• Susan Lester, MSW, LCSWA, LCASA

Betrayal Trauma: What it is and how to take charge of it

We all have things we do to soothe ourselves when experiencing difficult thoughts, situations, and emotions. These are the ways we cope. Some of these coping mechanisms are positive and lead to health and connection, while others are maladaptive, having various negative consequences. Generally, someone is considered to be struggling with addiction when they continue to engage in behaviors that have negative consequences and are unable to stop these behaviors despite considerable efforts. A simple definition of addiction is a compulsive, destructive, self-coping behavior. With the exponential increase of the sex industry in recent decades, pornography use and compulsive sexual behaviors have become the coping skill of many, both male and female. While turning to sex has high rewards in the short-term, what are the effects on the partners of those using sex to cope?


Betrayal Trauma is a term that has become more common in recent years and refers to the specific experience and symptoms of partners in relationship with those struggling with sexual addiction. Betrayal Trauma is a type of traumatic stress, and many partners of sex addicts meet the criteria set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Betrayal Trauma is a gut-wrenching experience that has been described by many as death by a thousand cuts. It is characterized by a host of symptoms in the spouse who has been betrayed including hypervigilance, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression, confusion, nightmares, avoidance, rage, inability to eat or overeating, inability to regulate emotions, helplessness, impaired digestion, as well as other health problems including adrenal fatigue and autoimmune disorders. You are not crazy! These symptoms are the real results of the trauma of being betrayed in an intimate relationship. The severity of the symptoms experienced also depend on one’s ability to leave the relationship-the more dependent you are on your partner, the more trauma you will experience. Psychologists have long known that one of the deepest cravings of human nature is the desire to feel safe. Betrayal trauma attacks this desire at its very core.


The good news is that if this is your experience, you have the power to take charge of your life starting today. The only person you can control is yourself and figuring out what you need and want will be crucial as you take steps forward. As you seek help remember that you are not responsible for your partner’s choices- their addiction is not your fault! The solution is not more sex, losing weight or “becoming sexier.” As the Al-Anon slogan says, “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” Your freedom will lie in taking charge of yourself and your choices. Every situation is different, but here are some tips to keep in mind as you begin your healing journey:


  1. Find a healing community- Realizing you are not alone, being heard, validated, and understood are priceless gifts. Find a counselor, a support group and/or safe friends where you can process what is happening in your relationship. A word of caution: Many religious communities teach couples that husbands have a right to their wives bodies at all times. This is physical, sexual and religious/spiritual abuse.

  2. Focus on your own work-Betrayal trauma has a devastating impact on your ability to know and trust your reality. Usually, therapeutic work is necessary whether you stay in your relationship or not. Getting to the bottom of your own relationship patterns and tendencies will be helpful as you move forward.

  3. Establish boundaries in your relationship-True therapeutic work begins when safety is established. Boundaries aren’t something you do to another person, but instead are something you can do for your own self-care, well-being, and protection. Boundaries can help determine whether you are safe to move forward in the relationship or not.

  4. Practice Self-Care constantly- Remember that trauma is stored in the body. Taking care of your physical health will be paramount as you heal. Establish nurturing habits and exercise routines. Yoga is an effective grounding practice that helps immensely with betrayal trauma. Make sure you are eating well, resting enough, and getting outside. Meet with a doctor to determine other health needs.

  5. Journal as a practice to regulate emotions-Emotions must be acknowledged and experienced in order to heal. What we feel can be healed!

  6. Learn to trust again-Betrayal trauma can cause us to be relationship avoidant as we fear being hurt or getting stuck again. We are made for connection and relationship and will find our deepest fulfillment in healthy relationships with ourselves and others. True love requires freedom, respects freedom and thrives in freedom.


The greatest need in betrayed partners is for honesty as sexual addiction is accompanied by lies, deception and gaslighting. Look for growth in these areas with your partner and seek progress, not perfection. Remember, forgiveness does not equal trust. If you find yourself doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, this is Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. For help with addictive behaviors or betrayal trauma contact Cornerstone Counseling and Wellness for further information.


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