Someone asks me, “does betrayal trauma exist?”. Sounds like an analogy to, “does sex addiction exist?”. Okay, let’s nip the first one in the bud: of course, it exists. It’s like asking do wounds exist (trauma meaning wound)? The question is what does the fuller term mean? What does it mean in the context of sex addiction treatment? And most importantly, what are the implications of the term for a clinical process, especially one framed in systemic language?
What’s apparent is that the term betrayal trauma has clinical as well as moral/ethical implications. The clinical pertains to the syndrome of symptomology linked to trauma, as well as the strategies of intervention that are directed at trauma patients. In the context of sex addiction, it’s not clear whether most or even a significant number of impacted or betrayed partners meet full criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. As the reader may know, that designation requires meeting symptom criteria over several categories, and features phenomena like dissociation, avoiding stressors, being exposed to stressors, having nightmares and flashbacks, experiencing variable (and contradictory) states of hyper and hypoarousal. But in treatment trauma phenomena might be observed as therapists and patients discuss trauma as a subjectively-defined phenomenon. More generally, trauma pertains to a wounding event or pattern, but then also the attempt to adapt to that trauma, plus how that trauma impacts memory, perception, and reactivity to stressors. More specifically, the term betrayal trauma is grounded in a theory about developmental history. The term refers to situations wherein the subject has relied upon another for support and therefore must dissociate (deny/forget for the purposes of this context) awareness of betrayal in order to preserve the relationship, however abusive the relationship is. The concept is therefore also about dependency between people, and the theory’s pedigree lies in observations of a parent-child dynamic, echoing the theories of Freudians like Sandor Ferenczi, who famously taught concepts of “identification with the aggressor”, which informed awareness of the mooted Stockholm Syndrome, and his “confusion of tongues” concept, which refers to the over-stimulation of children via an adult/child seduction.
Principals of the sex addiction model haven’t ignored betrayal trauma. Patrick Carnes—he of the sex-addiction coining, Don’t Call It Love fame—wrote in his book The Betrayal Bond that trauma repetition is characterized by doing something over and over again, usually something that took place in childhood and started with a trauma; that it “relives” a story from the past, inclines sufferers to engage in abusive relationships repeatedly, repeating painful experiences, people, places, and things. Yes, I know. That last turn of phrase sounded familiar, didn’t it? That “doing something over and over again” bit—that sounded familiar too. You think it’s that phrase that’s quoted in 12-step meetings? Think it was something Albert Einstein said? Well, think again. It was Sigmund Freud. Repetition compulsion, it was called. He wrote about it while World War I played out and consolidated the idea around the time the so-called Spanish flu (you know, the Covid of his day) took the life of his daughter. Freud wrote of repetition that it brings mastery over trauma, unconsciously. The aspect that Freud didn’t cover was the piece about becoming like the abuser—that we credit to Ferenczi. Anyway, I’m not saying the latter-day derivative concepts are wrong, just derivative. Also, something else Carnes suggests about sex addicts likewise applies to trauma repetition. The behaviors/symptoms of trauma survivors: don’t call it love.
The concept of betrayal trauma is not difficult to accept in itself any more than the concept of addiction is hard to accept. But after we’ve duly acknowledged that betrayals are painful, and then wrung our hands dry from sympathy, it’s still necessary to think about phenomena so that platitudes or hyperbole don’t prevail. So, here’s the unusual and therefore lesser-spoken of thing: what’s difficult to digest—and this pertains to both concepts—is the back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness that both trauma survivors and addicts tend to proclaim, at least by implication. An addict often proclaims that he/she is acting out of habit, unaware, saying things like, “I don’t know why I do this,” or “I don’t know what I was thinking”. And with respect to concrete activity (versus, says, insight into deeper reasons), we know this is BS because addicts also obsess over details, calculate their activities, and consciously lie about their behaviors, before and after their fruition. As for trauma survivors, well, we hear that they avoid painful stimuli; that they deny or dissociate awareness of betrayal because of their relational needs; that they are in shock, caught off guard by the “discovery” of the addictive pattern. Conversely, at times they are not only aware of the trauma-stirring behaviors of others, they are “hyperaroused”—that is hyper-vigilant, anything but avoidant; rather, they seem compulsively drawn to that which upsets them. Paradox? Probably. The back and forth suggests a reaction to trauma, and therefore a post (not pre) stressor response pattern. We obsess over something so as to prepare for the worst—if you like, a backwards or preemptive form of avoidance.
Then there are other seemingly contradictory presentations, like that of the so-called gaslighted partner which, if said to exist in tandem with betrayal trauma (which I often hear of), would seem to render at least one of the phenomena unlikely, at least concurrently. Why? Well, gaslighting is about persuading someone that the thing they suspect is happening is not happening, and that they are crazy for insisting that it is happening. The term comes from a 1938 play and later film about a…it doesn’t matter. It’s about lying and then pretending that the person who doesn’t believe the lie is nuts*. But the term also implies a vigilance that predates the discovery that has rendered the problem behavior undeniable, which is contrary to a pattern of avoidance of clues, including dissociative symptoms, that implicitly precede though they might not always proceed from the trauma of discovery. As observers, we can grasp how a trauma sufferer may be alternately over and under-stimulated following a crisis, just as an addict is at times deadened, unstimulated, in withdrawal or guilt-ridden following a binge, for example. But can you claim to have repeatedly not noticed problem behaviors because of dependency needs but also insist that persistent inquiries into suspect behaviors are repeatedly, and concurrently, brushed off? Again, this would only make sense if the chronology of presentations is blurred but then clarified: that a partner’s scrutiny of an acting out figure is tentative prior to discovery–in other words, primarily trusting if skeptical of the denying reports of the depended-upon figure–and then intensified into hyperaroused indignation after a discovery event.
Meanwhile, an underlying element of this issue is not clinical, much less medical. The ethical/moral dimension of the betrayal trauma concept is both subtle and not. For providers and patients, the matter of trauma is not just one of clinical presentation (i.e.: symptoms of anxiety), or of etiological (origin) theory, but also one of justice. In betrayal trauma, there is a victim and there is a perpetrator, meaning someone who has done harm. See, in our contemporary society, it’s not enough to say that a behavior is immoral or wrong. Today, we must either demonstrate or declare that we’ve been wounded, hence the necessity of attaching the word trauma to the moral construct of betrayal. In this way, sex addiction treatment, and betrayal trauma models in particular, borrow the ethos of the civil court: no harm no foul. Less subtle, however, are the concrete implications of the victim/perpetrator divide. As the identified miscreant, a perpetrator is often guilted into surrendering habitation rights, money, sometimes time spent with children or even custodial rights, or most conspicuously, the prerogative to initiate sex. The euphemisms that leverage these concessions—terms like “boundaries”—are meant to be subtle, as in genteel or discreet. They’re not. Only the words are genteel and discreet.
Further, this blending of sex addiction treatment with notions of justice has a gendered inflection, one that plays (and trades) upon our most basic suppositions about male versus female sexuality. The reason betrayal trauma models focus on betrayal is partly about monogamistic values, but it more prominently concerns feminine vulnerability. And this is true only because of the demographics of sex addiction treatment: far more men, and specifically heterosexual men, are assessed as sex addicts than are women—again, so much for the chestnut that modern psychotherapy/psychiatry stigmatizes female sexuality more than that of men (unless you’re one of those who thinks that sex addiction is a compliment, or a leniency-affording “excuse”). Anyway, female vulnerability: here I’m referring to the submission that women experience in the act of heteronormative sex; of their need to trust in the reliability of their male partner, who may also be vulnerable, but only in emotional terms, not so much physically. This point is a bullet item of so-called moral equivalency politics. Basically, the vulnerability of men does not match the vulnerability of women, therefore male sexual acting out is more oppressive, more abusive, threatening, etc., than anything women might perpetrate. In theory, men are treated as impacted or betrayed partners also when their partners have perpetrated infidelities and such, but if you read or listen carefully to most of the unctuous pundits on these matters, you might detect the whiff of bias in their jargon: the “betrayed” male is likely an abusive or possessive figure, “narcissistically wounded” by the betrayal (versus the more sympathetic “traumatized”) of his female partner, which then triggers an underlying misogyny within his subsequent anger. You get the script. From SA specialists, he might receive a subtle re-conditioning effort: a sort of half-hearted patronizing of his betrayal, coupled with a discreet shepherding from attitudes of patriarchal privilege to a woke recognition of female sexual freedom.
Interestingly, despite the possibly inadvertent influence of civil court discourse upon therapeutic interventions, the converse influence is not apparent. The impetus to punish—sorry, “hold accountable”—the wayward sexually acting out figure does not extend to the legal arena. For some time now, divorce courts have stopped punishing infidelity (whether they think it addictive, gendered, or not), instead issuing “no fault” decrees on such matters. That places the matter of crime and punishment back in privately figurative courtrooms. Mental health providers, the sex addiction specialists who in effect preside over these private disputes likely tread a line that straddles tradition and latter-day social justice principles. They “validate” the betrayal suffered by impacted partners of a sex addiction, and “educate” victim and perpetrator as to the impact of auxiliary misbehaviors like gaslighting. But they must also avoid being mere advocates of monogamy, for that might place them in alliance with the unfashionably religious, plus that dreaded system of girl-power thwarting patriarchy. This is why the progressive-leaning SA specialist speaks of violated consent rather than monogamy. In the modern zeitgeist, to consent and be honest are the moral imperatives, not the values of exclusivity.
As a result, sex addiction specialists tend to speak of betrayal while dodging the m word. Again, this is so that seemingly value-neutral concepts like honesty, or the analogy of contractual agreements (apparently an ethos that traditionalists and social justice types can both agree upon), can be invoked without provoking older Superego specters. The new Superego also prefers the term spiritual to connote a departure from the oppressive inflections of the word religion, which tends to suggest rules and dogma, things known (spiritual seems to indicate that which is unknown), not so much a connection to the divine, which is ambiguous, un-dogmatic and refreshingly new agey. The new S-ego prefers to invoke consent as the issue to supplant the concept of monogamy, but still to indicate the ethic of contracts. This, for example, features in Braun-Harvey & Vigorito’s 2016 list of ethical guidelines for sexual health, as indicated in their book Treating Out of Control Sexual Behaviors. See, then the matter is that a partner didn’t “consent” to the addictive pattern, and thus a perpetration of harm has occurred. A sound argument in itself, however much phenomena occurs in intimate relationships that would fall under the “I didn’t bargain for…” category. But most societies don’t craft marriage vows pertaining to excess shopping, hoarding, or video-game playing. And so, there’s no escaping the impression that moral tradition and developmental histories are what really drive the concept of betrayal trauma—not commonly upsetting behaviors or naturally occurring phenomena like threats to life and limb—what the PTSD diagnosis was originally meant to observe. Suggesting equivalences between traumas calls for a lot of reframing, or re-branding, designed to soothe the passage of words into the mind or down into that oft-decision-making gut. I’m not sure it’s convincing, actually, this rhetorical massage. I think we might as well add a term to the inventory of traumas. A psychiatrist and classics scholar named Jonathan Shay has termed this moral injury. How about moral trauma?
*If the reader is interested in a more artful and certainly less co-opted depiction of trauma, try Andrey Tarkovsky’s cult classic film, The Stalker. In it, characters are drawn to a mysterious zone, an area supposedly destroyed by a wayward meteor, leaving behind debris of a ruined civilization. A guide (dubbed “stalker”) leads interested soul-seekers into the forbidden area, taking them to a mythical room within the zone wherein all of the seekers’ personal needs, hopes, desires will be met. It seems a metaphor for an analytic or spiritual journey, and it is not without obstacles, including rules that the stalker appears to impose with neurotic impulsivity. This room: it cannot be approached too directly, too penetratively, he warns. Worldly goods, such as one character’s knapsack of presumedly invaluable items—an expression of his rational control—must be left behind. The filmmaker is saying something about an everyman or woman’s journey. He’s also saying something about how we must tenderly approach a scorched yet still beautiful earth.