Stages of Betrayal Trauma and Recovery for Partners
Sandra A. Shachar, PhD
Discovering that your partner has betrayed your trust is traumatic. Whether you discovered that your partner had an emotional, online or physical affair, engaged in compulsive sexual behavior or addiction, or lied about being with someone they claim is "just a friend," you may experience a sequence of normal reactions:
1. Shock and devastation. Everything you thought you knew about your partner and your intimate relationship is now called into question. "Who are you? I thought I knew you! How could I have not known? What will I do now? How could I possibly love you or ever trust you again?" Your sense of being able to trust yourself, your instincts and your sense of reality have all been turned upside down. Things may feel unreal, and you may find yourself crying, feeling depressed or anxious and even panicked, unable to eat or sleep. Knowing that these reactions are normal, that this phase will not last, and that you will survive, can help you get through each day with hope. This phase may last weeks or even a month, and can be triggered again if learn new information about your partner's betrayal.
2. Anger. The loss of the relationship and life as you knew it naturally prompts the emotion of anger and often the desire for revenge. You will likely have some version of the thoughts, "I could ruin you, tell everyone that we know, shame you and make you pay for how you hurt me." You may have similar or more intense thoughts about seeking revenge from the betrayal partners, as well as anyone else who knew about your partner's behavior and protected them with silence or enabling. Resisting the urge to act on these feelings can be challenging, but betrayed partners seldom find revenge satisfying to the extent imagined. In addition, they often regret "outing" their partner to friends and family members who are then judgmental or withdraw support for you and contact with you and your partner, just when you need it most. There will naturally be a desire for details about the betrayal, and some general details can be helpful such as knowing when and how long the behavior took place, and the general nature of the behavior (compulsive porn or use of prostitution, perusing online dating sites, crossing emotional intimacy boundaries in the workplace, etc.). Knowing about specific sexual acts, however, or seeing texts and images, will be difficult to "un-see" and many betrayed partners find these images and details to be additionally traumatizing, so using caution when feeling the urge to ask about seeking graphic details is strongly advised.
3. Grief and difficulty feeling grounded. After the more intense reaction of anger begins to subside, a sadness and even depression may take its place. It is natural to feel sadness with loss of any kind, and the reality is that your relationship, as you believed it to be, is over. There is also the "loss of innocence" with your realization that things were not as they seemed and the person you thought you knew is not exactly who your partner is. Once a betrayal is discovered, both partners and their relationship are forever changed.Your sense of being able to trust yourself is also shaken, such that you may second guess all of your decisions. Because your feelings are "all over the place," like wanting to end the relationship one moment and desperate to save it the next, it is hard to know how to move forward. This stage also will pass, though more gradually than the initial stages of shock and anger. Finding "wise guides" in the form of therapists who specialize in betrayal trauma and partner recovery programs, such as Sanon, will assist you in navigating every stage more effectively without feeling so isolated.
4. Healing and Rebirth. In the place of grief, brokenness and devastation comes the redefining yourself and your relationship, if you both have chosen to explore repairing your bond and move forward together. For the betrayed partner, understanding how you came to be in relationship marred by betrayal, will help you develop greater self-compassion and a sense of being able to trust that you can be healthy and whole again. If you are both working on individual recovery and growth, you can create a new, healthy and truly intimate relationship. Couple healing and rebirth happens when each of the partners commits to a guided program of individual and relationship recovery with trained professionals and - if addiction or compulsive behaviors are present - the help of 12 step or addiction recovery programs. Without professional or structured program help, the chances for couples to fully repair and move forward together are significantly reduced. Individual recovery and healing can take place even when the betrayal partner chooses to not seek help and make changes.
Except for the first stage of shock and devastation at the moment of discovery, there is no exact time frame for these stages. It is also normal for elements of each stage to re-emerge when a betrayed partner feels triggered. Triggering usually occurs unexpectedly, such as seeing a sex scene in a movie, hearing a song on the radio, or driving by a hotel. Experiencing the return of trust, even with professional help and no new betrayal behavior, usually takes at least a year, going through a full cycle of holidays, birthdays and seasons, because betrayed partners naturally mark time as "before I knew" and "after I knew" once they have discovered a betrayal. With consistency of words and actions over time, and demonstrated changes resulting from individual and couples' work, however, trust can and will gradually return. Couples who work a program of recovery and restoring trust and intimacy do find that their bond and relationship is stronger than before, and never taken for granted.
Some helpful resources for betrayed partners include:
Mending A Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, Edited by Stephanie Carnes, PhD
Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal, Barbara Steffens, PhD and Marsha Means, MA
Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Guide Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, Rob Weiss, LCSW, CSAT
Sanon.org Hope and Help for Family & Friends of Sexaholics