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

Betrayal Trauma: How We Get Stuck in Trauma Bonds

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—sometimes called trauma bonds.

What Does Trauma Look Like?

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

Intrusive thoughts are recurring, uninvited, and 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 are instant reminders of the event.

Hyperarousal could manifest in a variety of ways, including persistent jittery feelings, a constant fear of danger, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, irritability, and being easily startled.

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.

Begin your healing now by joining Affair Recovery's 13 week online course, EMS Online for couples. Decades of experience exclusively in the field of infidelity has gone into this course. Our methodology has been honed to better serve couples as they address the trauma, betrayal, reconnect as partners and restore their lives.

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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 the extra energy we need. 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, we enter a state of physical and emotional collapse. We may not be able to speak, or we 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. This is why it is 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 of trauma after infidelity.

After being a therapist for over seventeen years, I have seen distorted and adaptive bonds form between partners. Some people call these "trauma bonds" or "betrayal bonds," but 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 six to nine months after discovery.
  • Taking actions that repeatedly alternate between wanting a divorce and wanting to work it out.
  • Continuing to have destructive arguments over the same issues.
  • Keeping your relationship (and reconciliation efforts) hidden from others who 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, acting with a renewed sense of connection one minute, then the next minute, if painful memories and outbursts resurface, lashing out.

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 you 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!

Have you heard of our Emergency Marital Seminar Online course, often referred to as EMS Online? This course 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 signed up for the EMS Online 13 week course and started in December last year. I have been with my partner for 15 years although we had been as good as separated for the past 2-3 years. I was the unfaithful spouse for 10 years during the relationship and had come to view my partner with a negative lens as well as not feeling like I could plan with her in mind. We finally decided to try the online course after watching many YouTube videos from the team, as 15 years, 3 kids and an entire farm project were in the balance. I wish I had known about the course before any relationship, as it completely reset my wiring, someone was finally teaching me how to have a relationship. I learned about thoughts and feelings and how to tackle them, I learned how to feel empathy, forgiveness, truth in love and more. It was a spiritual journey and I now have the best relationship I have ever had and certainly the best moment in the 15 years of being together. I would recommend AR to anyone in crisis...absolutely, and really to just anyone in a relationship.... It's amazing, the structure of the 13 weeks takes you on an emotional rollercoaster and at times I felt like quitting, but thanks to my commitment contract and the knowledge that things were getting clearer, I continued and now have moved onto married life with our group as it's just such powerful work. We were in a terrible place before starting this course and now we are in a wonderful relationship together." - A., France. 3/17/23

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Husband still works with the AP

My husband still works with the women he had an affair with. His boss knows and has talked to both of them. My husband is her superior so he doesn't feel hw can fire her because he feels responsible as well. He has cut off as much communication as possible but it is very hard for me. Its been almost 8 months ago that I found out. Everything is going so well except for me. I'm stuck. Can it work?

I understand

We see the woman my husband betrayed me with nearly every day at the gym & around our small town. It’s extremely hard. I understand what you are going through.

I completely understand and

I completely understand and relate to this. My husband works with the home wrecker, but since he has moved on he doesn’t see why it bothers me. He is currently interviewing with other companies but it has been 6 months of pain and frustration on my end. She keeps playing childish games and acts all surprised when he reminds her that there is no relationship it is just professional. I had him record it for harassment and for my own peace of mind. But just KNOWING she is there, is slowly killing me. I feel close to a nervous breakdown and can’t wait to leave this whole state. And he doesn’t get it. Sadness

Will it work

Your Grace towards him is evident. Hold on, You are trying thru your pain. I pray that you receive comfort thru your healing, that you're marriage will be rebuilt to be unshakable and more beautiful than before.

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