In the last seven years, researchers have empirically validated the fact that those who experience sexual betrayal manifest similar symptoms as war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, because of the “private” nature of sexual circumstances, many victims of sexual betrayal (i.e. Betrayal Trauma) feel lonely, isolated, and suffer with symptoms that nobody (even the victim themself) fully understands. This situation intensifies the fear, frustration, and pain. The purpose of this short blog is to increase awareness of Betrayal Trauma symptomology AND identify what can be done to help.
1 – Facilitate Familiarity with Sexual Betrayal Trauma Symptoms
- Read or listen to “Treating Trauma from Sexual Betrayal: The Essential Tools for Healing” by Dr. Kevin Skinner, LMFT, CSAT-S.
- Get familiar with symptoms of betrayal trauma in the Betrayal Trauma Assessment below.
2– Help Them Feel Understood, Validated, and Reassured
- Stay focused on their feelings by asking questions like: (1) What is this like for you; (2) Where is this coming from; (3) How does this feeling impact you (and/or your marriage and family); (4) What can I do to help; and (5) Validate, reassure, and complement them.
- For a deeper dive into a diagram of this communication skill, see this resource for “talking below the line” on our website.
3 – Help Create Safe Connections with Others
- Consicer how YOU could be a source of empathy and safety.
- Strongly encourage participation in betrayal trauma support groups for women. If you don’t know of such a group in your area already, try searching online for “Betrayal trauma support groups near me.”
4 – Support Immediate “Boundary Setting”
- Healing requires safety. Safety requires boundaries. In other words, there will be no healing without boundaries. Boundary setting is NOT about building walls of isolation or punishing a partner, but rather, creating clear and specific statements that identify the victim’s heartfelt desires and consequences of behavior that is toxic to the relationship. Creating healthy boundaries clarifies relational expectations of each other, improves communication, minimizes the feeling of being “stuck,” promotes progress, solidifies safety, creates connection, and enhances healing. Below are examples:
DEAL BREAKERS: “I want to have a healthy relationship with you, but if you have another affair (could specify contact with prostitutes, meet up with a person for sex, engage in online sex, have emotional affair, etc.), you will need to find somewhere else to live while I make decisions for my future and what it include (or “I will file for a divorce”).”
PHYSICAL BOUNDARIES: “I need to feel safe in this relationship. If you come into the bathroom while I am showing, I will ask you to give me physical space for the rest of the day.”
SEXUAL BOUNDARY: “I would like to be the only woman in this house (or your life) that you are intimate with. If you continue to invite other women into our home by looking at pornography, I will ask you to sleep somewhere else for a week.”
EMOTIONAL BOUNDARY: “I will engage in conversations when I feel respected and heard. When there is yelling or disrespectful or offensive language, I will leave the room or house and continue the conversation when I feel a respectful conversation is possible.”
or . . .
“When you deny, minimize, lie, or blame me for your behavior, it ruins trust and makes me question everything you say. Our relationship cannot move forward. I will take the space I need and will reengage when I see humility, honesty, and accountability.
- Invite a serious study of the book “Boundaries,” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Also read pages 113-127 for concise instructions on “how to create healthy boundaries” in Dr. Kevin Skinner’s book: “Treating Trauma from Sexual Betrayal: The Essential Tools for Healing.”
5 – Encourage Self-Compassion and Understanding
- Adequate sleep, exercise, nutrition, and emotional regulation are essential.
- Provide positive and supportive feedback: “Your feelings are NORMAL.” “There IS a way out of this.” “You are not alone.”
- Therapy is often needed. However, couple therapy (at this point) is usually premature. Recommend individual therapy with a therapist who has been trained in Betrayal Trauma intervention techniques.
Because the symptoms of betrayal trauma can be difficult for even the person experiencing them to understand, it is helpful for everyone involved to understand the symptomology of this situation. To have a diagnosis of PTSD or BT, the following criteria need to be present for at least one month AND cause significant functional, social, and/or occupational challenges.
To complete this assessment, check off any symptoms that currently concern you:
1 – Criteria A: Life-Threatening Experiences
o Threatened death
o Threatened serious injury
o Threatened sexual violence
o Threat of physical violence
o Threat of sexually transmitted disease
o Threat of being hit or hurt (physical abuse)
2 – Criteria B: Reliving the Event
o Can’t get event out of your mind
o Brain gets stuck trying to make sense of what happened
o Stuck in painful memories
o Reliving the event repeatedly
o Struggle to think of other things
3 – Criteria C: Avoidance
o Avoid triggering places, people, and activities
o Struggle being in public environments (i.e. malls, swimming pools, beached, gyms)
o Difficulty participating in activities previously enjoyed (i.e. church, girls night out, shopping, going out)
o Avoid sexual intimacy with partner
o Cutting off relationships which could have offered support
o Engage in behaviors that distract thoughts about partner’s behavior (i.e. excessive reading, sleeping, eating, drinking)
4 – Criteria D: Negative Mood and Cognitions
o Stuck in negative self-beliefs (distorted sense of self)
o I am a bad person or not good enough
o I don’t feel like I belong anymore
5 – Criteria E: Emotional Arousal and Reactivity
o Hyper-vigilant (closely monitor partner’s behavior)
o Overwhelmingly intense emotions
o Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
o Suicidal thoughts
o Locked in protection mode (fight, flee, freeze)