Betrayal Trauma FAQ: (Mostly) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

I would love to distill everything you ever wanted to understand about betrayal trauma and recovery into this one handy-dandy article, but that’s impossible. One day I’ll write a book.

In the meantime, these are my semi-short answers to the questions I’m asked most. If you’ve got a question that isn’t answered here or you want to know more about any of this stuff, get in touch.

What is betrayal trauma?

The term was coined by researcher, author, and amazing human Jennifer Freyd back in the early 90s. Freyd said betrayal trauma occurs “when people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being.”

Some people get hung up on the word ‘survival’. Most of us won’t literally die without our partners. But life as you know it often depends on your partner. You might live with them, be raising kids with them, share major expenses with them, make major life decisions with them, and depend on them for all kinds of things, big and small. So the survival of life as you know it depends on them.

older couple in love
Photo by Marcus Aurelius

On the Brief Betrayal Trauma Survey (an assessment clinicians use to measure betrayal trauma), being “emotionally or psychologically mistreated over a significant period of time by someone with whom you were very close (such as a parent or lover)” is considered trauma with high betrayal. If your partner lied, denied, and/or gaslit you while cheating for months, or even years, you were emotionally/psychologically mistreated and are likely to experience betrayal trauma.

What are the symptoms of betrayal trauma?

It’s quite common to experience symptoms of PTSD after betrayal. In fact, up to 60% of betrayed partners experience PTSD symptoms. Those symptoms include:

– Nightmares
– Difficulty sleeping
– Intrusive thoughts
– Self-isolation
– Anxiety
– Hypervigilance
– Flashbacks
– Overwhelming fear, horror, anger, or shame
– Avoidance of triggers (memories, thoughts, feelings, people, places, songs, shows, etc.)
– Problems with cognitions and mood (depression, trouble concentrating, little to no interest in things you used to enjoy, overwhelming negative beliefs, etc.)

Why does betrayal trauma occur?

Because a fundamental belief you had about the world has just been destroyed. You thought the foundation of your life was safe, but a meteor just smashed that whole foundation into dust. And when a meteor hits, it doesn’t just create a big crater. It causes tsunamis and volcano eruptions and dust/ash clouds that block out the sun and a fucking ice age!

The fundamental feeling of safety in your life is gone. The fundamental feeling that you can trust the world around you is gone. This feels like life or death to our lizard brains. Imagine being betrayed by your caveman tribe. You would literally die back then because humans couldn’t typically survive for very long on their own. Our lizard brains still have that fundamental fear. Being ejected from your tribe, whether it’s your family of origin, a friend group, or the most important relationship in your life, is one of the worst pains humans can experience.

How does betrayal trauma affect the brain and body?

So your tribe has been destroyed by a meteor and your brain thinks this is life or death. In order to re-establish safety, your brain is going to put you into fight-flight-freeze mode until the threat to your life is neutralized. Re-establishing safety is obviously a great idea. The problem is that betrayal trauma isn’t something you can neutralize by punching it in the face, running away, or playing dead. Stupid wet brain.

stupid wet brain
Photo by Engin Akyurt

In fight-flight-freeze mode, our bodies get super amped up. Adrenaline spikes, the heart starts beating faster, we breathe faster, we might start sweating or trembling. The brain is preparing the body to beat the shit out of something, run like a bat out of hell, or play dead by completely dissociating. This process feels so vital to your brain that it won’t let you sleep, eat, think rationally, interact with others, or generally function like a normal human until it feels safe again.

When this keeps happening over and over, it’s called PTSD and it will destroy you if not treated. It’s like revving a car over and over. That shit will wear out your engine and whatever other car parts (I’m not a car person) prematurely and you’ll have to replace them. But you can’t replace your brain or body. You have to stop the revving.

What does betrayal do to a person?

If you read the answer to the last question, you know that it totally fucks up their brain and body. Since the body is constantly being primed to flip the hell out, including when it should be sleeping, it’s totally exhausted. Like seeing things that aren’t there exhausted.

And since the brain is so stuck on re-establishing immediate safety, it can’t do all those executive functioning tasks like planning for the future, staying focused, being organized, or managing emotions. People dealing with betrayal trauma often feel like things keep slipping through the cracks, like their life is falling apart, like they’re going crazy.

On top of all that, betrayal trauma can destroy your trust in everything and everyone. If the person you were closest to, who you thought you knew better than anyone else, was secretly a monster, what could other people you don’t know as well be hiding? This isn’t paranoia. It’s a natural response to a horrific trauma.

Does infidelity pain ever go away?

Yes. If you can’t believe anything else, try to hold onto the fact that you will feel better eventually. If you do the work to get through this (rather than camping out in denial for the rest of your life), in a few years you’ll look back on this current version of you with such love and empathy and admiration for getting through such incredible pain.

the vastness of time and space
Photo by Greg Rakozy

So yes, the pain goes away. But you will be forever changed by this experience. If you do the work, you’ll experience post-traumatic growth, a life-changing shift in how you think and relate to both the world and yourself.

You don’t simply “get over it and move on with life.” You create meaning from your struggle. This is a process that takes a lot of time, energy, and internal effort. Growth doesn’t come from the trauma itself, it comes from your struggle with a new reality in the aftermath. It’s a hard journey that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it’s beautiful on the other side.

What should you NOT do after discovering infidelity?

Two things: don’t dig and don’t shit on yourself.

You will likely feel the urge to dig up all the details of everything your partner ever did. Who they talked to, where they met, what they did, what was really going on that one Tuesday in May of last year, EVERYTHING. This is your brain trying to re-establish safety.

If you get attacked by a saber tooth tiger and survive, your brain will want to figure out how the tiger got to you, where it came from, what techniques it used, how exactly did the attack go. Your brain wants to know every detail so that it can hopefully prevent a similar attack in the future or at least be prepared to survive it. This is what your brain is doing when you feel the urge to dig through their phone, their email, their bank statements, whatever.

Your brain wants you to think that with enough info, you could prevent this pain from ever happening again. But here’s the deal. No matter how much you know, no matter how much you do, you cannot guarantee that it won’t happen again. And those details you find will never ever leave your brain. They can literally re-traumatize you. We all love a good layer cake of trauma, but it’s ultimately just more pain to deal with. There is a process for learning the important information that you need in order to start rebuilding trust, but digging is not part of it.

The part about not shitting on yourself is relevant here. You know now that you shouldn’t dig, but if you end up doing it anyway, don’t shit on yourself. Your brain was just trying to re-establish safety. Thank your brain and then explain that we need to do things differently.

Shitting on yourself about literally anything is not going to be helpful here. We all do it, but it just adds to the pain. Try to treat yourself how you would treat your best friend or sister (or Beyonce, Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry, Shakira, Britney Spears, Eva Longoria, Gwen Stefani – all amazingly talented women who have been cheated on) if she came to you with this pain. You wouldn’t tell her she’s an ugly idiot who should have known better. You’d pet her head and feed her chocolate and tell her she didn’t deserve this. Do that for yourself as much as possible.

best friends
Photo by Krista Mangulsone

How do you heal from betrayal trauma?

Man, I wish there were a simple answer to this. It’s a long, difficult process with a lot of variables. But here’s a general overview of how I typically work with people who are recovering from betrayal trauma.

If you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms, we’ll likely focus on managing those first. You can’t process anything or move forward until your brain is functioning properly. This might mean finding grounding techniques that bring your pre-frontal cortex back online when you go into fight-flight-freeze mode. Or it might mean getting you in with a prescriber for medication. This is the start of re-establishing safety for your brain.

Then, we’ll start working on whichever symptoms are most difficult for you. If you struggle with intrusive thoughts, we’ll work on ways to minimize them. If you struggle with anger/rage, we’ll work on managing that. I often start using Internal Family Systems (IFS) during this phase because it’s super helpful for building the mindfulness needed to catch these symptoms quickly (before feeling overwhelmed by them) and the self-compassion needed to diffuse them.

Once your PTSD symptoms are manageable and you’re feeling ready, we’ll start processing discovery and any other traumatic events that are relevant. The goal of this is to make those memories less overwhelming so that you’ll look back on them with a manageable level of sadness or anger or whatever instead of overwhelming pain, suffering, rage, etc. We might also talk about disclosure, intimate partner abuse, red flags/green flags, separation, divorce, impacts on kids, childhood trauma, or whatever else comes up for you.

How long does all that take? That depends on so many factors, it’s impossible to give an accurate answer. Did they confess or did you discover it on your own? What was the extent of the cheating behavior? What is their behavior like now? Have you been betrayed before? What is your support network like? What are you doing to take care of yourself? The answers to these questions will help determine how long the symptoms of betrayal trauma will last for you, but you still won’t know an exact answer. It’s not like you can plug the answers to these questions into a computer and get an answer like, “Your betrayal trauma will last 289 days.” It just doesn’t work that way.

But! I can say that if you focus on your own healing and don’t pin all your hopes on your partner, you will probably feel way less crazy within six months to a year. That doesn’t mean you’ll be fully healed, but you probably won’t feel so much like dying or murdering them or burying yourself under a blanket mountain and never emerging again.

self care bed gremlin
Photo by cottonbro studio

What are the stages of recovery from infidelity?

These stages give a general idea of the recovery process, but they aren’t linear or fixed. You can dance between stages, move forward, backward, and all around them. As this occurs, your PTSD symptoms may come and go like some kind of fucked up hurricane. Awesome, right?

  1. Impact or Emergency Stage – This typically occurs soon after discovery and can last from a few hours to a few weeks. It often starts with an extreme visceral reaction and severe psychological pain. This is the part where you find yourself in shock, fearful, vomiting, sobbing, shaking, unable to breathe, melting into a pool of sweat and tears, etc. You are in fight-flight-freeze mode here AKA freaking the fuck out.

1.5 Denial or Numbing Stage – Not everyone goes through this stage, but many people do. Some people will drink or use drugs to numb their pain. Others will dissociate, try to rationalize the situation, go into denial, or go numb. This is nothing to feel bad about. It’s simply the brain’s way of protecting you from overwhelming trauma and galactic levels of stress hormones.

  1. Rescue or Intrusive/Repetitive Stage – In this stage you start coming to terms with what has occurred. Key word here is “start.” The trauma is not yet fully processed, so you will most likely still be feeling like you have ghosts in your blood or like you need to scream into a thunderstorm until you burst into flames. In other words, you’ll probably still experience things like nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, hopelessness, uncertainty, and anger. This is typically the most difficult stage of PTSD, so it’s helpful to get support from other people who’ve survived a similar situation.
  2. Intermediate Recovery or Transition Stage – In this stage you have learned how to fulfill your safety and survival needs and have begun returning to “normal” life again. You may still experience symptoms of PTSD such as anxiety and nightmares, but they likely won’t be as severe or frequent as in the previous stage. This is where you stop constantly feeling like a walking ball of fire.
  3. Long-term Reconstruction or Integration Stage – In this stage you begin regularly putting coping skills you’ve learned into practice. You actively look toward the future and start rebuilding your life. You are still likely to experience some feelings of fear, sadness, and resentment as well as anxiety about your future during this stage, but it’s no longer overwhelming. It’s important to create meaning out of your experience in this stage in order to accept it as part of your past and to begin moving forward again.

How do you get over someone who betrays you? How do you accept betrayal and move on?

It’s all about making meaning. Betrayal will forever change you, but you ultimately get to choose how it changes you. If you either turn the trauma itself into something meaningful or use it as an impetus to create a life that’s meaningful for you, you will naturally move on. This is not something you can do overnight. It is a long, difficult process (Do I say that enough here? Jeez).

difficult hike
Photo by Mitchell Orr

People who are able to make meaning from their traumatic experiences are some of the most lovely people out there. They typically are kind-hearted, loving, and empathetic, with a solid, grounded presence. Sure, they still struggle with life and make mistakes like all of us, but they have the skills and experience to be able to recover pretty quickly and take things in stride.

Should you forgive someone who betrayed you?

Let’s first define the word “forgive” since that’s where a lot of people get hung up. It means to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake.

Anger and resentment aren’t “bad” or “wrong” feelings. Anger is empowering and energizing and a sign that something isn’t right and you should consider doing something about it. How is that bad? Yeah, if you go beat somebody up when you feel angry, that’s definitely bad. But using your anger to fight injustice or stand up for yourself when someone is being shitty to you, that’s great!

So if you use your anger or resentment toward your partner to set boundaries and demand respect and only give your time and energy to people who treat you well, then I say be angry forever! What will probably happen though if you do this work is that your anger will gradually morph from an all-consuming inferno into a courageous, unflinching, firmly rooted protector of your heart.

I know I didn’t actually answer the question. But no one can tell you who you should or shouldn’t forgive except that protector of your heart.

How do you know if you should stay after infidelity?

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

– Has your partner admitted fully to what they’ve done?
– Have they accepted responsibility and stopped making excuses or blaming you?
– Have they accepted the consequences of their actions?
– Have they identified the patterns of behavior that led to this and accepted that overcoming these patterns will be a lifelong process?
– Have they stopped demanding credit for improvements they’ve made?
– Have they developed kind, respectful, supportive behaviors?
– Have they changed how they react to conflict and how they respond when you communicate frustration or grievances?

They should be doing ALL of these things if they want to rebuild the relationship. Not one or two or even five of these things. ALL of them.

These are some clear signs that they are not serious about rebuilding their relationship with you:

– They say they can only change if you do too or if you help them change (by giving emotional support, offering forgiveness and reassurance, etc.)
– They criticize you for not realizing how much they are changing or trusting that their change will last
– They criticize you for considering them capable of cheating (even though they literally did already)
– They remind you about bad things they would have done in the past but aren’t doing anymore
– They tell you that you’re taking too long to make up your mind and they can’t wait forever
– They say they’re changing but you don’t see or feel it

Do not trust their words, trust their actions. They must SHOW that they are changing. And always trust your gut over anything they say or do. Your gut may be wrong sometimes, but it will never be as untrustworthy as they were.

What percentage of relationships work after cheating?

I have found all kinds of numbers for this. A 2019 survey of 441 people found that about 54% of couples broke up immediately after discovery and 30% tried to stick together only to wind up divorced. So 16% of the couples actually stayed together long term. But then an article in Divorce Magazine reported that 60-75% of couples remain together after infidelity. No word on their sample size or any other validity measures. I’ve also found research reporting all kinds of numbers in between these two extremes. So basically just throw those numbers out the window.

What has been proven by research is that divorce rates are higher for couples with secret infidelity as opposed to revealed infidelity. So if the cheater comes clean as opposed to you discovering the cheating on your own, your relationship is statistically more likely to work out. Also, couples who report higher levels of marital instability prior to discovery are more likely to divorce. So if your relationship was pretty solid before discovery, it’s again statistically more likely to work out.

Is it true once a cheater always a cheater?

No. There are humans out there who do horrific things, realize the error of their ways, and never do those things again. But realizing the extent of the error of one’s ways is often a process rather than an instantaneous event.

There’s a lot more to cheating than just having sex with someone outside of your relationship. The key is for the cheater to identify and understand all of those things that led up to them cheating if they really want to prevent it from happening again. That is a long process typically done with the help of a therapist and/or a 12-step group like SAA or SLAA. The cheater who says they can do this work all on their own is more likely to cheat again.

How do you trust again after cheating occurs?

Ah, jeez. This question makes me want to take a ten year nap.

woman taking a ten year nap
Photo by Sinitta Leunen

The truth is that you have to be vulnerable. You have to spread your arms wide, exposing your poor broken heart, and allow someone (maybe your partner, maybe not) to either gently hold it with you or stab it in its poor broken face. You’ll either get to experience a deeply rewarding, intimate connection or a bloody fucking mess.

The key to keeping your blood on the inside is to only expose your heart to trustworthy people. Sounds like a catch-22, right? You have to be vulnerable to build trust, but you only want to be vulnerable with people you already trust. So where do you start?

You start small. If all humans currently feel dangerous or untrustworthy to you, you can still feel a relational connection to authors, musicians, actors, etc. They can be kept at a safe distance while supporting your healing through helpful books or meaningful songs. Dogs, cats, and other animals can also be a safe source of healing.

When you feel ready, you might join online forums or support groups. Knowing that I could slam my laptop shut at any time and make an excuse about my internet cutting out made me feel safe enough to explore several such groups and begin practicing vulnerability and building trust with other humans. Therapists can also help create a safe place for that (like me!).

Practicing emotional authenticity is a big part of this. It’s fine to stay on a superficial level with people if you’re not ready for more. But the goal is to eventually start opening up and being your real self.

Think about the people you’ve been truly drawn to in your life. Are they superficial, generic, “nice” people? Or do they actually have a personality with opinions and emotions and interesting quirks? Probably the latter. How did you find out they had all these quirks and opinions and stuff? Because they practiced emotional authenticity with you. They were real with you. The more you can practice emotional authenticity, the more you’ll find people you click with, people who “get” you. Those are the people with whom you can deepen your trust and ultimately have truly intimate relationships (intimate as in warmly cozy).

I know I haven’t even said anything about building trust with your partner (if you choose to stay together), but it’s really the same process. In the beginning, you’ll want to keep your distance to keep your heart safe. Then as they SHOW (not tell) you that they are changing, you can very slowly open your heart a tiny peep and see what happens. Hopefully they are kind and gentle and you can continue that dance of them showing evidence of trustworthiness and you opening your heart a little more each time. If they instead keep stabbing your heart, then they are not worthy of your trust and I would recommend not practicing vulnerability with them.

Any Other Questions?

Hoooo! That was a lot of information to type out/read. We deserve a cute animal picture.

cute corgi dog
Photo by Alvan Nee

If you have a question I haven’t answered or you want to discuss any of this stuff further, get in touch.