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.
As if that is not enough, when betrayal occurs, your brain begins to operate in a different way. The fear center fires up and stays fired up, creating hyper-vigilance, restlessness, anxiety, and a sense of being perpetually on guard. This alters your ability to regulate your mood, to calm yourself, to think, to reason, and to make intelligent decisions. Your fear center hijacks your normal functioning, and you find yourself in a world where every task feels challenging, your mind will not stop racing, your emotions feel out of control, and your coping skills are stretched to the limit. This is the experience of Complex, Dynamic, Multi-Dimensional Betrayal Trauma.
To truly understand this experience, it is important that we take some time to examine the terminology that we are using. Let’s start by defining complex trauma and how that relates to the experience of being betrayed by our significant other.
Judith Herman, who wrote the book Trauma and Recovery in 1992, was the first to define complex trauma. Since then, others have built on her original concepts, further developing our understanding of this important topic. So, what is complex trauma? Christine Courtois, PhD, a psychotherapist who specializes in defining and treating complex trauma, defines it as “traumatic stressors that are interpersonal, that are premeditated, planned, and caused by other humans, such as violation and/or exploitation of another person.”Notice that in Courtois’ definition, complex trauma is both relational and repeated.
Complex trauma is most often associated with children who experience various types of relational and repeated violations during key developmental moments. However, it can also be applied to cumulative adversities experienced by cultures, people groups, and communities. And it can be applied to adults who have experienced chronic relational trauma (for instance, ongoing sexual and emotional betrayal) that destroys the foundational trust in their primary relationship. In such cases, complex trauma theory accurately summarizes the levels of stress, distress, and emotional fragmentation that betrayed partners experience.
Researchers have identified seven complex traumatic stress reactions resulting from the experience of complex trauma. I believe these symptoms fall into two broad categories of impact experienced by betrayed partners: (1) emotional dysregulation, and (2) relational disconnection. The remainder of this blog focuses on the first category, emotional dysregulation. Next week we will discuss the second category, relational disconnection. After that, I will write about the dynamic, multi-dimensional aspects of complex trauma.
As the information slams into you, your body gets hot and adrenaline fills you like a million lightning bugs firing at once. Your hands shake, your knees cave, your heart starts to race. Your mind is like a skipping record, racing and jumping, the thoughts coming too fast to even think them, flying by in a kaleidoscope of remembered conversations and events, color and sound all mixed together in a shower of lies. And now your body gets cold and the shaking is in your limbs. Your heart slows as a deep brick-like dread fills your stomach and chest and the tears come. More tears than you had any idea a person could cry.
That is a description of what it feels like in the body to experience emotional dysregulation related to trauma. Remember, feelings and emotions are felt unconsciously in the body before they consciously register in awareness in your mind.
When trauma occurs, the body’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) shifts into high gear within a nanosecond and the body ratchets up into a state of threat preparedness. The body registers danger and sends signals throughout, elevating adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that prepare the body to fight back, run away, or, if those are not possible, to shut down. The body is created to be able to respond to stress in this way and then to calm itself and settle back down into a balanced state of being – alert yet relaxed. Think of this as an emergency brake system, it’s not meant to be used all the time, but it is there when you need it.
When infidelity occurs, betrayed partners enter a state of prolonged emotional threat and danger. The initial discovery of betrayal is enough to cause the body to immediately ramp up its threat response system. Unfortunately, partners are often dealing with not just that first discovery but an ongoing series of discoveries that activate the threat system repeatedly, causing it to fire up and prepare to fight, flee, or shut down over and over. Many betrayed partners report feeling that just as they start to calm down and gain some equilibrium another discovery occurs and once again their system rockets into chaos.
The body responds to the repeated discovery of betrayal and the very real fear of future betrayals by keeping the threat response system activated. Instead of acting as an emergency brake system, this state of high activation becomes chronic. Because of this, betrayed partners often find themselves attempting to handle life with an activated threat system. Essentially, they are responding to the initial trauma while also managing the chronic fear of re-experiencing future trauma. This creates the profound emotional dysregulation described earlier. And this emotional dysregulation may be experienced daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute – often over many weeks and months.
Here are the key symptoms of complex trauma that are part of the experience of emotional dysregulation:
- Alterations in regulation of affective impulses.What this means in plain language is that you are now riding an emotional rollercoaster where your emotions are big and change rapidly and often. Your ability to remain calm and to not be swept away by these heated emotions is limited due to the chronic state of activation that your body, brain and mind are now in.
- Alterations in attention and consciousness. When your body’s threat response system is activated it impacts your pre-frontal cortex – the part of your brain that helps you to pay attention, focus, make decisions, and assign meaning to what is happening. As a result, betrayed partners report difficulty in concentrating, remembering things, tracking information, and staying present.
- Somatization and/or medical problems.Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading trauma researchers, wrote a book a few years ago and brilliantly named it The Body Keeps the Score. And indeed, it does. Prolonged stress impacts health significantly. Betrayed partners report an astonishing array of health problems surfacing after discovery of betrayal, ranging from diagnosable ailments such as gastritis, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, adrenal failure, etc., to clusters of mystery symptoms that no one can accurately diagnose but that the betrayed partner feels acutely in the form of body-based pain and discomfort.
If you are experiencing any or all of these things to one degree or another as a result of your partner’s betrayal, you are likely feeling the effects of emotional dysregulation resulting from complex trauma. In my next post, we will discuss relational disconnection, the second category of complex trauma related symptoms.
Courtois, C. A. (2009). Understanding complex trauma, complex reactions, and treatment approaches. Christine A. Courtois, PhD and Associates, PLC, Washington, DC. Available at http://www.giftfromwithin.org/html/cptsd-understanding-treatment.html.
This article was originally posted on PartnerHope, offering authentic hope in the aftermath of betrayal.