What is Betrayal Trauma?

This week’s blog post may seem basic enough; after all, SA Lifeline is a community of women seeking recovery from Betrayal Trauma.  

Unfortunately, however, it often takes people who are suffering much longer than they would have liked to find us.  This was certainly the case for me.

Let’s just say when I was stuck face-down at rock bottom I was not googling the term, “Betrayal Trauma.”  I had never heard those words before in my life and I was completely clueless that I was suffering from it.  So were all of the family members, friends, church leaders, and general psychiatrists who were trying to help me.

What is Betrayal Trauma?

So, what is Betrayal Trauma?  Is it even a real thing?  Shouldn’t women just be “getting over” it?

Those of us who have experienced Betrayal Trauma know the answers to these questions all too well.  My post today is aimed most directly to explain Trauma to people who have not experienced it, to help them understand what is really going on with this “crazy woman,” and thus be more equipped to help her. 

It is also for all of us “crazy women,” who are sometimes just as clueless as anybody else about what we are going through.

What is betrayal trauma

Betrayal Trauma is a mental injury, a psychic wound, that is most relatable to PTSD, the mental disorder that is rampant among post-war veterans. Dr. Jill Manning explains “Betrayal trauma occurs when someone we depend on for survival, or are significantly attached to, violates our trust in a critical way.” 

When such a wound happens, (a woman discovers that her husband is betraying her, that the reality she had believed in and built her life on is a lie) the brain reacts by activating the limbic system, the “survival” part of the brain.

When the limbic system begins to drive, all logic goes out the window.  The limbic system is programmed for survival and it beats the pre-frontal cortex to the punch every time.  The limbic system has registered to this woman “Your (spiritual, mental, emotional, financial, relationship, even physical) life is in danger!  Run!  Hide!  Fight!  Protect!”  Anything it can come up with to help her survive. 

With trauma, the brain has carefully recorded the exact details of every aspect of the situation.  It stores all of this information in a file titled, “Stuff That Might Mean You Are About to Die.”  When anything happens in the course of everyday life that the brain picks up as being possibly associated with anything stored in this file, it releases the limbic system Emergency Crew immediately, blowing sirens and calling out the dogs. 

This is why sometimes women will react to situations that may seem unrelated to the actual trauma: seeing a woman on the street who resembles someone my husband acted out with, hearing a song on the radio about lust, seeing billboards with scantily-clad women, being in places where I have specific memories of times that I now know happened when my husband was lying to me, places associated with my discovery of the betrayals, calendar dates associated with past betrayals….all of these situations have triggered trauma reactions in me.

The Trauma file in the brain is not selective—when something happens to trigger those feelings of fear, shock, terror, and anxiety—no matter how big or small, it is connected to the entire network of images, emotions, and events that created the Trauma file in the first place. 

This understanding helps explain the frequent appearance of “over-reacting.” I used to feel so much shame when I would spin completely out of control over what seemed like a small indiscretion, a seemingly normal situation, or a meaningless circumstance.  What was wrong with me?  Why was I so crazy?  Would I ever be “normal” again?

I have come to understand that no matter how big, small, or coincidental the event may be, if a traumatized individual’s brain associates it with the Trauma file, it will unleash the entire contents of the file.  It can’t isolate just an appropriate portion of the hurt, the lies, the fear that have been embedded into her nervous system.  She will feel it all, like it’s happening all over again right in that moment…just like a post-war veteran will feel as though he is back on the battle field and his life is literally in danger.

Husbands, church leaders, friends, and family who feel frustrated that a wife is “so mad” over a little thing when her husband has a “whole month” of sobriety under their belt would do well to realize that the trauma their loved one is experiencing in the moment is most likely not really connected to the small thing that happened today, but to the weeks, months, and years that have embedded a deep pathway of fear into her brain. 

Her brain and body are reacting at a cellular level. 

She doesn’t want to be crazy. 

She didn’t ask for this. 

But now the trauma is programmed in there, and it has to be dealt with.  It can’t be shamed, ignored, laughed off, argued, or ridiculed away. 

What does Trauma look like? 

This depends entirely on the specific person and the way her brain is processing the danger she is in, based on past experiences. 

For me, my trauma would typically swing between two extremes. 

I experienced deep depression and an inability to stop crying, to function normally, sleeping for hours every afternoon to escape the pain of being awake and having to face the reality of my life, but not sleeping at night because my brain would wake me with fearful dreams replaying my husband’s infidelity at 4 am.  I became fixated and obsessed with suicidal thoughts for a time.  The pain of living like this shocked me. I had no idea that human beings could feel this much pain and still live.

The other extreme was rage.  I could have said anger, but Rage with a capital R is admittedly a more accurate term.  When new information about the ways in which my husband had been acting out would trickle out, which continued to happen for about the first year after my husband’s big disclosure, and we would try to “talk through things” at night after the kids had gone to bed, this often ended in a Rage.  I was insane, screaming, kicking, flailing fists, sobbing, exhausted.  The Rage was like a drug on my system.  It seemed to offer me this brief respite from feeling completely worthless, which is how I felt pretty much all the rest of the time.  It gave me a few powerful moments in a life where I had become completely powerless.  But the Rage high never lasted long and always brought with it a Rage hangover: shame, regret, humiliation, and an even deeper sense of how pathetic I had become. 

My Trauma had convinced me that either I was totally worthless, or else my husband was.  It took serious Twelve Step Recovery to realize that there were other options.

Other ways Trauma can manifest itself include:

A sense of confusion or fogginess, like my brain is not quite able to process or connect the dots.  Mundane, everyday tasks suddenly seem as baffling as College-level Calculus. 

An inability to manage emotions. Small things seem to trigger big reactions.  There is an ever-present current of anxiety and fear flowing underneath the surface of everything you do, say, perceive.  A feeling that you are barely holding it together without falling onto the floor and sobbing hysterically.  All the time.

Many women experience a sense of paranoia and resort to hypervigilance, trying to control or spy on their husband at all times and “figure out” what might be going on. Women in trauma may also become distrustful of all people, especially men.

Still others seem to fade into a going-through-the-motions, completely numb manner of living. They survive by becoming so busy they don’t have time to feel their emotions. They become completely disconnected from being able to feel anything…painful or joyful.

Does Trauma ever go away?

Trauma reactions still occasionally occur for me, even almost four years down the road of recovery for both my husband and myself.  They are not so full-blown and out of control anymore, but they could be if I don’t work my recovery and use my tools.  

I believe that Trauma reactions will always be a possibility when I am faced with a situation that for some reason opens that file in my brain, and my brain and body immediately react on a cellular level. 

However, I have gotten much better at being able to recognize this early on: my chest feels tight, I am suddenly breathing faster and my heart is pounding, my head is squeezing, or I feel ice chips in my chest. 

Almost immediately now I can beat my limbic system to the punch and know… “I am having a trauma reaction.  This is not real, this is my limbic system trying to protect me.  I can breathe through this.  I need to slow down, breathe, call someone, and talk this through.  I am not in immediate danger.  I can do this.” 

The limbic system wants you to move quickly, react, protect yourself, SURVIVE!  The trick to beating Trauma is to slow down, breathe, and give yourself time to assess the situation (with a 3rd party perspective—a sponsor), so you can respond appropriately with grace and dignity. 

Learning this skill and gaining access to the Higher Power who can give you the light and discernment you need to see clearly is what practicing the Twelve Steps is all about.

Shouldn’t there be accountability for this type of behavior?

Certainly, women who are experiencing Trauma can appear crazy.  After all, they are not only trying to make sense of the big betrayals that have unraveled every aspect of their life, but most likely years of being habitually manipulated, lied to, and blamed for the day-to-day attitudes and behaviors that define their husband’s addictive cycle.

And yet, of course, women in trauma are no different from anyone else struggling from any other difficulty: Accountability is key to making a change.

Essentially, we need to understand this first about Trauma: Trauma is not about trying to manipulate or control others.  It is not about playing games.

Trauma is the psychological result of a deep, unconscious belief that you are fundamentally unsafe.

Trauma is not a choice.

It is not about making a point. It is about survival.

Since Trauma is the result of a brain interpreting danger, then the antidote is the creation of a safe place.

You can help to create that place of safety by allowing your loved one to express herself without being judged or chided. You can help by never ever blaming her for being betrayed.

Mostly, you can help by encouraging and supporting her to seek help from a support group that works the SAL 12 Steps Betrayal Trauma with a Sponsor.  This is the safest place for a woman in Trauma.  This is the right place for her to begin to figure out how to be accountable for “her stuff.” As our literature states, “We take full accountability for our actions, and reactions.”

Let her learn from those who have been in her shoes.

Getting advice from those who haven’t just doesn’t work.

How can I help my loved one heal from her Betrayal Trauma?

The only way to heal Trauma is to give it a safe place to be expressed, acknowledged, and processed. 

Husbands, church leaders, family members, and friends…if you can offer this to your loved one in Trauma, it will be the greatest chance you have to helping her heal.

Let her get out all the ugly stuff that needs to come out and just be there to hold her hand. Don’t judge her. Don’t correct her. Don’t argue with her. Just let her know that you are there and you are not going to leave. Let her know that there will be a safe place for her again someday.

Betrayal Trauma is such a misunderstood condition, but when it is given the healing attention it needs, it can be, just like addiction, the pathway to spiritual growth and progress. 

Women in Trauma, You are Not Alone. 

You have choices. 

You have strength beyond what you believe. 

That strength lies in your Higher Power. 

Come to Him.  Work the Steps.  They will show you how to find Him and yourself, and when you do, you will realize that that journey was one and the same. 

And there may even come a day when you will be grateful that Trauma has become your greatest teacher.  I promise.

We know that every story is unique and individual.  We hope you will share your thoughts and experiences with Trauma.  You never know who may need to hear it.

33 thoughts on “What is Betrayal Trauma?”

  1. Even after 12 years of actively working recovery this message brought tears to my eyes. Thank you Becky.
    I am grateful that I have not been crazy, that others understand and I have been comforted and guided through the process of recovering from trauma. I say recovering because for me it has not been an overnight event and it is not over. About five years into active recovery work I had a very serious trauma trigger that sent me into deep fear, tears and confusion. That day I wanted to drive far away and never come back. I never wanted to see my husband again and I felt like I had been stabbed in the back. It was interesting that it had nothing to do with sexual acting out but it was an experience that I felt that he had stood by watching me be wounded by another person and instead of coming to my aid had been co-dependent with the person who was hurting me. In the 35 years of our marriage I had never been able to count on him to protect me because he was so self absorbed. On that day I felt that things were never going to change. How did I survive that day? I called my sponsor. I was hyper-ventilating in between sobs. She calmly talked with me even though I knew that she was very concerned. That day she talked me off the cliff. I eventually drove home in the dark, dreading going in. I called two of my sons who came and prayed with me, told my husband exactly how I was feeling and headed to bed…alone. I needed to hold my boundary for safety.I needed space to find God and trust Him.
    The next day we had a crisis appointment with our therapist who we hadn’t seen in a couple of years. He explained that trauma is cellular. It’s in our bodies and when something triggers that, it is not something that we can control. I was grateful for his understanding and his ability to explain it to my husband who was still feeling confused about what had happened. Two years ago I had another “episode” which sent me to bed for two days. I now know what do when/if this happens to me. Honest about needs and emotions, self-care, healthy boundaries and connect with God and others.My sponsor is an angel in my life.
    Thank you to all the women in my life who are dedicated to working recovery and sharing their light with me.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing how working the Steps and using the program tools (like a Sponsor) can bring healing even in the midst of such overwhelming trauma. I am so grateful for your clarity and perspective

      1. I got my sponsor by asking someone in my 12 Step meeting if they would sponsor me. After several weeks of attending meetings, I felt I knew who I needed to guide me on my path. If your group does not have available sponsors, you can contact [email protected] to get a phone list.

    2. My fiancé was caught in feb I found out he had a whole separate relationship with another girl. A girl he has previously cheated with and “promised he wouldn’t hurt me again” I feel guilty for forgiving him and not being capable of forgetting. It eats me alive, the flashbacks memories all the lies I feel sick all the time angry and guilty because he is no longer doing these things and sends me his location when he’s not home and no passwords on either phone. I still always feel like it’s gonna happen or is still happening what do I do. I love him so much it physically hurts to think of my life without him

  2. This entire article has been me for the last 23 years of my life. Every single day. My question is, how can you heal if the betrayal keeps happening because they know that there will be forgiveness afterwards? My husband says he knows I will always be there, so it’s hard to keep taking the hits and still survive each and every day.

    1. Jodie, this is such a good question. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe from my own experience that healing cannot happen if betrayal continues. Like the article mentioned, the antidote to Trauma is safety. Without a safe place established by long-term, consistent recovery attitudes and actions, there is no space for Trauma to heal…for the brain to rewire those survival instincts.

      Unfortunately, no one else is going to create a safe place for you. Creating a safe place is your own work to do through understanding what boundaries you need to feel safe and holding true to them if they are crossed. I would recommend reading the Q&A with Rhyll about “Is Relapse Part of Recovery?” This is also on our blog.

      Boundaries are crucial. I hope this helps, or at least gives you a place to start. ❤️

  3. This post is written is such a simple but powerful way of helping others to understand what Betrayal Trauma is. I can relate to everything said. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. I just started following your FB page today and this post was an answer to a question I didn’t know I was asking. For me, it’s been just over 5 weeks that I caught my husband in an affair. I’m just at the beginning of my journey, but the words written were the validation I needed to know I am not crazy!! The emotions are real and I’m grateful to start to recognize that I can and will get through this. Thank you!!!

    1. Molly, I am so glad you found us. You are not alone. ❤️ Check out our Find a Meeting page to find an in-person or online meeting that can help you take the next steps towards healing.

  5. THIS! I can’t even say how many times my crazy would all be out, and my husband would accuse me of just trying to make him feel bad for longer, or trying to manipulate him. And I would tell him over and over that’s not what was happening. He did this, not me, and there’s nothing I can do about it! The first time he got mad at me for being upset at him was a week after I found out. He somehow thought I should be able to be not mad anymore after a week. Crazy. Every time he’d throw the blame on me for the crazy, it would set us back light years. I don’t mean making me accountable for my actions, I mean completely disregarding that what I was feeling and experiencing was directly related to his infidelity. His claim that I was trying to manipulate was the worst. There was zero manipulation, 100% fear. Anyhow, we had an amazing therapist, and she helped him to see it better than I could. We’re mostly good now, with just an occasional crazy moment. But I’m like you explained…I can get on top of it now. I control it. And we still talk about my fear, but it’s calm. And he doesn’t try to flip any blame anymore. And now I’m wondering if it’s worth it to share this with him, just so he has a clear understanding of what all that crazy is.

    1. Thank you so much for adding your experience to the discussion! Your perspective is so helpful. I am glad you brought up therapy…because a qualified therapist who thoroughly understands this issue can be an invaluable part of the healing process.

  6. Thank you for posting this. It’s so validating to know that I’m not crazy and that actual things are happening in my brain when I’m triggered. I appreciate all you are doing to help so many!

  7. I just read this with my husband and it really helped him remember why I flip out every once in a while. I really am a calm person normally, and we’ve been in pretty solid recovery for a year, and yet something seemingly unrelated to sex addiction, but still related to his personal recovery came up and triggered me so bad that I literally broke our car door slamming it so hard! We talked and worked it out a short while later, which is progress, but I still hate to admit this happens. It’s rather validating to hear that I’m not the only one.

  8. This makes total sense. I experienced this same teams, and suffered all of the same symptoms. My own ex How cheated on my, called me crazy, and I was. He didn’t realize he drove me there! Where can I find a 12 step group, specifically for woman who have suffered this kind of trama❓I am never fuller recovered❗️

  9. Thanks for helping me understand myself! Now, perhaps, I can explain it to my husband. We recently had an incident that I recognized as addictive behavior, and it seemed to change me from what progress I felt I had made. I haven’t been to a 12- step in a long time, and he has recently been out of the program because of a big transition. Time to get back at it.

  10. I finally have a name for what I have been going through, and trying to stuff away for 10 years. I couldn’t understand why no one could understand….because they can’t if they haven’t been there. I feel blessed to have found a support group of women who truly, understand. Thank you for putting this into words. I can now share this with others who just…don’t understand

  11. Reading this has been a strengthening experience. My husband has been using his well developed skills to manipulate me. I have been feeling a bit guilty for holding my boundaries. I was even getting chest pain (ice in my chest as described above). I believed it was emotional but now I have some confirmation. A great deal of my “crazy” behavior over the years is explained. Knowing there is a reason behind what I have done, inappropriately is not a way to excuse it but a way to help me see the reason which helps me to feel there is a reasonable solution out there as I continue to work the steps.

  12. What a well-written article to help women understand Betrayal Trauma! I actually said “yes!” outloud several times while reading because I related so well to the description. Thank you for putting my experience into words so I can be reminded that I’m not completely crazy!

  13. I first found out about my husbands pornography/sex addiction 35 years ago. At the time, there was VERY little written about this type of addiction and virtually nothing for the victims of this type of betrayal. I’m so thankful for blogs, articles, books, you name it, that are out there for not only the addicts, but the wives/children/significant others that are being victimized. I would have given anything for this kind of support. Thank you for sharing.

  14. This post focuses too much on victim mentality which is counter productive. My therapist (one of those reccomended by SAL) told me that betrayal trauma is actually something experienced by vulnerable children and that applying this concept to adults is incorrect. Adults have many options that children don’t have. It’s time to be grown ups and own our contribution to marital dysfunction rather than being the victim.

    1. An interesting perspective. Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Anonymous. I would point you to the research of Dr.Jill Manning, Dr.Kevin Skinner, Dr.Barbara Steffens, and the APSATS.org website. The research that has been published illustrating the effects of betrayal trauma is certainly clear and enlightening, and has made significant strides in the ability of a couple to actually heal from betrayal. We certainly welcome differing viewpoints and would be interested in learning who your therapist is, and inviting a guest post to hear their perspective on this research and its findings. It would certainly be surprising to find a SAL-recommended therapist disputing the validity of betrayal trauma, because having a thorough understanding of this component of sexual addiction recovery is perhaps the key factor in qualifying a therapist as SAL-approved.

      On a personal note, I find it interesting that you claim that this post focuses on the “victim mentality,” and suggest that we need to “be grown ups and own our contribution to marital dysfunction rather than being the victim.” From my personal experience, I would say that I have never been more “grown-up” or accountable in my marriage since thoroughly educating myself on betrayal trauma and understanding how it had created such profound confusion and chaos in my mind. By finally understanding what betrayal trauma had done to my brain, and beginning to work my own 12 steps to recover from its effects, I was able to view my emotional responses as an observer, rather than a reactor. I became more capable of taking full accountability for my actions and reactions, and there was clarity between what was mine to take responsibility for, and what wasn’t. Before understanding the role of trauma in my mind and my recovery, there was just a lot of confusion, a lot fear, a lot of depression, and a lot of blaming on both sides. Both my and my husband’s understanding of both his addiction, and my trauma, has been the most profound factor in our ability to “be grown-ups” and have a relationship that strives to be Humble, Honest, and Accountable on both sides.

    2. Anonymous: this really angers me! I feel that someone finally gets how I’ve felt for the last 5 years and no one has ever put into words how truly devastating, degrading, embarrassing, humiliating and self-crushing this feels. I can’t even put it into words how it feels to be so hyper-vigilant that it controls every single thing you do. I hated it when my husband would leave for work, worried about the chick he would see jogging down a street or the hottie in the car next to him. I hated the thought of him being around the guys that he worked with that would try to show him the latest porn star they found on their phone. I hated to leave him home alone and I hated for him to come with me because I would CONSTANTLY be triggered by every beautiful, hot, young thing that we would see in our world. It didn’t matter where. The lumber yard, church, the grocery store, high school events, waitresses at the restaurant we went to. Every place we’ve ever gone is a memory of the chick he couldn’t keep his eyes off of or really wanted to check out but couldn’t because I was there with him. I could feel the tension in him-trying not to look but wanting so desperately to. Or going on vacation with our children who would want to go to the pool or the beach but bawling (and trying to hide it) because of what would be there for him to drool over or struggle not to look at or even watch out of the corner of his eyes (must have thought I was too stupid to notice). I couldn’t ever watch TV without being on edge and having total anxiety-making myself sick. He loved to watch football-of course they have to display the cheerleaders that look like playboy bunnies. He loved to watch golf-in ladies golf it’s all about making money because they don’t have a very big following, so all the golfers are beautiful and pose seductively with little clothes on (their side job) to make more money. And of course the male cameramen “have” to zoom in to the most alluring women parts. Then in the men’s golf, there are the smoking hot wives they have to interview or show off and the women reporters also. One of the wives had such a tight, short dress on, there with her two year old-how do you bend over to pick up a two year old-and when her husband one they followed her up the stairs and she actually had to cover her a** with her hand or national TV would have gotten quite an X-rates show. Then there are the Monster Energy girls in NASCAR! Seriously!!?? Commercials are no better-seems every one has to show a woman jogging in a sports bra-hmmmm! Betrayal Trauma has affected every area of my life and to say that I need to “grow-up” is so, so insulting!

  15. Becky,
    I absolutely love your reply to the comment about “being a victim.” I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts and come up with a reply that was both tactful and informative and you did just that. Thank you for shedding light on betrayal trauma and for all you do in this effort.

  16. Thank you for this information. it sounds so much like what I’m going threw at this moment in life. just found out that my husband of 9yrs, has been cheating on me all the 9yrs until he hit rock bottom on Sept 7 17. Even with my bff. that’s what hurts even more is the Betrayal of both of them. she denied is to this day. I’m turn up side my w hole life with this person had been a lie, all he put me threw disrespecting me, calling me names, mental abuse. all cuz during his addiction he would accuse me of cheating, t hem come to find out it was him all along. it just puts me in a place that i lost who i am. to the point I started thinking maybe I’m crazy, maybe I am seeing things.

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