Ask us – Sexual Betrayal: A Taboo Topic

In this post we will briefly answer a question that was asked by one of our clients. Here is today’s question:

Why is experiencing sexual betrayal such an isolating experience? It feels there is no-one who really understands. If I’d been bereaved, or in a car accident, I know that lots of people would offer me support. Why is this so different?

There could be a number of possible answers to this question. Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter …

1. Committed intimate relationships are attachment relationships. Apart from the relationship we form with our primary caregivers (usually our parents), these are the closest relationships we form.

When we enter into a committed relationship with someone, we automatically expect that person to be trustworthy, safe, reliable and honest. We expect them to love us, care for us, and be there for us.  We don’t expect them to hurt and cause us harm.

In fact, we simply cannot function, and lead a normal life, if we’re constantly assessing if our partner’s still trustworthy.

Thus, when we learn that a relative or friend has been betrayed (and sexual betrayal is a serious betrayal), it is deeply disturbing and unsettling for us.

We realize we’re no different – so we too could be deceived. This is threatening and scary – so we want to keep our distance.

In a way, this strong reaction is a form of self-protection.

2. Another factor that might play into the way people react, is a fear of the emotions that a trauma can stir up.

People can imagine how they’d feel if it was them. They can picture the strong feelings, and how they might react. Again, this is unsettling to contemplate.

Hence, the safest thing to do, is to simply walk away. This keeps things superficial, and under their control.  

Note: Sometimes our friends would like to help is, but they feel they’re at a loss. They don’t know what to say so they feel inadequate. As a result, they just say nothing, and act like nothing’s changed.

3. A third possibility relates to the fact that many have experienced a trauma in their past. Hence, our pain and trauma symptoms now remind them of their own. And they don’t want to face it. They would rather bury it. Hence, they cope with their discomfort by distancing themselves. That way, they can pretend that everything in life is fine (at least for them).

It all Comes Down to Fate. Or Does It?

Facing a fate we cannot change, we are called to make the best of it by rising above ourselves and growing beyond ourselves.”

― Viktor Frankl

We think that we are free, that we decide our destiny. We think that we’re in charge, that we’re the author of our lives.

To some extent we are.

And to some extent we aren’t.

Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who penned the words above, was sent (as a young man) to several concentration camps. I can’t imagine this was in his plan for his life.

And yet that is where Viktor Frankl found himself.

Bringing it Closer to Home

I wonder what you’d wanted, and expected for your life.

I wondered what then happened. What derailed you from that course.

Who ripped up all your plans, the plans you’d carefully designed? The plans your dreams had fashioned. Normal – reasonable – good plans.

What Next?

We know the holocaust survivors suffered from PTSD.

Your life is changed for ever when you’re traumatized like that.

You’re psyche bears the scars. Those wounds – perhaps they never heal.

You don’t ‘put that behind you’ and pick up your hopes and dreams.

And yet ….

And yet …

There still are those who flourished.

Yes, of course, they needed help. They needed to be heard. Their story witnessed. Awful things!

They needed other people to be horrified like them. To understand their suffering.

The injustice of it all.

But …

They needed to believe they could embrace their life again.

To not let this define. Steal their future. Everything.

What about You?

It isn’t always over when we’re deeply traumatized.

It feels like life has ended – there’s no question about that.

But maybe you can work through all the pain and suffering. Pick up the broken pieces and design a different life.    

“When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.”

― Harley Davidson

Eureka?

Everyone has heard of the word eureka. That sudden, unexpected insight into a tough problem.

Finding the solution that has always seemed elusive. The magic missing piece that changes how we look at things.  

Eureka’s been attributed to Archimedes, a leading scientist in classical antiquity. But did you also know Eureka’s California’s motto? I guess they used to shout it when the diggers found some gold.

An Aha! moment

In daily life, we often talk about an Aha! moment. That wonderful experience when the scales fall from our eyes. The lightbulb flashes on and what was murky fog, or darkness, now suddenly makes sense and seems quite clear and obvious.

The Brain and Trauma

Our brain is changed by trauma. We become a different person. We’re on a roller coaster and we’re triggered constantly. We struggle with anxiety. Our sleep is often broken. We’re always sensing danger, and we’re hypervigilant.

We find it hard to trust, and we feel lost and isolated. We cannot trust our judgment, and we think we’ll be deceived. Our self-esteem’s been damaged and we think we have no value.

We’ve lost our map and compass for a balanced, normal life.

Is There an Answer or a Remedy?

I wish there was an answer, a straightforward quick solution. A sharp click of the fingers. A eureka, Aha! moment.

Yes, there are bursts of insight, and occasional moves forward. But often we feel stuck, and thus unable to move on.

Coming Face-to-Face with Reality

The fact is, Aha! moments are unusual and uncommon.

But you can make real progress, and recover over time.

It takes great perseverance – but it’s worth the work and effort.

For bit by you’ll start to heal, and find yourself again.

“Recovery is a process. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes everything you’ve got.”    

Finding Yourself Again After Trauma

When you’ve experienced betrayal trauma, you may feel like you don’t know who you are anymore.

For a while, you are living in survival mode. And it takes all your energy to make it through the day.

But as you slowly start to process all the things that you’ve been through, you may start to miss yourself, and the person you once were.

But how do you connect with your authentic self again?

Here are some ideas that might help with this:

1. Consider doing something new and different. For example, experiment a bit to see if you can match an external experience with an internal experience. Teenagers do this all the time when they do things like dye their hair turquoise, or create a band with their friends.

Doing something new and different also includes giving yourself permission to break free from old narratives (or lies?) about yourself, and distancing yourself from the opinions, beliefs and expectations of others.

You might also want to mull over questions like: Who is the real me? How can I best describe her? How do I want to be seen by others? What kinds of things do I really want to do/ achieve, and why?

2.You might find it useful to complete some personality inventories in order to get a better sense of your values, strengths and traits. Then ask yourself if the results resonate with the person you feel yourself to be. Maybe ask others (who know you well) for their opinion of the test results as well.

Make use of whatever helps you to understand yourself better; toss aside whatever doesn’t sit comfortably.    

3. You could ask people you trust and know well to help you identify one strength or positive attribute they can see in you. This can be very powerful, especially when we find it hard to see anything good in ourselves.

4. It’s also important to cast your mind back to the time before the trauma occurred, and write down the answers to the following questions (if it feels safe for you to do so):

a) What was I like before the trauma occurred?

b) What did the trauma take from me? For example, my confidence, my sense of security, my ability to trust others, my ability to trust myself, my sense of safety, my peace of mind, my ability to love and accept myself and my body.

Don’t be surprised if you find this upsetting. You can put the activity aside for a while if necessary. Don’t push yourself too hard. You are working on the grieving process here, and that is a slow and painful process.

5. After looking back, look forward to the future. In light of what you’ve discovered so far, ask yourself the following questions:

a) What parts of my old self have I lost contact with?

b) What can I work on recapturing?

C) What would be the easiest thing to start with/ where would be the easiest place to begin?

d)  What is one small step I can take to start to move in that direction?

You are now in the place where you can start creating a new you.

The you you want to be.

The you you can be.

Believe it.

Claim it.

Start working towards it.

The Unfolding Nature of Betrayal Trauma

Betrayal trauma’s not a one–time event. Life-shattering though it is, discovering the truth that your partner has betrayed you, is merely the beginning.

Why do I say that?

1. In almost all cases, that initial revelation is just the start of the discovery process. There are very few partners who are completely up front, and tell you everything, right off the bat. Instead it’s a slow and painful process of getting to the truth – often question after question, or discovery after discovery.

2. This dismantles our sense of reality, and we feel we don’t know who we are any more. The past, and our relationship, now feel like a lie. This is disorienting and traumatic.

3. However, when we think about the present, it’s traumatic as well. There are decisions to be made – but we can’t make them yet. We don’t have all the facts, and we can’t think straight. We can’t focus, concentrate, analyse, think logically … and there are so many things that we now need to consider.  

4. For some, there are serious consequences in the present. For example, there may be legal issues or financial concerns. You may have cervical cancer or an STD. These can’t be put on hold; they must be dealt with right away. 

In addition, there may be public scrutiny, and family and community issues to deal with (related to judgment, shaming, being shunned and isolated, effects on the children, and so on).

5. As if the past and the present weren’t hard enough to cope with, the future’s terrifying when you’ve been betrayed, or your partner or your spouse is addicted to sex. If it’s happened in the past, then it could happen again. Hence, you’re constantly haunted by questions like:

What if he relapses, or he cheats again?

How do I know if he’s really changed?

What if he lies or he hides things again (and he’s so good at lying that I likely couldn’t tell)?

What if he can’t change – no matter how hard he tries?

What if I end up with another STD?  

Layer on layer of questions. Layer on layer of fear. Layer on layer of worry and prolonged anxiety. The alarm bell’s always ringing. The trauma never ends. The trauma can feel chronic when the risks and stakes are high.    

Betrayal is so emotionally charged because it violates a couple’s core agreement – the promise to care for each other, and keep each other safe.”  Dr Carla M. Greco

Let It Be


“The only cure for grief is to grieve.”


We don’t just put it behind us and move on.  We don’t just forget, and start over again.  

We know that doesn’t work. That it’s just a fantasy.

That’s not how trauma, or grief, or sadness work.

They are all part of your story.  They are part of who you are.

Those memories and events: they will always be with you.


So you need to accept them.

And welcome them.

And make space for them.

You need to allow them to be true – whether you want them to be true, or not.

You need to allow them to be your reality.

Your life.  


You will never be able to stifle, or forget, or erase them completely.

So make room for them.


Allow yourself to be vulnerable and broken, at least for this moment.

Allow yourself to feel all the intense, scary, overwhelming emotions.  

Allow yourself to ache, and mourn, and grieve.

For the truth is – you will be stronger because of it.

You will be freer because of it.

And one day you’ll discover it belongs to yesterday.

And your today, and tomorrow, are not defined by this.

What are the Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma?

Betrayal trauma makes you feel like you are losing your mind. It puts you on an emotional rack and pulls you in opposite directions until you are begging for mercy. It yanks your sense of security out from under you and puts you in a state of emotional free fall. It is severely emotionally distressing, and until you have experienced it, you really can’t imagine how truly life-altering the experience can be.”

–Michelle Mays

When you have experienced betrayal trauma you are living in a state of emotional devastation, something that is very hard to navigate. Its symptoms include the following:  

1. Adrenalin and cortisol are surging through your body as your autonomic nervous system (ANS) prepares for “fight or flight”.

2. Your body and mind are screaming danger and threat. You feel as if you’re living on high alert.

3. For many people, when they start to calm down, the whole unpleasant cycle starts over again, and is repeated and repeated in a series of waves.

4. The fear of future betrayals, and what that could mean, keeps the internal threat response system activated, and ready to go into over-drive again. This becomes chronic, and a way of life.

5.  This means you are on an emotional roller coaster where emotions rise suddenly, are extreme, overwhelming and intense, are unpredictable, and hard to control. As a consequence of this, life feels frightening, chaotic and difficult to navigate.

6. When the ANS response system is triggered, it interferes with mental functioning. This affects your ability to focus, pay attention, concentrate, apply problem-solving skills, think logically, or analyze and process almost any information. Also, your memory is affected, and you can’t remember things.

7.  You feels as if you’re constantly being “rubber-banded” back into the past. Because of the intensity of this experience, it is hard to separate the past from the present; to feel grounded; and to be fully aware of, and responsive to, what is happening here-and-now.

8. When you’re living with emotional dysregulation, it is rare to experience prolonged periods peace and calm.

However, once you can identify what’s happening to you, and can start to articulate the trauma and pain, you can begin the long process of recovery. Hold on to that hope. You are starting to heal.

Who Stole my Life?


What happens when you first learn that your partner has betrayed you?

When you learn he’s lied for years, and much of life is a deception?

You feel you’re going crazy while you try to figure out:

– What’s reality?

– What’s truth?

– What’s a half-truth?

– What’s just a smoke screen?

And that’s a tangled mess it takes forever to tease through.


You’re constantly on guard for now your day is full of landmines.

Your life’s becomes survival.

There are triggers everywhere.

You feel like you’re a hostage to the surges in emotion.

The sorrow, grief and terror, the anxiety and fear.      


You think back to the past, before you learned of the betrayal.

When life seemed calm and easy.

Mediocre.

Quite mundane.

A contrast to today where you are always stressed and fearful.

Will this be the new normal? 


I don’t recognize my life!!!

Quote of the Day

“Become intimate with your fears. Listen to them. Sit cross-legged. Give them your undivided attention. Offer them comfort. Offer them rest.”

– Nayyirah Waheed


Our fears don’t go away.

We can’t just push them down inside.

Pretending they’re not there is never going to work for long.

They always re-emerge.

They keep resurfacing again.

They follow us around

They won’t be silenced or snuffed out.


So why not turn and face them.

Let them speak up.

Say their piece.

Remember: They’re just worries.

Red alerts.

Anxieties.

They’re trying to protect you.

They don’t want you to be harmed

So let them know they matter.

Listen.

Take them seriously.


And as you start to do this, you’ll experience a peace.

Their message may be valid and the danger might be real.

But now that you have faced them, you’re not fighting with yourself.

You’re in this thing together.

And together you are strong.

Betrayal Trauma: Living with the Scars

Trauma affects the entire human organism … After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system”.

There’s a lot of pressure when you learn about betrayal, to work hard on your healing, and to move on with your life.

But you’re not the same person, and the scars don’t disappear.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think that progress can be made. But trauma leaves an imprint on our body, mind and brain. It changes our neurology and physiology.

In “The Body Keeps the Score” Bessel van der Kolk describes some changes that occur when a person’s traumatized, and is later diagnosed with PTSD. Some of these changes include the following:

1. In a person unaffected by PTSD, the hormone cortisol sends out an “all safe” signal after a threat or danger has passed. This doesn’t happen with PTSD sufferers. This is because the latter’s stress hormones do not return to base level after the threat or danger has passed. Instead, the person continues to experience severe anxiety. They remain agitated, they cannot relax, they remain on guard, and they tend to react disproportionately to minor or neutral stimuli.

2. A person with PTSD is primed to react to anything that might signal danger, many months and years after experiencing the trauma. This is true, even when the person has told their story, and has worked on their healing with a therapist. For as Bessel van der Kolk states:

Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain mange perceptions. (As a consequence of trauma, the person) remains hypervigilant, prepared to be wounded at any time.”

3. In ordinary everyday life, both the right and left sides of the brain work together. However, trauma temporarily deactivates the left side of the brain. This means that whenever the traumatized person is triggered, the left brain blacks out, and simply ceases to function.

At the same time, the right brain continues to feels the strong emotions related to the original traumatic experience.

Unfortunately, because the left brain cannot function when it’s triggered, it cannot distinguish between the past and the present. Thus, the person feels as if they’re trapped in the past, reliving emotions which are scary and intense.

Knowing the above, which is based on trauma research, can help relieve the pressure to “hurry up and heal.

We need to recognize these facts, and to practice self-compassion … Because experiencing betrayal is a life-changing event.

That is, the impact is profound, it affects our chemistry, and it’s very difficult to make a full recovery.

*Quotes are from Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. London: Penguin Books.