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Trauma

Supporting a Partner With Betrayal Trauma

A guide for the significant other of a betrayal trauma survivor.

Key points

  • Betrayal trauma happens when your trust is violated by someone you rely on for survival.
  • Betrayal trauma impacts a person's self esteem, trust, mental health, and perception of relationships.
  • If your partner has experienced betrayal trauma, it can sometimes be difficult to navigate.

“I don’t understand it, they just don't trust me. What did I do wrong?”

In a previous post, we talked about a concept called betrayal trauma—what can happen when someone significant whom you love and rely on betrays your trust (a partner, a caregiver, etc.).

 Scott Broome/Unsplash
Betrayal trauma can be devastating, for the victim and their future partners.
Source: Scott Broome/Unsplash

The effects of betrayal trauma on a survivor can be devastating and long-lasting. They can impact everything from a person’s sense of self to the way they approach all their future relationships.

This is all good to know if you are a victim of betrayal trauma, but what if you are the partner of someone with betrayal trauma?

In any relationship, supporting your significant other through ups and downs is fundamental, but the behavior, beliefs, emotions, etc. that often result from betrayal trauma can be challenging for a partner to navigate—especially if you don’t know what to look for.

Of course, there is no single way that betrayal trauma happens, looks, or affects someone, but it can be helpful to have some ideas of what to expect, should your partner experience any of these things.

Betrayal trauma comes from someone’s trust being betrayed or from being harmed by a person that they rely on. This would look like a child being neglected/abused by their parent, or maybe someone’s long-term partner leaving and taking their shared finances with them.

Now, this definition can feel vague to many. How can we know if what our partner mentioned about their dad leaving resulted in this kind of trauma response?

 Ha Nguyen/Unsplash
How do you support a partner with betrayal trauma?
Source: Ha Nguyen/Unsplash

Well, it’s no surprise that this experience of betrayal—most notably by someone who they are reliant on emotionally, physically, or otherwise—would make it difficult for that person in future relationships.

This means that many of the symptoms that follow betrayal trauma revolve around the person’s interpersonal relationships, like family, friends, and romantic partners.

For example, somebody who is a victim of betrayal trauma may struggle to fully trust a new partner, or to be vulnerable with them.

This can make it hard for them to get to a deeper level with others, staying on the surface to stay safe.

It is also common for individuals with betrayal trauma to have lower self-esteem. They may not feel that they are worthy of their partners and hesitate to fully engage in the relationship.

Overall, though, betrayal trauma creates the foundation for many different mental health issues. A survivor might struggle with anxiety disorders, specifically anxiety about relationships with others, or with depression.

Further, as with any other traumatic experience, the loss of agency or safety in the relationship could lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

No matter the way betrayal trauma manifests, it can be challenging for both the individual and their current significant other, but knowing what you can do to support your partner—and yourself—during those more challenging moments is going to be a necessary piece of the relationship.

 Kelly Sikkema
There are many ways to create a safe space for your partner.
Source: Kelly Sikkema

Educate and be educated. Just as you are (hopefully) doing with this post, try to stay informed on what your partner might be experiencing, not just for yourself, but for your partner and for the others in their lives—you never know what friends or family could benefit from learning too.

Note that this doesn’t only mean books or informational YouTube videos. It also means listening to your partner as much you can. There is no better resource to what your partner is going through than they are! Even if they aren’t ready to share their experiences, just staying present with their needs can make a world of difference.

Stay patient. As with any sort of trauma, betrayal trauma is far from an overnight fix. One week in a stable relationship will not erase the impact of their past experiences. It certainly is not always easy, but staying patient with your partner will be a key variable as they heal in their own time.

Take perspective. It is way more natural to assume our partner’s behavior has to do with us than to accept that we have nothing to do with what they are feeling. If my loved one doesn't want to open up to me, it has to be me right?

Of course, if your brain beelines it to self-blame, then you probably won’t feel very good about yourself or the relationship. Perspective is important—just because your partner is slow to trust you does not mean you are not trustworthy.

Recognize your own needs. It is not enough to just focus on supporting your partner. Many people make the mistake of focusing so much on what their loved one needs, that they completely forget about themselves. This causes people to burn out or even resent their partners in the long run.

 Nancy Nguyen/Unsplash
Looking after your own needs is just as important as looking after your partner's.
Source: Nancy Nguyen/Unsplash

Remember, even though your partner needs extra support now and then, a relationship is still a partnership. Stay aware of what you need and do your best to communicate those needs to your partner.

Seek support yourself. Another mistake people make is thinking they are solely responsible for carrying the weight of their partner’s healing. While you by no means have to disclose the details of your partner’s experiences to anyone else, leaning on others for support during challenging times is important in any relationship, whether that is friends, family, therapy, or otherwise.

Betrayal trauma can be devastating, and it often has a long-lasting impact on someone’s life, but it does not have to be the end of hope for a positive, fulfilling relationship in the future. Taking the time to listen and learn can create a safe space for the relationship to thrive.

References

Gagnon, K. L., Lee, M. S., & DePrince, A. P. (2019). Victim–perpetrator dynamics through the lens of betrayal trauma theory. In The Abused and the Abuser (pp. 131-140). Routledge.

Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma. Encyclopedia of psychological trauma, 76.

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