“Look at how crazy she is! He’s the monster. You would have too if you were in my shoes! No wonder I cheated- just look at her.” The same argument occurs thousands of times over, in different forms, within toxic coupleships.
Damaging relationships take many forms. Those that include passing the blame for bad behaviors are especially harmful. If you have found yourself in one or more of these on the receiving end, you may have betrayal trauma. Read further to learn about the misunderstood reactions of partners who have been cheated on, lied to, discarded, and devalued.
For purposes of this article, I refer to the spouse as the victim and the perpetrator as the unfaithful. Men and women, gay or straight, take both roles. I refrain from referring to only one sex. The idea here also is to understand in order to heal, not to villianize either party. In many cases also, both parties become offenders to each other with the common goal to have the other one hurt more.
“Abandonment and trauma are at the core of addictions,” as quoted by Dr. Patrick Carnes on betrayal trauma. The concept sheds new light on describing the unspoken. Dr. Carnes’s groundbreaking work on uncontrollable sexual behaviors as an addiction also contributed to furthered studies of traumatic bonding, toxic relationships, and healing from such wounds. Where the partner has cheated, lied, and abused, the victim enters a nervous system state of survival mode.
At the heart of romantic betrayal lies a host of broken promises, faked personas, lies upon lies about lies, and gaslit spouses. The partners of the chronically unfaithful typically have little to no idea of what occurs with their loved one, who is entrenched with toxic behaviors. While living what appears to be a normal existence in a normal relationship, they get completely blindsided by the discovery of the perpetrator’s secret life. This is the point the person with the compulsive sexual behaviors becomes reckless enough to allow for bits and pieces of their secretive behaviors become visible to the world. Sometimes this is purposeful because the addict wants to get caught and does not know any other way to plead for help. Others, life simply gets to be too unmanageable. Like any addiction, these behaviors are abhorrent and take many forms. These cases have spectrums of disturbing acts, but some include intense offenses and abuse.
Dr. Carnes’s work has gained traction since he began speaking about it thirty years ago. These concepts now helps thousands of clients yearly who are seen by certified sexual addiction psychotherapists (CSAT) or certified partner trauma therapists (CPTT) who understand the complex nature of compulsive sexual behavior. These are credentials you can earn through the International Institution for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP), but there are many similar programs throughout the field that share the same ideas. The Carneses dove right into developing treatment for sexually inappropriate and boundary-violating sexual behavior and the damage that is done to those who surround them. Dr. Stephanie Carnes took those ideas and developed partner-trauma concepts and treatment.
Trauma bonds occur when a person attaches to someone who is destructive to them (Carnes, 1997). This forms out of responses to damage caused by dangerous and exploitative relationships. As Carnes explains, neglect-based abandonment is not damaging like betrayal. The outright boundary-violations that come with deception create a constant defense-state in the victim that distracts them from the their own internal processes of shock, disbelief, fear, loneliness, and sadness. Betrayal is self-serving and purposeful. If the betrayal is bad enough, the victim’s existence will completely change, for the worse. Their brain will alter biologically and causes emotional and cognitive process problems. Parts of them die, and the partner becomes addicted to the perpetrator.
They become loyal to those that are toxic- a form of insanity (Carnes, 2019).
Oxytocin, dopamine, and other chemicals in the body facilitate this process (Weir, 2020). Oxytocin is that hormone that enhances our attachment to others. Dopamine reinforces reproductive processes so that humans seek out partners. This enhances craving and desire. When the victim is starved of attachment, they experience withdrawal. Relationships are required for emotional regulation, information processing, and clear communication. Abuse disrupts this process and causes the victim to physically adapt. Violence and conflict cause attachment rupture and awakens the bonding instinct. The victim experiences anxiety and anguish when the perpetrator pulls away. Then, the perpetrator reinforces this need though reverted behaviors of intensity, apologizing with promises to never do it again, and love bombing. This draws the victim back into the trap. The victim may be kept in a state of deprivation with their control and self esteem slowly being taken away by psychological, financial, and relational abuse and isolation. The victim experiences fear and protection with the perpetrator while their support base is dissolved (Fonseca, 2021).
As Fonseca (2021) describes about domestic violence, “In this case, a paradox occurs: violence increases the anguish of the victim, who wishes to escape, while raising the need for bonds that could regulate such anguish, which she seeks in people she considers stronger than her. Thus, the aggressor becomes a source of fear and, at the same time, protection. The traumatic bond is, therefore, a source of trauma, as well as a bond that provides security.” Violence takes many forms can present as psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, or all the above. These can keep the victim silent and bound for a long time.
So, why do people stay in these relationships?
I’ve wondered this myself from the age of 7, and questioned my parents. They never had a good reason but also never did anything about it, except bitch about the other person. Everyone has many reasons, theirs was codependency and fear. They didn’t know how to do it on their own and were too scared to.
I also had these relationships early on where I was the victim. I knew no different, until I did. An extremely painful process, healing is possible. You don’t have to remain in these destructive patterns. I got out of it myself by going against every instinct prior to dating my now husband of decades. And, fortunately, it worked. My instincts were broken.
Disordered attachment styles, learned behaviors from codependency, and brain changes from trauma is the WHY.
Abandonment feels like death. Courtesy of yours truly, mother nature.
Millions of years ago, we formed to exist in hunter-gatherer societies. People died if they were abandoned by their tribes. People did not learn to be independent because they were so good at taking care of themselves. As mammals, we have adapted to survive in packs. Our societies protect us and promote our growth. If exiled, people either died from predators, disease, injury, or the elements. Kristin Weir does well to explain this in her 2020 article on The Pain of Social Rejection. Social rejection impacts brain development, emotional, and physical health. So deeply engrained in our existence, people feel physical pain when they are rejected. Acceptance and belonging are mechanisms humans formed to survive. Because, you paired with a lion makes you hamburger. But, you paired with a tribe of hunters who have really big sharp sticks makes a great way to turn that lion into dinner.
So as much as you may be that fabulous loner who rejects conventionalism, you need people. Admit it. You can’t live without us.
Rejection causes anger, anxiety, jealousy, and sadness. Brought to you by yours truly, evolution. It is important, however, that you feel through that pain and not find ways to avoid it. These maladaptive coping mechanisms people use to avoid pain cause further problems in the end. You name it, we use it. Eating, gambling, working, watching TV, drugs, alcohol, love addiction, if there is a strong negative feeling state, people have found a way to avoid it. Carnes calls this trauma blocking.
Secure attachment in childhood is pertinent for the child to form healthy relationships in adulthood. The way children bond with their caregivers affects how those children learn to interact and trust with others going forward. So deeply important is this need for bonding, attachment ruptures will destroy lives, cause a host of mental health issues such as addiction, support the cycles of domestically violent relationships, and keep people in abusive relationships of any kind. Hostage situations, religious abuse, and incest/child abuse are just a few examples where the victim becomes loyal to the perpetrator from trauma.
This is what brings people into my office.
The problems trauma blocking and other maladaptive coping mechanisms cause are resultant of much deeper personal struggles that began a long time prior to the other mental health issues. They’re a bandaid put over a bullet hole.
Attachment disruption in childhood will alter the attachment style in adulthood, as explained in Attachment Theory (Ladd, 2005). Major life events like parental death, divorce, affect the youth’s sense of relatedness, competence, and autonomy (Schoenfelder et al., 2011). Security with caregivers is essential to the development of healthy unions as an adult. The fear of abandonment is just one of several intense reactions for attachment ruptures. This fear causes that child to form a distorted core belief that they cannot count on their caregiver to give them what they need. In response, they develop impaired thinking patterns about need fulfillment that drive them into unhealthy patterns and connections with others. Core beliefs like:
I cannot trust anyone.
I don’t deserve to be loved.
I cannot show feelings.
I am a failure.
I am worthless
I have to achieve to gain value.
The fear of abandonment is related to mental health problems for children whose parents have died (Schoenfelder et al., 2011). In this study, youth who experienced abandonment by death of a parent experienced anxiety in romantic liasons as an adult. The attachment styles recognized are dismissive-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, secure, and disorganized (Bretherton, 1992). All but secure attachment styles appear in relationships with domestic abuse and betrayal.
In practice, I most often see dismissive-avoidants romantically connected to either anxious-preoccupied or disorganized-attached partners. Pia Mellody’s twist on this setup calls them love avoidants and love addicts. You can have a mix of these features also depending on the person and context. However, they are drawn to each other like flies on garbage due to their setup from the start. Thier bodies and their minds drive them to form these types of romantic entanglements. They seek to form their own identities and fulfillment through the relationship with the other.
Most stay here their entire lives. When the situation is bad enough or some type of discovery occurs, there is an awakening to reality. Trying to control the situation initially, they realize they cannot solve their crises by themselves. They seek out support and education in any way they know how. The caveat is that the neurochemical processes and the inability to deal with the severe negative emotional states drive them right back into each other’s arms and into their addictions/avoidance techniques.
Defined by Carnes (2019), betrayal trauma is rooted in attachments based on trauma bonds. These bonds are created from experiences that shaped that person to be dependent on the perpetrator with a host of factors that influence the process. The reactions to harm inflicted by the perpetrator are incredibly similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and vary in degree depending on the offenses and victim resilience. Victims of sexual or physical violence, manipulation, deception, and intrusion, experience guilt, shame, survival adaptations such as the fight/flight/freeze responses, and reported a greater degree of PTSD symptoms compared to who experienced non-betrayal trauma (David et al., 2018). The trauma becomes complex often times when the victim has a history of trauma.
Betrayal is trauma.
At this point, the questions become: What do you do? What can you do? How do you do it?
Leave, stay, plead, beg, and change him/her? Send them to therapy?
That answer is : Nope. No one is so powerful as to change another. That person must have the want to change. This is another conversation I often have with my clients. I am useless as a therapist unless there is motivation to change somewhere. I also cannot change the partner to magically become what the client wants that partner to be. And often, this does not occur until the pain of change is less than that of staying the same. Couples get so busy on focusing to change everyone else that they avoid the very thing they should be doing- changing themselves. All the energy put into the other person gets wasted and the cycle of abuse only strengthens. It also takes the responsibility off of themselves to do something about the situation and move through those awful feeling states to freedom on the other side.
In addiction, partners with betrayal trauma have strong responses because of the activation of their fight/flight/freeze responses. The urge is to hurt the person as much or worse as the pain they feel themselves. The betrayed might call names, belittle, disparage, have outbursts of anger, or constantly put the betrayer down. This does nothing but contribute to more damage to the relationship and is a sign of extreme pain and anger over overt boundary violations. They need support, love, education, and trauma therapy.
This is also where they get blamed, projected upon, called crazy, and gain reputational damage from the reactions of their loved one’s horrible misconduct. The perpetrator might try to “prove” their actions were valid due to this response from the betrayed. This is a wonderful point of intervention to point out just how sick the perpetrator is and how unable they are to deal with their own negative feelings, such as shame.
Throwing darts at each other will only kill you both.
In session, if any of this comes up with my client (I work with the perpetrators usually) I immediately point out the damage done and that the partner’s response is one of the extreme boundary violations done to the victim and that these responses are not only expected, they are normal. Projection and blame are FANTASTIC ways to take the focus off of one’s own disturbing acts and give it to someone else. This is a way to escape accountability and responsibility for one’s own recovery.
Romantic betrayal is considered to be traumatic because of the internal damage inflicted by this outright exploitation of trust. It hinders the ability for formation of security in relationships. The partner experiences intense anguish and separation from oneself to the degree of extremely negative physical and psychological change. Getting back the person they used to be is impossible after this level of devastation. However, it’s possible to heal from.
Some of these predicaments work out, but that takes the deep commitment of both parties to work on themselves for the better. You cannot have one healthy spouse keep a dysfunctional relationship going well. It takes two people participating, equally, pulling in the same direction. Most times this involves separation, personal work on both ends, allowance for growth, and forming healthier future ties.
Education, healing, and lots of support get people to a place where they can and do begin to experience happy, secure intimate partnerships. Feeling through it is key. Avoidance is the enemy. No one can do it alone, and you don’t have to.
- Carnes, Patrick J. Trauma Bonds. 1997. Health Communications. Accessed October 17, 2022 from: https://healingtreenonprofit.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trauma-Bonds-by-Patrick-Carnes-1.pdf
- Fonseca, Nicole de Queiroz Lima. OLIVEIRA, Bruno Quintino de. Trauma Bonding: concepts, causes and mechanisms in intimate relationships. Revista Científica Multidisciplinar Núcleo do Conhecimento. Year. 06, Ed. 11, Vol. 06, pp. 60-78. November 2021. ISSN: 2448-0959, Access Link: https://www.nucleodoconhecimento.com.br/psychology/intimate-relationships, DOI: 10.32,749/nucleodoconhecimento.com.br/psychology/intimate-relationships
- Weir, K. (2020, January 14). The pain of social rejection. Monitor on Psychology, 43(4). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection
- Schoenfelder EN, Sandler IN, Wolchik S, MacKinnon D. Quality of social relationships and the development of depression in parentally-bereaved youth. J Youth Adolesc. 2011 Jan;40(1):85-96. doi: 10.1007/s10964-009-9503-z. Epub 2010 Jan 30. PMID: 20119668; PMCID: PMC2941702.
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