Sexual betrayal is a relational trauma that impacts our sense of safety, trust, and security with our significant other. Relational traumas involve not just our threat response systems (how we react to fear and danger) but also our attachment systems (how we bond). When faced with cheating, both systems activate in response to danger and relational threat.
When our threat response system fires, we will go in one of two directions. Either we will go toward fight/flight as our nervous system becomes hyper-aroused (activated) or we will go into freeze as our nervous system becomes hypo-aroused (deactivated).
This activation of our threat response system animates our attachment system, and we respond with relational moves that are an attempt to cope with our loss of safety. Our initial move is almost always to try to reconnect and regain safety with our partner. However, when that is not possible, research shows that a predictable sequence of attachment behaviors unfolds taking us through three phases: protest, despair, and detachment. We are going to look at each of these below.
Protest is when we try to re-establish the lost sense of safety by reconnecting with our partner. Author and researcher Sue Johnson PhD describes protest by saying, “Following traumatic abandonment, the entire relationship often becomes organized around eliciting emotional responsiveness from the other partner or defending against the lack of this responsiveness.” When we are unable to get our safe connection back, we begin to protest the loss of it in different ways depending on how our nervous system and our attachment styles are interacting.
- Hyper-arousal (activation): If we are anxiously attached, we will tend to up-regulate into hyper-arousal when we experience threat. We will pursue our partner to try to reestablish safe connection and thereby get back to a state of calm. When we are hyper-aroused, we protest by clinging to or pursuing our partner as we try to gain their attention and get them to respond to our distress. We talk, argue, defend, and explain. We might cry, or even scream or throw things. These types of fights can look like we are pushing our partners away, however they are a form of protest and an attempt to capture our partner’s attention, empathy and understanding so that we can move back toward relational safety.
- Hypo-aroused (deactivated): If we are avoidantly attached, we will tend to down-regulate into hypo-arousal when we experience threat. Our relational moves then look like pulling away and distancing to try to get back to a state of calm. When we are in hypo-arousal our protest tends to look quieter. We might appear bored or even dismissive. We can numb out, withdraw, become depressed, go inside ourselves and retreat. We are protesting and signaling our loss of safety by shutting down.
It is important to note that the entire cycle of attachment ambivalence (that I have written about in other posts) is a form of protest. Wherever we are in the cycle of attachment ambivalence, whether in connection or disconnection, we are protesting our loss of safety and trying to restore what we have lost so that we can find our way back to feeling safe and calm.
When protest proves futile, partners move into despair. Despair is the loss of hope that the attachment bond can be re-established in a way that provides safety and security. If attachment ambivalence is the experience of cycling through different forms of protest, then despair is when the disconnection phase begins to last longer and longer, and we find ourselves returning to it more and more quickly.
We feel defeated. This is because over time as we have tried to re-establish trust and safety our attempts have resulted in more pain, loss, or danger. Each time, our inability to find the safe connection we are looking for thrusts us back into despair. Nothing feels safe. Self-preservation moves us toward hypo-arousal as we experience more withdrawal, numbness, and shutdown in response to our partner. As we experience this repeatedly, we move out of protest and into resignation and toward despair and long-term detachment.
Detachment is when we have lost hope in the restoration of a safe bond with our partner, and we move toward disconnecting from them emotionally and often physically. Betrayed partners often begin to move toward permanently ending the relationship at this point as they are no longer able to tolerate the level of pain and threat present in the relationship. Other partners, unable to tolerate the ultimate loss of the relationship move into a state of detachment within the coupleship, thoroughly withdrawing from their partner to stay safe while remaining in the relationship.
Protest, despair, and detachment are functions of our attachment system. Our threat response system animates them so that they are exhibited in different ways for different partners depending on our attachment style and whether we tend to move toward activation or deactivation when your threat response system fires. However, the sequence of protest, despair and detachment is predictable and universal in response to the loss of our safe bond with our partner.
Regardless of how we tend to protest the loss of safe connection, it is helpful to understand that this predictable sequence of behaviors is normal. Safe connection is what helps us to regulate our emotional selves. Without it we are set adrift on a sea of distress. Attempting to re-establish safe connection is what our attachment systems are wired to do.
 Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice. Guilford Press. p.150