As one victim of betrayal trauma put it: “The pain can come with a power of emotion you never knew you were capable of. You will experience the deepest despair, and a loneliness that will echo endlessly inside you. You will experience an all-encompassing fear of the decisions you have to make, of change, of pain itself, of the future. You will experience unimaginable rage that seems to fill you up and burst from your body . . . There will [sometimes] be hope and it will scare you because of the potential of disappointment and more pain.”
Sexual and emotional betrayal is more than a mistake that must simply be forgiven. It is a rupture to the very fundamental human need to connect and remain connected, otherwise known as attachment. It has emotional, physical, sexual and even spiritual ramifications that are incalculable. Because of this, it is one of the most painful things that can happen to a human being.
This lesson is designed to help you know how to respond to the primal, deep pain of betrayal.
Two types of pain after trauma
After trauma, there are two general types of pain.
The first is the Immediate Trauma, and the second is what I like to call Healing Pain.
There are many examples of this in the natural world. Take, for instance, getting severely burned in a fire. If you burn your hand in a fire, the pain is shocking and immediate. It courses through you and surprises all of your senses. It serves an important purpose. It is a reaction to the destruction of skin material telling you “Things are not okay! You must do something to change this circumstance, or you will continue to be damaged! You must act!” The pain is brutal and overpowering and traumatic. This initial pain is related to the primitive instinct of fight, flight or freeze (in this case, “flight”), motivating you to move your body away from the flames. Your response to the intensity of this pain (your Immediate Trauma Response) might consist of many things—running around looking for water, screaming loudly, crying, putting your hand in dirt, smacking yourself, or even dropping to the ground and rolling around. This Immediate Trauma Response might look strange—maybe even crazy—to an outside observer who doesn’t know you’ve been burned, but anyone who knows what happened understands that all of your reactions are appropriate and understandable, and make complete sense within the context of the pain.
After the initial shock of the burn and the resultant Immediate Trauma Response healing begins. Healing brings in other types of pain. Blisters form to cool the skin, causing great discomfort. The epidermis repairs its cells, causing extreme pain to the affected area. In some drastic cases, skin grafts, which are excruciatingly painful, are required to promote new skin growth. Each of these pains has purpose—each leads to healing. Each is a Healing Pain.
Immediate Trauma Response to Betrayal
I’m sure the comparison is not lost on you. When you learn that your spouse has betrayed you, you experience Immediate Trauma. You feel extreme pain that is often swift, powerful and shocking, knocking the wind right out of you. This pain is saying the same thing as the pain of the fire in the example above. “Things are not okay! You must do something.” Your body takes over and you do whatever it is you need to do to respond to the trauma. You have an Immediate Trauma Response. You may feel shock, disorientation, disbelief, rage or total numbness. Your Immediate Trauma Response is your mind and body’s way to try to relieve the immediate pain of the trauma. And just as with fire, what might look to an outside observer like nonsensical behavior is actually exactly what your mind and body needs to be doing to reduce risk, cope with the pain, and get you through the shock of what has happened to you.
The Immediate Trauma Response can take days, weeks or even months. In the case of sexual/emotional betrayal, this part of the trauma can be extremely lengthy, especially when your husband or partner has developed a pattern of deceit that leads to a staggered disclosure. Each new piece of information is like another burn to your skin, causing shock and extreme pain. Each one elicits further Immediate Trauma Response, leading you to do whatever it is you need to do to survive. Aside from physically harming others, there is absolutely no right or wrong way to experience this type of trauma response.
During the Immediate Trauma Response, there are so many ways that you might respond to the pain you feel that it would be impossible to list them all, but here are a few you might recognize:
--Trying to keep yourself busy
--Doing nothing all day
--Lying in a bed for hours
--Curling into the fetal position
--Talking to your spouse
--Not talking to your spouse
--Talking to others
--Not talking to anybody
--Being short tempered at a store
--Yelling at your kids
--Eating too much
--Not eating enough
--Monitor-based behaviors like checking your spouse’s emails, texts, etc.
--Going on long drives
--Losing yourself in media
--Sitting there for long periods of time unable to do anything
You might have done all, some, or none of these things to deal with the immediate pain of betrayal. You should feel no shame whatsoever for doing or not doing any of them. Whatever you are doing to work through the shock of the trauma is valid and instinctual.
If you are in the midst of the shock of Immediate Trauma, I’ve compiled a list of tips some people have found helpful:
--Try to stick to a simple, daily routine
--Break tasks down into small, manageable pieces
--If possible, get lots of rest
--Use “grounding” techniques like deep breathing, focusing on the ground beneath your feet or the chair upon which you are sitting and noticing the stability of each, or going outside on the grass and feeling the way your body can be supported by the ground below you.
--Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling without shame or remorse
--Name your feelings
--Reject any accusations from outside sources telling that you are reacting “poorly” or that you should be reacting in any way other than how you are acting. Remember the person who has burned their hand—what might look strange to an outsider makes perfect sense in the context of your trauma—and only you understand the full context of what has happened to you.
Eventually, as the shock wears off and life begins to stabilize into a new normal, the next phase of pain begins: Healing Pain. Healing from trauma does not have a specific road-map, and can look different for different people. Each part of the healing process is painful in its own way. As you begin healing, you start to see your past more clearly and your relationship comes into focus. The depth of the trauma and the things that were damaged are assessed, mourned and responded to. You go through the stages of grief slowly, over time.
During the Healing Pain phase, you might notice that some pain-responses feel better to you than others. It is important to pay attention to that gut instinct. As you do, you might notice that some of the behaviors that got you through the Immediate Trauma Response don’t feel quite right to you anymore. Some of the things you did during that phase might have been important early on, but you may realize they do not fit your personality, your perception of self, or they might just feel “off” to you. Some you might even think of as not being healthy for you either physically or emotionally. That doesn’t mean you have made mistakes. It just means that your body and mind were trying to find a way to survive during the shock of the trauma, and now that the shock has worn off, you have different options available to you in how to respond to the pain. Also, remember that this is not a clear-cut process—you might have to respond to Immediate Trauma and Healing Pain at the same time, or transition back and forth between the two many times on your journey.
Choosing pain-responses that feel “right” to you
Just as there is no shame whatsoever in any survival technique you have used to get through pain you don’t deserve, there is also no shame in identifying pain-responses that don’t work or fit for you and replacing them with ones that do. Identifying pain-responses that feel good to you and, when it feels right, implementing them, will help you in your healing. But remember, this is a process, and you are okay wherever you are in this process.
There are some responses to Healing Pain that have been shown to be especially helpful. These include:
--Setting up clear boundaries
--Enforcing those boundaries
--Communicating your thoughts and needs to your husband or partner clearly and directly (or in the words of Brené Brown “standing your sacred ground.”)
--Finding support through close friends who are safe
--As described by Anne Lamott, practicing “radical self care.” (I.e. making time for you, participating in hobbies or activities you love or attending events that interest you, exercising, reading religious texts or self-help material, meditation, prayer, etc., etc, etc. Basically, treating yourself as you would want someone you loved to be treated in the face of trauma.)
--Telling your story, either in writing or orally. (Journaling can be an especially helpful tool for some).
--Practicing surrender—putting the pain, as well as the control of your situation, into the hands of your higher power and trusting Him to guide the process
Often, finding a support group or a recovery group with women in a similar situation can be an incredibly healing step to take during the Healing Pain phase.
A lot of these responses take time to learn, and indeed entire lessons could be focused on each one. But the most important thing is to feel comfortable allowing yourself to react in whatever way you intuitively feel is right for you.
Lean into the Pain
An idea that can be helpful when confronted with Healing Pain is the concept of “leaning into the pain.” This phrase invites someone to, when Healing Pain hits, instead of trying to avoid the process, actually submit to what is happening in order to process through it and learn what needs to be learned. Doing so then leads to more strength, insight, and peace.
There will be times, after betrayal, where survival means doing something for a period of time that distracts you from the pain you are feeling so that you can function in parts of your daily life. That is completely understandable. However, it is important to be careful not to stuff the pain away or numb your emotions as a permanent solution to what is happening to you. It is also important not to hide your pain in an attempt to fit cultural concepts of being “a good wife” or “Christlike” or “a kind person”.
As one spouse says: “Dignified pain is honest, authentic, and personally accepted. It is also messy and imperfect and horrible.” Another says: “I worry that too many women feel like they need to act dignified when in the throes of discovery and recovery . . . I honestly think it’s okay to act undignified. Scream, cry, punch things (not people), and feel, 100%, clear to your toes, the pain and hurt… THIS IS YOUR LIFE!!! This is BIG! What your husband has done/is doing is not okay. Let him see the pain—not to punish or shame—but because it is real. That can’t be done if you are worried about acting ‘dignified’.”
Leaning in to the pain is okay, because in the Healing Pain portion of betrayal recovery, pain is part of the healing process itself. It is a sign that things are getting better. The pain still hurts and is still horrible, but it means new things. It is the pain of rebuilding that which was lost, or something new entirely (which is Healing Pain) and not the shock of feeling your world fall apart (which is Immediate Trauma). It is the pain of rediscovering your identity in the face of breathtakingly difficult circumstances (Healing Pain), and not the gut-wrenching pain of discovering that who you knew yourself and your spouse to be was, at least in part, a lie (Immediate Trauma). It is okay to “lean in” to Healing Pain—doing so will make you stronger, and will help you understand more about what your body and mind need to feel whole again.
Although it is unwelcome, pain is not the enemy. In a real sense, each wave of pain on your journey—from the excruciating shock of the initial trauma, to the more utilitarian pain during healing—gets you one step closer to health and strength. Every time the bottom drops out and you are submerged in a new level of pain, you are getting closer to rebuilding your life and finding reservoirs of strength you never knew you had. You never asked for it. You don’t deserve the pain and betrayal you are experiencing. You certainly would have been fine if this horrible thing had never happened to you. But know that the pain you are feeling serves a helpful purpose, and as you live through it, you climb to new heights of resilience, strength and peace.
1. Which of the two types of pain (Immediate Trauma or Healing Pain) best describes where you find yourself on your journey? Why?
2. As you reflect and look at the above lists, are there any pain-responses that don’t feel right to you anymore? Why not? What might you replace them with?
3. Break into pairs. With your group-mate, share some of the story of your immediate trauma, if you feel safe doing so. (When did you find out? What happened next? Etc.) Before your partner takes her turn, complete questions 4. And 5.
4. Having just shared and verbally relived parts of the trauma, take a moment to practice feeling “grounded.” (Your group-mate can quietly observe this process.) Simply notice the chair you are sitting on, and the ground beneath you. Feel the solidness of each. Look ahead of you and notice five things around you that are the color blue or red. As you sit and notice those five things take several deep breaths.
5. What feelings arose as you shared part of your story with your group-mate? And what happened as you attempted to ground yourself? Share these observations with your group-mate.
6. If you are the group-mate who has not yet shared, take time to go through questions 3-5.