I’d like to talk to you about betrayal trauma. How traumatic the experience may be for you depends on your personal trauma history and the level of betrayal and ongoing betrayal as well as your own personal resiliency. violation of a person’s trust or confidence, of a moral standard, etc. To get to betrayal trauma, let’s begin by unpacking the phrase with some definitions.
An emotional response of intense proportions to a distressing experience, resulting in levels of stress so overwhelming that a person loses their ability to cope in a positive and healthy manner and fails to integrate the emotions associated with the experience. This infects their sense of Self, leaving a person feeling both helpless and hopeless. Often a trauma attacks a person’s fundamental ideas about their life, the world and their place in both, leaving them with feelings of chaos and uncertainty.
A breach of confidence and trust resulting in psychological conflict within the violated relationship. It is a singular destruction of the standard of values and principles set together.
The first thing you might notice about that definition of betrayal is that it is rather general—it does not mention infidelity. That’s because betrayal is not the specific act, but the result or what the act does to you. For many of you, infidelity is the actions—or one of the actions—and feeling betrayed is the result. Many actions you have, or may experience as part of being a Left Behind Spouse with a partner in midlife crisis lead to feelings of betrayal.
The betrayal is not just about the broken promise of fidelity, but of broken dreams and promises for your no longer shared futures. Getting to those broken promises entailed lies, and theft. Some of you have been left financially destitute. There’s also the bait and switch in which a person with a completely different personality and system of values has replaced the person you married.
If you’re interested, I wrote about the physiology of shock and trauma in my series The Immediate and Prolonged Physiological Responses to Bomb Drop. I wrote this to show you how what you are experiencing physically and even mentally is normal! I’ve been where you are and I knowit doesn’t feel good. It’s scary and it may even seem that all the other LBSs you meet are doing so much better. We all go through this and we get through it–with a lot of support from each other, counselors, supportive friends and family and sometimes with medical assistance. You are normal.
You already know being betrayed is traumatic; you’re here reading this. You know that being a Left Behind Spouse is traumatic and you know that experiencing your spouse’s midlife crisis with all that midlife crisis entails certainly qualifies as betrayal trauma. Maybe those around you understood in the beginning when you were a puddle on the floor, but now they think you’re just taking too long, you’re wallowing, feeling sorry for yourself, stuck and maybe you’re even getting worse. Maybe you feel that way too.
The question is not whether this experience is traumatic, but why is it traumatic. So often we here trauma linked to physical or sexual violations, or the experiences of accident victims, soldiers and first responders or the sudden or premature loss of a loved one to death. Why does our psychological damage and destroyed lifestyle qualify as being a trauma? Perhaps you’re feeling guilty since your trauma must be nothing compared to combat, physical abuse or violence or your friend’s experience of losing their child. People divorce all the time, right? So why is it so hard for you? That may be what others are saying and perhaps you’ve been thinking it as well.
An assured reliance that a person will act within certain parameters that are based on experience through time within the context of present conditions and recent history rather than intentions. It is a response of assurance in both actions and emotions. It refers to relationships and how a person treats others.
Betrayal trauma is betrayed trust; your spouse broke your trust. You already know that, but do you know why breaking trust can be traumatizing? Think about what it meant to trust your spouse and what they did to break it. While you were busy being trusting, they were lying to you—either directly or by omission—about where they were and what they were doing. The damage their lies did to your psyche was not so much about them lying as it is about your trusting. They lied and you believed; you trusted. What does that say about you? You believed them without suspicion and if you did suspect or ask questions, their lies made sense and so you accepted them as truth. Your judgement is in question; you failed to detect their dishonesty. Does it really matter if they were really good at lying? How can you ever trust your judgment if someone can fool you so easily? What else are you wrong about? How can you trust yourself at all?
The loss of trust may be the most one of the most psychologically damaging. It is an internal loss that targets your sense of self. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson lists trust as the first building block in development. That means that trust is the foundation upon which all subsequent development is built. Without the ability to trust we lose our personal foundation. Autonomy—Erikson’s 2nd building block—rests upon trust, so losing our ability to trust may threaten our very sense of Self and our ability to think for and even care for ourselves. This is why infidelity and other forms of betrayal are so traumatic; they target your very sense of Self.
Next week I continue this topic with Gaslighting and review ways an MLCer might get you to doubt your experiences and believe their lies. Remember, forewarned is forearmed. If you are prepared for some of the things that may happen, you are prepared to respond, rather than react, and be expectant rather than shocked. Being expectant does not mean something will happen, but that you are prepared and understand that it is a possibility. Prepare for all scenarios while continuing to hope for the best.