Wayne Baker
by Wayne Baker, M.A., LPC
Member, Affair Recovery Specialist Panel

Betrayal Trauma: How We Get Stuck in Trauma Bonds

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Discovery of your spouse's affair or sexual addiction usually triggers a tidal wave of intense emotions. After the initial shock and confusion, most betrayed spouses struggle for quite some time to regain control over the turbulent emotions brought on by intrusive thoughts and reminders. In fact, Patrick Carnes, a pioneer in the treatment of sexual addiction, says that infidelity can be as traumatic as sexual assault.

When recovering from infidelity, it's important to understand how and why the experience changes our brain and our behavior. I'd like to talk about what betrayal trauma might look like for both the betrayed and the wayward spouses and how this shared trauma can result in unhelpful patterns in relating to one another-patterns sometimes referred to as trauma bonds.

What Does Trauma Look Like?

The trauma from betrayal creates the same symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into three categories: intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal.

Intrusive thoughts are recurring, uninvited, upsetting reminders of the traumatic event such as flashbacks (reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again) or nightmares about the traumatic event.

Avoidance could include trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event as well as avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you of the event.

Hyperarousal could manifest in a variety of ways including persistent jittery feelings, always being on the lookout for danger, difficulty sleeping, easily startled, trouble concentrating, and irritability.

Symptoms usually vary over time and from person to person. These same symptoms also lead to adverse changes in thinking and mood and may include:

  • Negative thoughts about yourself and others.
  • Hopelessness about the future.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Detachment from work, family, and friends.
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed.
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions.
  • Feeling emotionally numb.

So, What's Causing These Changes?

Underneath the observable changes in mood and behavior, betrayal trauma can literally change your physiology due to the neurobiological changes that are going on in your limbic system. Because of these changes, your body goes into fight, flight, or freeze (and sometimes collapse) response.

In fight or flight, when our amygdala senses danger, our hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing epinephrine, also called adrenaline. On a good training or workout day, adrenaline makes our heart beat faster and lungs breathe more efficiently. It causes the blood vessels to send more blood to the brain and muscles, making our brain more alert to the situation, and raising blood sugar levels to give us energy. But when we are feeling emotionally or physically threatened, this adrenaline release is about keeping us safe and alive.

When the threat level reaches a certain threshold, the hippocampus signals the adrenal glands to release more cortisol. The hippocampus works with many different brain areas; it is necessary for thinking, learning, memory, and behavior regulation. During extreme stress, like betrayal trauma, our brain needs to focus on problem solving. However, your hippocampus function is altered because it is momentarily drowning in cortisol. The result is fighting against or moving away (flight) from the stress/threat rather than working through the problem in order to solve it.

In freeze response, all the same stuff that I just mentioned is going on, but our subconscious has decided that this stress is too dangerous. Our sympathetic nervous system is no longer solely in charge. The back side of the vagus nerve, the dorsal vagus is activated, and it yanks us into a state of self-protection. Therefore, when we experience extreme danger, whether real or perceived, we can shut down. We may feel or appear calm but, in reality, we are emotionally numb and frozen.

Finally, collapse response looks similar to freeze; it is a state of hypo arousal. The dorsal vagus nerve says, "This is just too much!" and shuts down. We are no longer looking for ways to survive (fight or flight) and, rather, enter a state of physical and emotional collapse. We may not be able to speak or may feel detached or disconnected from our body. Our blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate lower. In extreme cases, we may even pass out or lose consciousness.

This cycle of cortisol levels increasing or randomly spiking has a significant effect on your immune system and overall health. Even long after an affair's initial discovery or disclosure, your brain can be inundated with reminders that bathes it in adrenaline and cortisol. That is one of the factors that makes it so hard for your brain to process this traumatic event and subsequently refuse to let its guard down. This heightened sense of fear and loneliness causes the symptoms of PTSD.

What Do We Do About It?

You may not be interested in the neuroscience piece, but you can still be curious about when your brain is offline or online. Hypo-aroused and Hyper-aroused brains are both "offline." To bring us back to the center where our brain is "online," we can practice noticing what is going on inside. How do we feel about what we are thinking and what is happening physiologically, like our heart rate and breath? Are we hot or cold, sweaty or clammy? Do we feel numb, or are we experiencing strong emotions? Activities such as prayer, meditation, exercise, yoga, and journaling can help us stay centered.

What is Trauma Bonding?

Bonding around trauma looks different in every relationship. Both partners are frequently somewhere on the fight, flight, freeze, collapse continuum but are rarely at the same place simultaneously, contributing to the destructive cycle that couples dealing with the trauma of infidelity find themselves in.

After being a therapist for 17 years, I have seen distorted and adaptive bonds form between partners. Some people call these "trauma bonds" or "betrayal bonds." I am not sure these terms are helpful in the long run. Still, it is beneficial to understand your trauma and your mate's trauma and have a working knowledge of what is going on in both of your brains.

Here are a few examples of unhelpful cycles resulting from trauma bonds:

  • Fixation on the affair, what happened, and why for longer than 6 - 9 months after discovery.
  • Alternating between wanting a divorce and wanting to work it out.
  • You and your mate continuing to have destructive arguments over the same issues.
  • Keeping your relationship hidden from others that might judge you for trying to work it out.
  • Breaking commitments to yourself or each other and expecting things to get better.
  • In the sexual relationship, feeling a renewed sense of connection one minute then, the next minute, painful memories and outbursts resurface.

It can be beneficial to step back and look at the cycle that the two of you enter into when you discuss details and reminders. Ask yourself whether the way we are talking about the details of the affair is helping us move forward toward restoration or is making things worse. It's important to talk about it regularly for a season. I think that it's also imperative for the wayward spouse to be the guardian and protector of the relationship for a season. Still, you both need to be curious about this cycle that you are co-creating as you work to reconcile-you are both responsible for the co-creation of a new relationship starting today.

If you find that you and your spouse are in an unhelpful cycle, please don't beat yourself up for it; notice it without any shame and be curious about how you can begin to work through the trauma of infidelity differently.

We at Affair Recovery have seen couples trying to repair the damage of infidelity or sexual addiction on their own only to create more collateral damage after discovery. To break unhelpful cycles and avoid bonding in unhealthy ways, you must get help as soon as possible. I can think of no better place to start than Affair Recovery's EMS Online course. It is a 13 week course that has helped thousands of couples over the years begin to work through the nuances of betrayal trauma and avoid the cycle of trauma bonding. John Gottman's research shows that couples wait six years too late to get help--don't wait!

Continue Your Healing With EMS Online! Registration Opens Soon.

Our Emergency Marital Seminar Online, better known as EMSO, isn't a one-size-fits-all program for couples. Over decades of experience exclusively in the field of infidelity, our methodology has been honed to better serve couples as they address the betrayal, reconnect as partners and restore their lives.

"I would like to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your ministry and the materials you have provided as part of EMSO and Married for Life. We, all five couples that started EMSO, have just completed the Married for Life 52-week course. We are now deciding what to study next as a group, as we so value the relationship we have together as couples. With God, with your materials and with each other, we have saved our marriages." - B. Minnesota | EMSO participant, March 2021.

Spots fill up quickly, so you won't want to wait to register for EMSO! To learn when registration opens back up, click the button below.

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