1: The Crisis Stage of Betrayal Trauma
Part 2 in this series on healing from domestic abuse will cover the stage of "Injustice," Part 3 that of "Making sense of the situation."
When you’ve been betrayed—through domestic abuse, infidelity, a smear campaign, or any other form of injustice—the trauma can be immense and difficult to deal with, especially when it comes from an intimate partner.
A grieving process begins, a sense of shock and disbelief settles in, and a growing awareness of disorientation and confusion clouds the mind. A pervasive numbness is followed by excruciating pain and justified anger. A determination to change your circumstances eventually follows. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her classic book On Death & Dying and its follow-up, On Grief and Grieving, identify the “five stages of grief” as:
Denial and isolation
These stages ultimately culminate in hope and healing.
It’s important to realize, however, that the stages Kübler-Ross describes aren’t linear. You’ll weave in and out of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance throughout the entire healing journey—or may even skip some of the stages altogether. Eventually, though, the grieving process coalesces in the blessings of hope and acceptance—in whatever form that may take.
Kübler-Ross’ stages correspond to the stages of grief after betrayal trauma as described by Dr. Kevin Skinner in his online course, “Dealing with a Partner’s Sexual Addiction,” found on the Bloom website.
First stage: Crisis
Second stage: Injustice
Third stage: Making sense of the situation
These stages ultimately culminate in hope and healing.
This article focuses on the first stage, that of crisis, along with the powerful tool of journaling—a tool that not only can, but should, be used throughout all stages of healing. But fear not! If you aren’t a fan of writing, you can always sketch your emotions and experiences. Collage work is another option—but I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, we’ll focus on writing.
The CRISIS STAGE is characterized by
Denial and isolation
Bargaining – “what if” and “if only” stage
Possible anger—but you may be too numb to fully feel justifiable anger at this point
During the crisis stage, your focus needs to be on self-care.
Although you may feel frozen and helpless, the best way to begin the healing journey is to talk about your situation rather than keeping it bottled up inside. But be careful! Not all people are safe to talk to, and slandering your partner is never a good idea.
It’s crucial to find empathetic loved ones who can relate—perhaps they, too, have been through a betrayal trauma. When seeking professional help, make sure any therapist or spiritual director you contact is experienced in whatever trauma you’re facing. If you’re not sure, ask. Send an email or make a phone call. Don’t be afraid to inquire about specific qualifications and why a particular professional may (or may not) be a good fit for you.
Even simply talking with friends over a cup of coffee is extremely helpful. However, I recommend that these individuals are your friends, not mutual friends between you and your spouse. And, again, a vetting process is in order. Are these safe people to talk with? Will they truly understand or will it end up being more damaging and traumatic for you to confide in them?
For example, some people in today’s over-sexed, secular world don’t understand how damaging pornography is—not just to the betrayed partner, but to the one who has the sex addiction (and yes, porn use is an addiction, and it actually disrupts the chemical balance of the brain). Why? Because of how deeply and concretely it changes the personality of the user, and how difficult sex addiction is to break. If you reveal to friends that your husband was unfaithful to your sacred wedding vows by engaging in a destructive porn habit, in the guise of trying to be helpful (while being completely ignorant of the depth of the situation and the true trauma it inflicts), they may respond with “that’s no big deal, just act sexy, be available, and he won’t need that stuff.”
Uh … First of all, that’s not true. As I pointed out, pornography is an addiction, and the sheer nature of addiction contradicts such a statement. Such “advice” is also a form of victim-shaming. Always remember, you are not to blame for whatever betrayal you’ve endured. No matter what it is. The fault and responsibility are always on the perpetrator, never the victim.
Again, these friends could mean well, but could merely be inexperienced or feel awkward trying to comfort you. Be sure the people you talk to are those you can thoroughly trust to have empathy and understanding. And be sure they aren’t the gossiping sort.
Another key component to self-care is to allow yourself to grieve. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, without judgment or criticism. Be compassionate with yourself! Love yourself with true charity. You deserve it.
Whether you’re numb, seek isolation as a means of self-protection, or simply can’t believe that the betrayal happened, allow yourself the space to feel these things. Often a victim will be incredulous and will try to minimize the situation, or brush it aside altogether. “It was no big deal,” you may try to tell yourself, or you may allow yourself to believe his lame excuses as to the “explanation” of his behaviour. These aren’t healthy things to do, because minimizing or ignoring the trauma will cause you to remain frozen rather than progress toward healing. Instead, allow yourself to move through the process, at your own pace.
Yes, it will hurt. But with hurt comes healing.
And again, above all else, don’t judge or criticize yourself. Do what you need to do in order to remain sane and begin the path toward healing—as long as those things are healthy and helpful. Obviously I don’t recommend changing your lifestyle in a negative way, such as taking up heavy drinking. Not such a good idea!
Other methods of self-care during this critical time of crisis include:
Exercise, in whatever form you prefer—that may be kickboxing or MMA, weight training, running, Pilates or stretching routines, etc.
Listen to music, especially songs and artists you used to love, but haven’t listened to since your life changed. Better yet, make a playlist and name it “Freedom.” (I owe a shout-out to my daughter for this highly-effective tip!)
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Adequate sleep is essential for mood regulation.
Eat well—healthy whole foods, nourishing dishes. Junk in the body creates junk in the mind.
If you find animals comforting, spend time with them. Cats and dogs are non-critical, loving, and relieve stress. If you don’t have a pet yourself, consider visiting your local humane society or animal shelter and spending time with animals who need love as much as you do.
Do what brings you peace, joy, and a sense of fulfillment. If you don’t know what that is any longer because of a serious loss of self caused by the trauma and/or abuse, think back to what you used to enjoy in your pre-trauma days. Then, do that.
Develop a solid prayer life. This can include Christian meditation, a rosary devotion, the Liturgy of the Hours, and/or a deep practice of personal communication with God throughout your day.
Be patient with yourself. Be loving. Be gentle. Be understanding. You’ve been through a lot. Healing takes time—a lot of time, especially if PTSD is involved (which it most often is). It’s okay. You can do it, but within your own time. Allow yourself that time.
As you move through the initial stage of crisis, you may find your mind bargaining with itself. “What if” and “If only” scenarios play and replay in your head to the point of exhaustion: What if he changes? What if I’m to blame or did something wrong? If only this had never happened … If only he were different … If only I’d never done [fill in the blank] …
This is common, but unproductive. When you find yourself falling into these thought-holes—questions that have no answers and aren’t healthy to ruminate over—go back to the list of self-care options and try to focus more on yourself and your needs rather than the one who betrayed you. You can think about relationship questions at a later stage in your healing. For now, self-care is of primary importance.
Journaling and Self-Care
Your first journal suggestion is to write your story. This process helps you put to words your deepest beliefs, which gives you a greater awareness of self—an awareness you can lean on for strength and endurance in the future, no matter what the future may bring.
As you move through the process of dealing with betrayal trauma, your story will change; expectations may shift, increase or decrease, and beliefs may transform. This is a process of getting to know your true self, so these changes and shifts are healthy and to be expected.
Other journaling prompts at this stage can be:
What are the best parts of you that have been neglected or forgotten due to abuse and trauma? How can you recapture those aspects and bring them back to a living vibrancy? This may mean recapturing old hobbies you used to enjoy, going to places that brought you peace, or reconnecting with friendships that have been neglected.
Write down six things you value the most. Doing this will help you to remember how to be true to yourself, your core beliefs, desires, and sense of virtue.