Laurie Bryson
by Laurie Bryson, M.A., LPC
Member, EMS Weekend Specialist

Betrayal Trauma: Tips for Talking with Your Spouse

If you've ever heard your betrayed mate say, "I would like to trust you again, but I just can't." This is for you.

If you are the wayward spouse and are trying to figure out what it means to become a safe person to repair the damage done by your infidelity, this is for you too.

Wayward spouse, while trying to do everything you can to aid the recovery, have you ever taken the stance or expressed the attitude of, "I'm doing everything I can." With a sigh of frustration, have you ever said something like, "I am taking all the classes and working so hard." Other times, you might have thought, "This whole process is driving me crazy. I can't take these questions anymore," as you shake your head and wonder why your injured spouse may say they still don't feel safe even though the acting out stopped a long time ago.

Laurie, along with the other therapists at EMS Weekend, are not only experts but have personally experienced infidelity. They can guide you as you untangle the confusing webs and devastating consequences of betrayal trauma so you can cover more ground faster. Click the button below to learn more.

Learn More | EMS Weekend

I grew up on a commercial cattle ranch where quarter horses were the primary work vehicle for getting from one place to another. Much of the terrain in West Texas is too steep, rocky, or dangerous for a pickup or an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Riding horses was our only option.

When you are around large animals or livestock, inevitably, something will go wrong. Ride horses long enough and you are going to fall off. Work around horses or cattle long enough and you are going to get kicked.

If this doesn't make sense for those of you who are non-ranch people, just think of your house pets. Cats will scratch you and dogs will sometimes bite you. This is the only way these animals know how to protect themselves.

I remember so clearly the day I got kicked by a horse. The blow to the upper part of my leg was swift and strong. It more than hurt, it was shocking. I experienced the most intense pain waves that radiated throughout my entire body. But here's the thing that might surprise you: It was my favorite horse that kicked me. I enjoyed riding this horse and had gone riding hundreds of times before without incident.

Why did I feel scared for the next few years around that horse or any other horse? Why did I feel uneasy when I walked into the barn? Why was fear of being kicked the first thing that entered my mind every time I was anywhere near the backside of a horse? I never looked at a horse's hind legs the same again after that day. Feeding the horses every day became more difficult and time consuming. All I could focus on was the threat of being kicked again. I wanted to ride again but it would never be the same care-free feeling.

What was happening with me and my favorite horse? Without going into a neurology lesson, this personal anecdote is an example of how trauma impacts our memory.

We mostly use our eyes (and specifically our pupils) to help us determine a threat. For example, we humans have front-facing eyes that are able to see both near and far. When we can't see what is happening, our minds help us. For example, if you see a large dark object coming toward you from a distance, and you can't exactly make out what it is, your brain will use your memory to aid in detecting the threat.

If, in your past, the large and dark object was your dad coming home from work to hug you in the driveway, you won't feel anxious because the memory is positive. But, if in your past, a strange car came into the driveway and the dark object was an intruder that stole from your home or violated someone in another way, your perception would be entirely different because the memory is traumatic.

Memory drives state of mind. State of mind drives perception. It's not always an accurate system, but it is efficient.

Betrayed spouses, it is imperative to understand the scope and narrative of the threat level you are experiencing. It will be fundamentally altered because of the infidelity. Wayward spouses, it's not that your partner doesn't want to believe you. It's that they actually can't believe you. Their protective systems have gone into overdrive.

One of the primary and biological ways to help aid or enhance the recovery efforts of a betrayed spouse is to understand and normalize the threat they are genuinely feeling. If they are spending lots of energy trying to convince their partner that the feelings are real and legitimate, then they aren't spending that energy on recovery.

Here are some very basic and practical ways a wayward partner can start to turn this around. Keep in mind as you read these that it is not only what we say, but also how we say it that can make a significant difference!

The first way to help your mate is to ask permission. This will allow your betrayed partner to feel more of a sense of control about their decisions and allow them a choice. This means to go back to assuming nothing, observing their needs, and asking them questions. Begin with noticing and asking if they need something, something as simple as a tissue. Do they want the television on or off? Ask them if they would like for you to sit next to them. Ask them what they need. Ask them if they are ready for you to start talking or if they need more time to process. You can't ask all your questions at once. They won't have the tolerance to feel peppered with questions they can't answer. Just observe. Anticipate their needs. Ask questions that show you care and want to settle into a demeanor that would be helpful to them. Simply get in the habit of asking, rather than assuming.

The next way to help your mate is to make every effort to slow down and look your mate in the eyes when speaking. Why? Because our vision tells us everything. Our vision can do two things. When we see things from a distance, we don't take in much light. That information is going straight up and down our body through our dorsal system or our "gut." This is great for detecting threats or for logging an attraction to something. But we only get a general picture, no real details. Remember my horse story? When we don't have the details, we rely on our memory. And for the betrayed, their memory keeps saying, you are a threat. You hurt me. I cannot possibly believe you.

When you make eye contact while speaking, close enough that your partner can see your face and expression, they will take in more light, details, and perception, helping them to stay present and feel safe. They do not have to rely on their memory, and that's a good thing in the presence of trauma.

Remember, so much of communication is non-verbal. Think of how much harder it is to communicate to your mate through phone calls or text messaging. It's always better for our mate to see our eyes, our face, and through those things, demonstrate the posture of our heart.

A final way both spouses can help with the threat level we have now identified is to pay closer attention to our own nervous system and what it's telling us. Have you ever noticed when you are around certain people or situations and you start feeling something rise up within you? Similar to when a dog encounters a threat, and the hair on their back goes up. The same holds true with us. It might be that raised voices, a certain tone, a door that shuts loudly, or an inflection in someone's voice can trigger us. I always know when the little girl inside of me is getting upset because my voice will actually get louder! It's my distress signal, and sometimes my spouse has to tell me that I'm shouting. Do you have a sign such as this?

We have to trust in our nervous system. It's trying to protect us after all. Betrayed partners can learn to trust again. Wayward partners might be doing a great job with recovery, but the betrayed spouse's nervous system is "off" and sending all kinds of alarm signals. These two things often happen at the same time, and it can be frustrating for both spouses. Getting the nervous system to a place of calm is important to ongoing recovery.

If this concept is new to you, start to pay attention to your nervous system. Really tune into it. Consider asking your partner or trusted friend to help you pay attention and notice the posture of your heart. Ask for feedback so you understand better what is happening.

None of this is going to be easy. It's just not. But it's very important.

If you can start to pay attention to the ways in which you interact with your mate, perhaps you can lessen some of the pain you are each feeling. When the threat level goes down, healing is made possible.

If you are struggling to find hope and a way to move forward, I'd encourage you to consider the EMS Weekend offered by Affair Recovery. The EMS Weekend is a powerfully transformative experience for couples in their journey toward recovery. There is often a finite window of time in which both spouses are willing to work hard at this. Don't wait. During the EMS Weekend, most couples experience a safe place with practical solutions designed to help them find clarity, freedom, acceptance, and hope.

To Healing.



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