Betrayal Causes Trauma

In matters of betrayal—lying, cheating, stealing—the breach of the attachment system is acute and often long lasting and can be understood neurologically as a trauma-related problem.

Franklin and Zeynep, a couple in their early 40s with two young children, came to therapy because of a discovered set of sexual affairs. Franklin, an American-born academician, was found to have an affair with one of his students. Zeynep, a Turkish-born emergency room nurse, discovered the affair after accidentally viewing Franklin’s phone text messages. The texts were explicitly sexual and contained incontrovertible evidence of Franklin’s deceptions and betrayals. Although Franklin was contrite and desperately wanted to be let back into the relationship, he had great difficulty dealing with Zeynep’s unrelenting preoccupation with his affair. She wanted to know details. Fearful of making matters worse, he refused to give details. Zeynep would wake up in the middle of the night crying, and suddenly burst into a rage while they drove to dinner. She did not want Franklin to touch her. He was not to sleep in their marital bed. Franklin’s patience was at an end. He began to believe that Zeynep was purposely punishing him and was invested in making his life a living hell. Neither partner wanted the relationship to end, but neither could escape the strong wake of the betrayal itself.

PACT therapists will recognize that betrayal by a primary attachment figure is likely to be processed as trauma. Betrayals in adult romantic partnerships most commonly revolve around sex and/or finances, but central to all betrayals is the matter of deception. Partners who feel deceived by their loved ones suffer a particular kind of loss that can affect the historical memory of that relationship. Deceived partners will review the entire relationship in an attempt to reorganize their experiences of self and other. This review reorients the memory toward doubt, fear, and rage. In Zeynep’s case, we see that she could not stop thinking about Franklin’s betrayal and demanding details. Even though he did not provide details, her brain filled in its own details, which fed her doubt and fear. Flooded by these emotions, she would alternately withdraw from him and rage at him.

Once initiated, this review process cannot be interrupted because the brain must reorganize and adapt to the new information. As in PTSD, the brain and body must metabolize the trauma and cope with amygdalar hyperactivity as the amygdala responds to multiple internal and external triggers. However, different from PTSD, betrayal forces a hippocampal review and re-contextualization of the past with new information from the present. PTSD usually does not compel the brain to review past events; in fact, victims of PTSD commonly wish to avoid any review of the traumatic event, and their hippocampal function can be compromised by the traumatic event.

Betrayal, therefore, usually leads to a preoccupation with the new reality-shattering information. This presents an enormous challenge to the couple attempting to recover from it. Like Zeynep, the victim cannot stop being preoccupied with the past, present, and future, nor escape the emotional volatility that accompanies this process. The perpetrator therefore must tolerate the other partner’s perseveration and emotional volatility, as well as the constant questioning, grief, and anger that come with the healing process. In this case, Franklin had to learn patience for the couple to have any chance at rebuilding their relationship. Somewhat ironically, the perpetrator is in a unique position as not only the cause of the trauma but also its solution. This is not an easy task for the perpetrator to perform. Yet, the PACT therapist takes the position that the betraying partner must provide ongoing and sufficient support to regulate disturbing states related to the trauma whenever they arise.

Copyright © 2003-2014 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved

9 Comments

  1. Lilly said,

    March 17, 2014 at 4:43 am

    I love reading your posts. I have nominated you for a Liebster Award. You can read about The Liebster Award at http://lilliesloves.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/liebster-award/

    Like

  2. March 20, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    This is an interesting post but what happens in a situation where the couple is traumatized, but there is no clear perpetrator/victim role. Or, let’s say, to be specific, that it was a DV situation where the victim enlisted the police, and the perpetrator feels victimized by the victim’s actions, or prior to those actions the perpetrator felt victimized by the victim’s demands for intimacy, relationship, that the avoidant perpetrator could not or would not give, or the perpetrator kept secrets for reasons that the perpetrator saw as justified (not sex or money but illness). If a perpetrator (of the DV) would not accept the role of perpetrator, how can he or she be part of the solution? This would seem to have implications for political betrayal as well.

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  3. yan said,

    March 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    If I am the perpetrator, how can I provide that”support” if the other person won’t even let me come close.

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    • March 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm

      Excellent question but the response really depends on the specifics, something that we cannot get into here.

      Like

      • Angela Braden said,

        April 1, 2014 at 7:50 pm

        Dr. Tatkin, do make recommendations for other therapists who practice the way you do, who have perhaps trained under you? I live in Atlanta.

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      • April 3, 2014 at 3:51 am

        Send an email to kara@stantatkin.com and we’ll take care of you.

        Like

  4. Beth O'Malley said,

    June 11, 2014 at 6:21 am

    This is a very important post. Thanks. I have heard therapists refer to it in many circles. Now – what do I do with the patient who will not stop with borderline rants about her partner’s affair – he has come clean, shared details, offered genuine apologies, offered solace, given his wife space… He is able to listen to these rants, but the toll is horrific. The affair didn’t last long. He has not had another affair. The betrayal happened ages ago… Seems like a wall, fear… Bending metal gets us back to, “we are in this for the long haul.” She is so angry and so sad that her life isn’t what she wants it to be.

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    • June 28, 2014 at 6:06 am

      Here’s the extremely abbreviated response: After the “perpetrator” serves his/her time (so to speak) and does all that is necessary to buy back into the relationship (which is a lot) the betrayed partner’s free pass must expire and the ranting must be replaced by examination of his/her own part in the mess. That’s the proper rebuild structure. Anything else is acting out. ☺️

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  5. Jan Ryan said,

    July 15, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    This is so encouraging to hear. The couple I am seeing are just in this space. He has been secretive in their relationship and is completely avoidant and recognises it as an attachment style from childhood. She is anxious and controlling but they are so invested in the relationship and it’s survival. She wants to know details and has the same obsessions you describe. He struggles not to withdraw and it is is natural way to deal with any arousal. They are even able to talk about the fact that the affair may have been an attempt for him the save the relationship which he senses was distancing by his withdrawal and avoidance and her escalating anxiety. At what point would you introduce the idea that he needs to continue to tolerate her ‘rants’. I have only seen them twice. It was not an ‘affair’ in the sense that there was not emotional attachment to the other party, however it happened twice in a year. The first time he was discovered they decided to try to mend the fences themselves but are now both invested in counselling.

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