What is Betrayal Trauma? (Betrayal trauma is a reality for both genders; however for the sake of clarity, female pronouns will be used.)

In her book Intimate Deception, Sheri Keffer defines betrayal trauma as, “the act of being unfaithful to a spouse or significant other when there has been a commitment to exclusive fidelity. A violation of trust occurs when your spouse or significant other uses deception and manipulation to put more time, emotional and sexual energy or resources into another entity. This includes pornography, emotional and physical affairs, cybersex, hookups, flirting, sexting, massage parlors, prostitution, strip clubs, child pornography, sexual fetishes, cross-dressing, or undisclosed relationships with the same sex (2018).“ Regardless the type of betrayal, this kind of relational trauma undermines the committed relationship and can profoundly impact the well-being of the betrayed.

The Impact of Betrayal Trauma

Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you? I vividly remember this happening to me as a young girl. I was goofing around with my brother and he “karate kicked” me in the stomach. The kick instantly knocked the wind out of me; it left me crumpled on the floor — momentarily paralyzed — unable to breathe, cry or even scream. I felt nauseatingly dizzy until my body recovered from the blow. Amazingly, our bodies are designed to recover from isolated traumatic events and can do so quite well. This may look like a car accident, a serious fall, the aftermath of an earthquake, or even a karate kick to the abdomen. Unlike these isolated events, intimate betrayal is often ongoing trauma, subjecting a spouse to a pattern of deception and hurt over a long period of time. Not surprisingly, recovery from ongoing trauma like this is exponentially more difficult. With repeated trauma, wounds of the betrayed spouse or partner get ripped open again and again, deepening the wound and stretching scars. 

Surviving a small earthquake is one thing, but living with constant aftershocks and the threat of “the big one” can devastate a person’s ability to heal. Betrayal trauma can be described like this: With her foundation shaking and walls crumbling, a betrayed spouse cannot gain balance. Constantly exhausted, and only able to make small, temporary repairs between shocks, lasting healing and repair seem out of reach as she must continue to endure more damage and destruction with each progressive quake. With her world quite literally turned upside down, she questions what is true? With broken trust at the heart of her most intimate relationship, she doesn’t know who to trust, including herself. She becomes confused, isolated and doubtful; questioning herself and the reality she has lived: “What went wrong?” “How did I miss this?” “Am I enough?” The lack of sure footing can even leave her wondering if she has somehow caused the betrayal. Even the image of God may become distorted as she doubts God’s love and presence in her story. 

Unattended to, the crushing physical, emotional, and spiritual pain can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include indescribable fear, reliving the initial experience (often the moment of initial discovery), negative self-talk and self-blame. This can also manifest feelings of shame, guilt, and unpredictable, erratic emotions (leading to anxiety, racing thoughts, crying, yelling, changes in appetite, insomnia and loss of personal safety). Feeling alone in this struggle, and unable to see the solid ground she once stood on, a survivor of betrayal trauma may feel totally lost, unsure how to put one foot in front of the other or where to find help.

The Way Forward

If you are dealing with symptoms like any of the aforementioned, especially if you have discovered an intimate betrayal, you are not alone. There is help available – probably very nearby. Support from an empathetic community, which includes a therapist trained in treating the impact of relational trauma, can help you begin the process of healing. You may feel tempted to withdraw from family and friends. You may feel embarrassed, wondering what people will think of you, and even of the betrayer. You may long for the problem to get fixed and go away without anybody else having to know about it. These are all normal and understandable feelings! However, this is also the voice of shame speaking. Shame leads to isolation and is the breeding ground for a life lived in darkness — denial, confusion, self-condemnation, and ultimately the breakdown of daily functioning. 

In contrast, empathy, awareness, and understanding bring light! They help dismantle shame and fear. Instead of choosing to listen to the voices of shame, press into your courage by choosing two safe friends with whom you can share your heart and pain. “Safe” people are friends or family who will take confidentiality seriously and have the ability to hold your story and struggle with you (unless you give permission for it to be shared). These individuals are not judgmental, are able to show compassion, and are often those you consider to be trusted truth tellers in your life. Those who fit this description would be a good place to begin. As you move forward, having a small number of safe friends to walk with you and pray for you when you become weary will be a lifeline. 

This is a tall order on friendship, and not all friendships can endure this type of situation, which is why you also need to add an understanding therapist to your community of support. Therapists vary — there is no “one size fits all” and that’s a good thing. You can find one that feels like a fit to you. Not sure where to find this kind of support? Living Wholehearted has a variety of practitioners who can point you in the right direction. The way forward will require courage and vulnerability. You will engage in your own story at a deeper level. You may identify lies that you’ve believed while finding your own voice. You can begin to re-create safety by establishing boundaries in your relationships and recognizing unhealthy patterns sooner. Ultimately, you CAN find forgiveness, hope and healing.

Written by Felicia Wallberg, MA, LPC Intern

Next Steps:

Come hear Felicia Wallberg and Dr. Sheri Keffer speak at the InCourage 2020 Gathering next March 13 & 14, 2020. 

You can also seek support and healing through counseling and therapeutic groups this Fall at Living Wholehearted. 

From Hurt to Hope (Women’s Group): Group therapy for women working on healing from the sexual betrayal of their partner. Sexual betrayal, which includes affairs and sexual/porn addictions, can be incredibly painful experiences nothing short of traumatic. All too often the secrets or delayed disclosure of these events leave women feeling lost, unsure of truth, untrusting, angry, depressed, and lonely. In this group, women will be able to process through their experiences in a confidential setting, share their stories with other group members, and learn to establish safety, set boundaries, and grieve to ultimately aid in restoring emotional and relational healing.

When: Tuesday evenings 7:00-8:30, September 17 – December 17

Materials: Intimate Deception by Sheri Keffer

Details: $650 for 13 week group to be paid in full on or before the start date. If you need a payment plan, please consult with Felicia. 

Facilitated by Felicia Wallberg, MA, LPC Intern

If interested, please contact Felicia at 503-773-8600 or by email Felicia@livingwholehearted.com (To determine if this group is the best fit, all participants need to complete a screening by Felicia or be a direct referral from the Living Wholehearted team).