The first order of business after an intimate betrayal is to recognize and treat the depths of the trauma you have undergone. We cannot treat ourselves properly without a correct diagnosis.
We live in a culture that is so blind to the psychological violence of betrayal. For most, we never think in the midst of heartache that we may be slipping into post-traumatic shock.
After my long-time partner abruptly left me a few weeks before our wedding, His parting words kept playing over and over in my mind—“I am dissatisfied with you,” . . . “I want a divorce,” . . . “you are bad for my health.” Images of his arms stretched out on the back of the sofa and the slight smile on his face, as he nonchalantly delivered the blow haunted me. No matter what I did, I could not stop these scenes from replaying endlessly through my days and nights.
Each replay (later I learned to call them “flashbacks”) threw me into turmoil and piercing pain. It was if the moment was happening all over again! I could not figure out why, against my best efforts, these scenes continued to unnerve me. Along with these replays, I was hyper-vigilant, anxious and disoriented. I felt an incessant debilitating pain in my chest.
What is trauma?
Later, I found out how the neurophysiology of shock contributes to intrusive replays. But for the longest time I kept asking myself, “Why can’t I shake this?” It was as if I had been struck down with a sudden debilitating disease of unknown origin. I could not help asking, “What is wrong with me?”
Now I know the the more appropriate question is, “What happened to me?”
Everyone will agree being “dumped” is humiliating, disappointing, enraging and heartbreaking. But, we are expected to pick ourselves up after a few weeks, or months at the most, brush ourselves off, and get going again—no matter that your world was just blown apart. It is simply an unrecognized trauma.
Normally, we reserve the term “trauma” for what we believe are more severe, life-threatening experiences than betrayal and abandonment. Thankfully, with the help of neuroscience, we are beginning to crack through the denial. A major breach of trust can cause personal devastation.
Human beings are delicate creatures. We become traumatized when we feel that our life is under threat—physically, psychologically, or both. An injury to our psychological integrity threatens us as much, if not more so, than damage to the physical body.
Any situation that violates our sense of safety and justice, any experience that we feel overcome by, that leaves us helpless and powerless to go on as before—in short, any experience that makes us unable to bear reality—qualifies as a trauma.
Trauma alters the quality of your life
Betrayal trauma can radically change the quality of your life, especially if the damage goes unrecognized. In many cases, an egregious betrayal is an emotionally violent act that threatens your most vulnerable core. The life of your soul, if not your body, is at risk.
Trauma turns on the body’s alarm systems to escape the threat, and constricts your consciousness to the pain at hand. If the pain is not treated, the alarms never really turn off and PTSD sets in. Being in a state of continual heightened alert changes your brain chemistry and shrinks your world to the size of a postage stamp.
To never be able to relax, to live in constant arousal focused on this overwhelming event is a highly aversive, even a tormenting state. The temptation to shut down and channel the pain into depression or chronic illness, or to act out by turning to addictions—alcohol, drugs, food, sex—is enormous.
Simply realizing that you have been traumatized, no matter how long ago it happened, can help you better understand what is causing your distress. The understanding can motivate you to get the help you need. It takes support and courage to recognize what has happened. And more of the same to heal in a culture that downplays and dismisses these invisible wounds to the soul.