Many betrayed wives I speak with tell me of other friends or family members who they are fairly certain are also being betrayed by their husband/spouse. To them, "it's obvious" he (the husband/partner) has an issue. Sometimes they've tried to talk to this woman only to be shut down. Sometimes they've just tried to share some of their own story as a betrayed wife and got "the cold shoulder" of rejection.
At other times betrayed wives themselves ask me, "why was I so blind, how could I not have seen," or a related (though bigger) question, "am I trauma bonded to my husband?"
Over the past couple months I've been reading Blind to Betrayal by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell. This book explains, with compassion, the phenomenon of betrayal blindness and provides answers for how to move past it.
What is it?
In the early 1990's psychologist Jennifer Freyd coined the term "betrayal trauma" and began to study this issue in an attempt to understand why people would forget traumas that happened to them. The people she was looking at were perfectly intelligent and "aware" in other areas of their lives, yet with regards to some interpersonal traumas they were exhibiting a "massive forgetting and unawareness." This "betrayal blindness" as she called it, occured around traumas involving betrayal by a person close to them... often a parent or spouse/partner.
Freyd explains that some women—note that it is mostly women who experience betrayal trauma and betrayal blindness—experience the blindness in a "rotating" fashion. They are aware of the betrayal in some moments and in another may find they think, act or feel like they aren't aware.
Why it happens
Our drive to survive is a key factor in betrayal blindness... but also, oddly, in its opposite: abuse and betrayal detection.
Freyd explains, "the core idea is that forgetting and unawareness help the abuse victim survive. The theory draws on two facts about our nature as social beings and our dependence and reliance on others. First, we are extremely vulnerable in infancy, which gives rise to a powerful attachment system. Second, we have a constant need to make 'social contracts' with other people in order to get our needs met. This has led to the development of a powerful cheater-detector system. These two aspects of our humanity serve us well, but when the person we are dependent on is also the person betraying us, our two standard responses to trouble conflict with each other."
Our powerful, God-given attachment system has also bonded us first to to our husband. Moreover, there may be extended seasons in a woman's life— pregnancy, nursing, raising young children, during illness, retirement years, etc.—when she may be particularly vulnerable. In our times of vulnerability it is natural that we are more dependent on our husbands.
Thus, as Freyd, has hinted above, we may become "unaware of" or "forget" betrayal by our husband particularly if it feels like that is what we need to do to survive... to not lose this person on whom we are financially, physically or psychologically dependent.
"Forgetting" or "unawareness" is not generally a decision we make, rather it is an automatic response to trauma. It's related to our "freeze" trauma response (of the "fight, flight or freeze" options). Freeze is more likely to happen if we have other traumas in our past, where it turned out to be a good survival method. This would describe most childhood betrayal traumas such as parental abuse.
Double trauma whammy
So, not only might we be more set up for betrayal blindness by childhood betrayal trauma, our husband's disclosure of unfaithfulness, and resulting trauma, itself makes us more prone to blindness.
Let me explain. When we are traumatized—for example by finding out about our husband's betrayal or sex addiction—a normal psychological drive to seek out "our people" is activated. So long as our husband is one of our normal support people or confidants, we will feel a deep need to turn to him. This is the basic drive that also causes trauma bonding, particularly in those who lack other people to turn to.
Of course this leaves us more psychologically dependent on our husband than before. Moreover, the trauma of disclosure may result in an illness that leaves us more physically and financially vulnerable, and thus more dependent on him.
Freyd argues, "Depenency in relationships is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we are all dependent on others. Interdependence is healthy. However, sometimes extreme dependency can be toxic, increasing the probability of betrayal and betrayal blindness. You might ask yourself if you are comfortable with your level of dependency on a particular relationship. If not, is it possible for you to become less dependent? Either way, it is wise to be aware that dependency can potentially make you prone to betrayal blindness."
As you may have guessed, Freyd sees one of the solutions for betrayal blindness as working to become less dependent on the one betraying us. There are, however, other steps she recommends including addressing our needs for a healthy body, supportive relationships, and safe disclosure of our story. She warns, "This will be hard work and will take time. Take as long as you need. During this period do things that bring beauty and joy to you."
By including God as one "our peeps" and one of our sources of joy we will be creating a very firm foundation for being able to see and speak truth, even painful truth. Moreover, an understanding of our dependence on this ever-faithful parent, who has experienced betrayal himself, can help set us free to find healing for our traumas.
As many of your will already have heard, my Masters of Counselling study on PSAs and domestic violence is now underway. Please consider participating whether or not you have been a victim of domestic violence. Visit the website for more information.