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
Contrary to what many of us thought growing up expressing anger is not the same as yelling, breaking things or slamming doors. In fact if the person you are interacting with is doing things that trigger your fight or flight system (make you sweat, shake, want to retreat, raise your blood pressure and/or heart beat, etc.) then you are not witnessing someone's anger, you are in the presence of abuse. Yep, that's right! And the normal human response to being abused is to want to hurt the other person back. So we yell, stomp our feet, throw things or say mean hurtful stuff. Now WE are being abusive as well.
I think this is a very important distinction to make. Anger is actually NOT a damaging emotion. Abuse is damaging treatment. I repeat, anger and abuse are NOT the same. I can sit down calmly and tell you that I am angry because you borrowed my car and ran it out of gas. If you feel embarrassed, guilty, sad or contrite but NOT fearful, nervous, threatened or like you need to yell at me then I have NOT been abusive. I have just been angry. Anger is an indication that our boundaries have been violated. I don't like it when people do not show appropriate respect for my things and so if you use my car and don't put gas in it I am going to be angry. But that's OK. My conveying that I am upset shows you that you have crossed a boundary and so you will try not to do that in the future.
Many of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes confuse anger and abuse. We think that if someone is red-faced, yelling, shaking mad, throwing things or hurling awful accusations at us they are "angry". I would argue it is much more useful to see this as abuse. That way both people can see how unhelpful and inappropriate this behavior is. Abuse never leads to anything good. Anger, when expressed without turning in to abuse, should ALWAYS lead to something good. It is a communication about what you need to feel respected, cared for and even loved. It is essential for you to communicate this so that you are taking care of yourself and protecting the bond you have with that person. It is important for them to hear this message clearly and take corrective action. That is the purpose of anger. The purpose of abuse is to discharge physical energy and to hurt the other person. That is not anger. The expression of anger is about trying to identify and solve a problem. Venting, which many people mistake for the expression of anger, is about hurting the other person in an effort to make yourself feel better without any regard for the other.
In thinking about positive expressions of anger that are clearly not abuse think about the sit-ins of the civil rights movement in the US. There was plenty of anger on the parts of the protestors who saw the racial oppression and abuses going on. However the play-book of those sit-ins was literally that "not a hair on the head of a white man would be disturbed". The protestors wanted to convey their anger appropriately and NOT allow it to turn into abuse, which would have spurred an abusive reaction on the part of the authorities. Abuse begets abuse. Anger, if expressed appropriately and without abuse, should beget positive results and heightened mutual understanding.
Anger can teach us things about ourselves and reveal things about our partners or other loved ones. If the anger seems out of proportion to the event (you bring my car back with no gas and I calmly tell you we can no longer be friends) then there is likely some "unfinished business" being triggered from the past. In this example perhaps I had parents who used my property, resources or accomplishments for their own selfish purposes and I felt used and mistreated. I am, therefore, naturally sensitive to feeling that others don't care how they treat me and are going to take advantage of me. So my anger in this situation, if I can see that it is out of proportion, will direct me to look at areas of my past where maybe I have some unresolved wounds. That in turn provides an opportunity for healing.
Understanding the purpose of anger can help us to not suppress or deny it. Understanding the difference between anger and abuse can help us learn to express anger in an appropriate way that can lead to increased knowledge, understanding and harmony for ourselves and in our relationships.
If you find yourself confused about or uncomfortable with anger I encourage you to think about tackling that problem. Anger turned inward/suppressed can lead to depression, loss of motivation, difficulties in achievement, addictions, poor self-care and even self-attack or self-abuse. Anger expressed as abuse can lead to shame, loss of relationships and/or jobs and even legal problems. Therapy can be an excellent tool for learning more about anger and how to comfortably express as well as witness it, as can the 12-step group Adult Children Anonymous (which focuses on people from any type of dysfunctional childhood) or books such as The Dance of Anger. Regular exercise and/or mindfulness mediation can help stabilize the nervous system so that when you feel angry you are better able to prevent it from veering into abuse. Classes on anger management can help you learn the physiological signs of anger and how to manage the feeling when it arises and stay grounded when you see it in others. There are many options for working on this problem and I hope you consider trying some of them.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP
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