate relationship experience many of the symptoms of PTSD. They will often report guilt, depression, psychological numbing, suspiciousness, hyper-vigilance, withdrawal from others,  nightmares, and continually (almost addictively) reliving both the positive moments (longingly) and the negative moments (painfully) of the relationship, especially the moment of the revelation of the betrayal. And again as you might expect the betrayal engenders a terrible loss of self-esteem, the rise of self-doubt, the inability to trust again, and the desire to avoid relationships in the future.

                                             WHY BETRAYAL TRAUMA HURTS SO MUCH

Source: Jerzy Gorecki/Pixabay

        Intimate bonding with another person serves an important developmental role…it enhances the chances of survival in an otherwise hostile environment. As a result there are biological substrates that support the formation of psychologically intimate relationships. The hormone oxytocin increases the likelihood of forming an intimate relationship. Deep within the center of the brain, the cingulate cortex is believed to play a role in fostering attachment and bonding with others. Betrayal is likely to adversely affect these substrates. We know that violated attachments result in a rise in the immunosuppressive and catabolic hormone cortisol along with an apparent hypersensitivity within the amygdalocentric fight and flight centers of the limbic system (see Everly and Lating, 2013). The psychological injury of betrayal is likely to create a functional physical injury within brain that is challenging to recover from, but not impossible.

                              SEVEN WAYS OF HEALING BETRAYAL TRAUMA

        There are at least seven things that appear to foster the healing of betrayal trauma.

     1. Do not blindly blame yourself. Do not denigrate yourself. Avoid self-destructive coping behaviors. Do not compromise your integrity or the person you are or believe you can be.
     2. It’s ok to look back on the relationship to find things you would have done differently, but avoid the “blame game.”
     3. Avoid rebound relationships, they almost never turn out well. Resist the temptation to immediately fill the hole in your heart. Don’t not rush to replace the loss. You need time to consider what happened. Being alone for awhile is not a bad thing.
      4. Seek out success. Begin to focus on strengthening yourself and your self-confidence. Find something at which you can be successful. Start small at first if necessary. Remember Neitzsche’s declaration, what does not destroy you makes you stronger.
     5. Take care of your physical health. Avoid self-medication. Think about changes in your diet and activity levels. Exercise is a powerful anti-depressant. Rest is essential.
     6. Think about keeping a daily journal. In that way you can track your ups and downs and can identify the factors that slow your recovery and those factors that speed your recovery.
     7. In the final analysis, the best way to heal from betrayal trauma is to learn to trust again. It’s a risk, but anything worth having is failing for. The chance to find a kind, compassionate, and unconditionally accepting partner is well worth failing for.

     © George S. Everly, Jr., PhD, 2018.

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