Coping with Betrayal Trauma
By: Kristen Lipari, Ph.D. | October 27, 2023
Betrayal is a deeply painful and disorienting experience. When you experience betrayal, it can feel like your whole world dropped from underneath you, which undermines your sense of trust, safety, and self-worth.
As a psychologist who specializes in trauma and who works with women in the perinatal phase, I am acutely aware that marital satisfaction significantly decreases from pregnancy to a year after birth for partners of both genders. While many couples cope through this sudden drop off in marital satisfaction, some individuals look outside of their marriage to meet their needs. Of course, infidelity can occur in other stages of marriage and doesn’t always imply a physical affair. Betrayal of this type can also include emotional infidelity, financial betrayal, and online infidelity.
Understanding Post Betrayal Syndrome
Once betrayal occurs, the effects are devastating and overwhelming. First let’s understand the symptoms of post-betrayal syndrome. The term, coined by Dr. Debi Silber, refers to the cluster of physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms that occur following a betrayal. To heal, one must recognize and address these symptoms.
- Physical symptoms include sleep concerns, loss of energy, fatigue, weight changes, and digestive issues.
- Emotional and psychological symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, disbelief, difficulty focusing, shock, sadness, hurt, anger, anxiety, distrust, avoidance, feeling stuck and lost.
According to Dr. Silber, there are five stages of post-betrayal transformation (PBT), a term that includes healing from betrayal. Below is my interpretation of these stages from a CBT/ACT lens:
Stage 1: The “Set Up” Stage
In this stage, you may only be focused on the physical and mental dimensions of wellbeing and neglect your spiritual and emotional wellness. This leaves you vulnerable to distress. Often, we are on autopilot in this stage and focus solely on the practical aspects of life, while neglecting our emotional wellbeing. This is often the case before betrayal; we neglect our relationships and are unaware of our feelings.
Stage 2: Shock
When betrayal first occurs, it’s common to reject the experience to protect yourself from the painful reality. In this stage, you feel disbelief, disoriented, numb, and may have difficulty processing recent events. This stage aligns with the fight/flight/freeze response in trauma research.
Stage 3: Survival Instincts
In this stage you begin to address your practical needs. You ask yourself questions including: Where do I go? Who can I trust? How do I manage the kids? When confronted with very difficult circumstances, you might use unhealthy coping strategies to cope and numb away the pain. It is common to stay in this stage because we tend to feel more in control when we address these practical questions. Remaining in this stage prevents further healing.
Stage 4: Finding and Adjusting to a New Normal
In this stage you reckon with the people and values you want to maintain in your life, and what you decide to leave behind. Before you can find and adjust to a new normal, it is important to meet with a licensed San Diego psychologist with specialized training in the treatment of trauma. Working with a qualified therapist to help you address symptoms of trauma will help you clarify your values, attend to your relationship needs, and discover healthy activities that make you feel good about yourself.
Stage 5: Healing and a New Worldview
In this stage you start to create new boundaries and develop a new, balanced worldview informed by the values and needs defined in Stage 4. Dr. Silber’s model comes full circle in this stage, when the transgressed attends not only to their physical and mental wellbeing, but also to their emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Importance of Support
Specialized and professional support is essential to help you navigate through the last stages of PBT. These stages are crucial because this is where the real healing occurs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) lends itself well to these stages, as an action-oriented approach. A skilled CBT therapist at Therapy Changes can help you explore your values and needs and address intrusive and negative thought patterns. During therapy you will learn tools and techniques to help you create a new worldview, challenge self-blame, and regain control over your thinking.
In addition to professional therapy, be sure to increase your social support, practice self-compassion to counter self-blame, set healthy boundaries, and engage in self-care activities to feel better about yourself and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
If you’ve been hurt and need professional support and guidance, the team at Therapy Changes are here for you. You don’t have to go through this on your own. With the support of a San Diego psychologist who specializes in trauma, you can emerge from betrayal trauma stronger and more resilient than before.