We don’t tend to think of betrayed love as a trauma. We reserve that label for more severe, life-threatening, experiences, like physical or sexual assault, the shock of war, devastating accidents, or even witnessing horrifying events.
But betrayal, abandonment and divorce — especially when any of these include being left suddenly in an atmosphere of deception, can and often do leave us traumatized.
Betrayal delivers a unique, emotionally violent blow to the body, heart and mind. An unthinkable blow that can only come from someone with whom we share deep bonds. Trauma happens when we can no longer bear reality. It signals to the brain that our life is under threat. The life being threatened when we are betrayed is the life of the soul.
Broken trust takes aim at your heart, and inflicts a wound directly on your higher capacities for love, companionship, joy and beauty. The shock pretty much stops the music of life. The trauma hijacks your higher faculties and leaves you in no-man’s land, feeling alternately numb and helpless, or enraged and terrified for no apparent reason.
If the traumatic injury goes unrecognized and untreated, the nervous system reaction to the hurt can isolate you and leach life of meaning and purpose. For me, it was as if I was walking around in a shroud, one of the walking dead among the living.
Simply realizing we have been traumatized begins to restore some spark of life, some locus of control. The light goes on and offers a way to at least understand our distress and to go forward. It helps to know your extreme symptoms are not just an indication of a personal defect or weakness, another reason to be tossed aside.
The first sign of trauma is a sense of shattering. When I started putting my thoughts together to write about my own experience, I did a word count on a number of words I was using and found “shattering” at the top of the list. No wonder, since the word comes closer than any other to describing the impact of betrayal.
The shattering reverberates at many levels—from the breakdown of the egoic sense of the “me” and the dismantling of personality patterns, to feelings of loss of control over life, to the eruption of unconscious primal infantile fears, to the call of the soul to strip away the illusion of separation.
The more I learned about trauma, the more a factor it seemed not just in my physical symptoms of weight loss and insomnia, but also helped explain the hyper-vigilance, intrusive painful memories and loss of connection with my friends and family. Post-traumatic shock had set in and I hardly knew it.
When PTSD predominates, the anxiety never lets up, and you feel helpless to stop it. With trauma running the mind, you lose control and enter a shock/trauma vortex: thoughts and images of the shock pull you in as if to a black hole. In that moment when your world crumbles, the biggest shock registers. The moment crystallizes and becomes deeply etched in traumatic memory, reappearing in insistent, unpredictable, invasive replays.
The most dominant psychological symptom of traumatic shock is a sense of complete powerlessness. In the violent separation forced by abandonment, the balance of power goes to the perpetrator.You wake in the night or morning, or lie there before sleep that never seems to come, and then throughout the day, you find yourself automatically pulled back into these disturbing memories and thoughts.
The Psyche Reverts to Primitive Defenses
We are traumatized, it feels as if our life—physical or psychological—is under threat. Our brain and nervous system go into survival gear to shield us from the unbearable pain and anxiety of possible disintegration. When we are betrayed in love, the integrity of the self cannot sustain the incomprehensible discrepancy between the emotional assault of deception and/or abandonment and our presumed safety with our partner.
The psyche reverts to primitive defenses to cope with the agonies and dread of annihilation of our core self. These early defenses of splitting, numbing, terror and rage block us from experiencing the unthinkable possibility of nonexistence.
Due to the incomprehensibility of the shock—we literally do not understand what is happening or why—trauma causes a split in consciousness that explains many of the symptoms. If you are obsessing, for instance, you are likely still in shock. The rational mind is still trying to make sense out of the nonsensical while the lower brain continues to react to the pain, sounding the alarm that something is wrong.
The Protector and the Wounded Child
The incomprehensible emotional violence of betrayal, like any powerful trauma, often triggers an ontological crisis, a crisis of being. You think, “This cannot be happening to me” and “How could anyone do this to another person?” In close interpersonal trauma, we are poised to lose faith in human nature and in the goodness of life itself.
To avoid feeling these unbearable horror of meaninglessness and powerlessness, the psyche splits in two parts — a powerful “protector” and a wounded or victimized child. The protector takes the form of a benevolent or, at times, malevolent presence meant to hold the self under assault together.
The zealousness of this primitive safeguard helps to explain the sense of ongoing, overwhelming threat we live with in the wake of trauma. You don’t feel safe anywhere. The protector tends to interpret every situation as a threat of re-traumatization and adopts an anti-life stance of attack, especially to any new experience. Dissociation, withdrawal, numbing, addictions and depression describe the most common, more recognizable, survival defenses brought on by this split.
It helps to remember that the thoughts and feelings that assail a person after the shock of betrayal are not indications of who you are, but of what you have been through. The more we understand, the more we learn to appreciate the extent of this ordeal that is dismantling our sense of self along with our reality We may even begin to congratulate ourselves for surviving this call to deepen into life’s big questions.
Recovering the Lost Soul
It can also help to recall we are in the throes of an archetypal experience. There is a universality to what we are undergoing that applies regardless of gender, age, social status, education, intelligence, spiritual maturity, or any other personal characteristic we think might set us apart or exempt us. When trust is deeply betrayed we all fall apart, though each in our own way.
Betrayal calls us beyond the brokenness, however, to deeper soul work. It is a make-or-break event that will leave us either much better or much worse off than we were before this great divide in our lives. As the shock cracks through the heart’s defenses, it opens us, not only to the primitive defenses and early traumas at our core. Betrayal opens us to mystical streams that flow towards us from the wounds. As we embrace this suffering, we begin to realize our own preciousness lies right in the midst of the rejection, shame and pain.
But before we can find the ground for this soul work, first, we need to seek out the help we need to normalize and calm the nervous system overwrought with shock. Once PTSD has set in, it is very difficult to heal on our own. Without help, the trauma looping from protector/persecutor to child/victim may go on and on, hijacking consciousness, creating a big road block to the spiritual resources that can ultimately heal us.
Without treatment, we will tend to act out our rage or our desolation, or simply go on lock down and deny the depth of the destruction. The pain will move underground and tie up our soul, preoccupying our energies, driving us to addictions, chronic illness or other distractions, and preventing our full engagement with life. To try to contain the subterranean overwhelm we are swimming in, we will adjust ourselves to the PTSD symptoms by simply narrowing our life.
Time alone does not heal trauma.
We are sitting on the edge of an abyss that is not going away. Betrayal is ultimately an existential/spiritual as well as a mental/emotional crisis. To heal betrayal trauma means passing through a dark night of the soul to the tenderness and wisdom of one’s own heart. I have been amazed at the duration and depth of the journey. Please reach out for the help you need to drop into the mystery of the healing darkness.