Dr. Tatkin wrote a great blog post on how betrayal actually impacts the brain and nervous system the same as trauma would, say for instance a bad car accident or witnessing a shooting.
I wanted to copy it here so that readers of my blog can hear what he has to say. Dr. Tatkin has his own blog in which he addresses issues of couples and relationships and if you have not already visited it I strongly encourage you to do so.
Betrayal Causes Trauma
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
In matters of betrayal—lying, cheating, stealing—the breach of the attachment system is acute and often long lasting and can be understood neurologically as a trauma-related problem.
Franklin and Zeynep, a couple in their early 40s with two young children, came to therapy because of a discovered set of sexual affairs. Franklin, an American-born academician, was found to have an affair with one of his students. Zeynep, a Turkish-born emergency room nurse, discovered the affair after accidentally viewing Franklin’s phone text messages. The texts were explicitly sexual and contained incontrovertible evidence of Franklin’s deceptions and betrayals. Although Franklin was contrite and desperately wanted to be let back into the relationship, he had great difficulty dealing with Zeynep’s unrelenting preoccupation with his affair. She wanted to know details. Fearful of making matters worse, he refused to give details. Zeynep would wake up in the middle of the night crying, and suddenly burst into a rage while they drove to dinner. She did not want Franklin to touch her. He was not to sleep in their marital bed. Franklin’s patience was at an end. He began to believe that Zeynep was purposely punishing him and was invested in making his life a living hell. Neither partner wanted the relationship to end, but neither could escape the strong wake of the betrayal itself.
PACT therapists will recognize that betrayal by a primary attachment figure is likely to be processed as trauma. Betrayals in adult romantic partnerships most commonly revolve around sex and/or finances, but central to all betrayals is the matter of deception. Partners who feel deceived by their loved ones suffer a particular kind of loss that can affect the historical memory of that relationship. Deceived partners will review the entire relationship in an attempt to reorganize their experiences of self and other. This review reorients the memory toward doubt, fear, and rage. In Zeynep’s case, we see that she could not stop thinking about Franklin’s betrayal and demanding details. Even though he did not provide details, her brain filled in its own details, which fed her doubt and fear. Flooded by these emotions, she would alternately withdraw from him and rage at him.
Once initiated, this review process cannot be interrupted because the brain must reorganize and adapt to the new information. As in PTSD, the brain and body must metabolize the trauma and cope with amygdalar hyperactivity as the amygdala responds to multiple internal and external triggers. However, different from PTSD, betrayal forces a hippocampal review and re-contextualization of the past with new information from the present. PTSD usually does not compel the brain to review past events; in fact, victims of PTSD commonly wish to avoid any review of the traumatic event, and their hippocampal function can be compromised by the traumatic event.
Betrayal, therefore, usually leads to a preoccupation with the new reality-shattering information. This presents an enormous challenge to the couple attempting to recover from it. Like Zeynep, the victim cannot stop being preoccupied with the past, present, and future, nor escape the emotional volatility that accompanies this process. The perpetrator therefore must tolerate the other partner’s perseveration and emotional volatility, as well as the constant questioning, grief, and anger that come with the healing process. In this case, Franklin had to learn patience for the couple to have any chance at rebuilding their relationship. Somewhat ironically, the perpetrator is in a unique position as not only the cause of the trauma but also its solution. This is not an easy task for the perpetrator to perform. Yet, the PACT therapist takes the position that the betraying partner must provide ongoing and sufficient support to regulate disturbing states related to the trauma whenever they arise.
Copyright © 2003-2014 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved
In a study published last year (4/29/14) from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including Dr. Richard J. Davidson, stress levels of married couples were shown to influence each partner's happiness. Researchers looked at how often spouses felt let down or criticized by their partners and found that those in unsupportive marriages had more trouble sustaining happiness. Dr. John Gottman has discussed feeling criticized by one's partner in his research on marriage over several decades. Dr. Gottman has found that criticizing one's spouse is predictive (along with other variables) of divorce. Over time if our spouse has continued to criticize us we may develop a general mistrust of their intentions. For example if they actually say something nice we may have become conditioned to disregard this positive comment or hear some "hidden" negative meaning in it. The only way to prevent this is to fully repair instances where one has hurt one's partner. While this sounds cumbersome to some, learning to quickly and effectively repair is a skill and can be learned. Relationship skills are like any skills and once mastered can be performed easily and fluidly, like learning a foreign language or new sport. So even if it takes effort and practice early on this repairing becomes faster and easier but continues to yield huge results.
If you or your spouse is depressed there are some studies that support the idea that couples therapy may help more than other treatments. In a study done in 2012 Dessaullesa, Johnsona, and Dentonb found that when one spouse is depressed and the relationship is also under stress couples therapy may outperform antidepressants. Leff et al. in the British Journal of Psychiatry (2000) found that partner's depression improved after either couples therapy or antidepressant medication. However the couples therapy group continued to show those gains at a one year follow up while those treated with medication did not.
In summary if you find yourself depressed, or if your partner is depressed, and your relationship could use some attention as well you may get more benefit from couples therapy than medication or other interventions like individual therapy. It's important to remember that depression has very serious health consequences as well as emotional pain and should be treated or it can worsen.
With warm wishes,
First I need to give credit to the originator of this metaphor, a friend and mentor Dr. Stephen Finn. Dr. Finn is a psychologist in practice here in Austin, Texas and is on faculty at UT Austin. He has mentored many psychologists over the years and is a world-renown expert on psychological assessment. If you are interested in psychological assessment you may find his website, www.therapeuticassessment.com, of interest. Now that I have given credit, let me explain what "saucering" is.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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