In last week’s post, I introduced the concept of complex trauma, which Christine Courtois defines as “traumatic stressors that are interpersonal, that are premeditated, planned, and caused by other humans, such as violation and/or exploitation of another person.” We looked at the emotional dysregulation that results from complex trauma and the key symptoms experienced by betrayed partners. This week, we are focusing on the second large category of complex trauma symptoms that betrayed partners experience: relational disconnection.
I believe that at its core all trauma is relational. Whether that trauma results from a car wreck, a tornado, a wartime event, or being cheated on, all trauma impacts at a minimum our relationship with ourselves. Often, it also impacts our relationship with our Higher Power (or our larger sense of safety and trust in the world around us) and our relationship with others, especially our spouse, close friends, and family.
Here are the four complex trauma symptoms that fall under the category of relational disconnection:
- Alterations in self-perception. Betrayed partners often sustain loss after relational loss. We not only lose the partner we thought we had, we lose ourselves. In the aftermath of betrayal, when emotional dysregulation has impaired our functioning and elevated our anxiety to crippling levels, it can feel like the joyful person we thought we were no longer exists as we are now frequently fearful, restricted, isolated, exhausted, alienated, and depressed.
- Alterations in perception of the perpetrator. When our significant other cheats on us and lies to us, manipulating our reality to hide the cheating, he becomes a stranger to us. We thought we knew who he was. But discovery shatters the front-facing life of our significant other and reveals a hidden double-life. This discovery permanently alters our understanding of who our partner is, and we can become preoccupied with trying to sort out our relationship to this new stranger in our lives.
- Alterations in relationship to others. Experiencing relational trauma that has betrayal at its core makes us want to curl in on ourselves and protect our heart. Doubts about our ability to accurately perceive who others are make it easy for us to distance ourselves in relationship. After all, we were wrong about the person closest to us, so maybe we are wrong about others, too. Feelings of doubt and mistrust about others’ motives and authenticity can cause us to drift toward isolation.
- Alterations in systems of meaning. For some of us, discovery challenges our faith in the goodness or reliability of our Higher Power. How could such pain be part of a loving Being’s plan? For others, grief about the loss of the relationship we thought we had colors our ability to feel hopeful about the rest of life. All aspects of life seem tainted by the betrayal, and we can feel hopeless and despairing about whether life will ever again feel meaningful, purposeful, or joyful.
Do you recognize yourself in this description of complex trauma symptoms? If so, you’re not alone. Most betrayed partners experience most of these symptoms for a period of time following discovery of betrayal. How long these symptoms last and their severity is different for everyone. But for all betrayed partners, experiencing complex trauma is difficult and life-changing.
In my next post, I will discuss a third aspect of complex trauma: its dynamic and multi-dimensional nature.
Courtois, C. A. (2009). Understanding complex trauma, complex reactions, and treatment approaches. Christine A. Courtois, PhD and Associates, PLC, Washington, DC. Available at http://www.giftfromwithin.org/html/cptsd-understanding-treatment.html.