Working with Partner Betrayal Trauma

July 1, 2020

Working with Partner Betrayal Trauma by Dr. A.Todd Freestone, Psy.D., LCSW, CSAT

Dr. Todd FreestoneIn the most recent decade, spouses and partners of sex or porn addicts have benefitted by the shift to a targeted focus on their specific needs. The discovery of their loved ones’ addiction comes with shock, accompanied by a wave of secrets and lies now exposed. In the introduction of their 2009 book: Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal, Dr. Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means, offer the spouse “help to survive, recover and thrive, no matter what your partner does with his/her addiction.”  The research and writing have defined this attachment and relational disruption as partner betrayal trauma, shifting the therapy focus to identifying and addressing the immediate life needs to function amidst the crisis.  The spouse is then encouraged to share her/his whole-person experience, without judgment or a presupposing diagnosis regarding their trauma reaction.   Therapy continues with addiction education while addressing betrayal trauma symptoms, providing partners strategies and practice to support their healing.  Spouses are now met by a growing number of professionals who approach therapy through the lens of trauma instead of one of co-dependency.

The former co-addict or codependent model pre-supposed the spouse to have their own issues in need of treatment. Otherwise, why be in a relationship with the pornography addict…right?  Not actually.  The truth is, many of these behaviors formerly seen as “enabling,” or “codependent”, are really very normal betrayal trauma or relational trauma reactions. This former therapeutic approach often left already wounded partners feeling misunderstood, with the sense they somehow were responsible for the infidelity and relational betrayal.  The perception that the addict’s behavior is the spouse's fault couldn’t be further from the truth.  Clinicians working with partners frequently describe them reeling with overwhelm while recounting the new knowledge of the addicts’ sexual behaviors; “I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck, this is not who I married.”  The spouses’ discovery of the addict’s behavior is shocking, leaving them dizzy, sleepless, and numb.  All of these descriptions are normal responses to an abnormal relational betrayal or trauma.

It is a part of being in the human experience to suffer trauma.  John Bradshaw defines trauma as “any shattering of the expected reality.”  That trauma is part of the human condition, has been an eye-opening revelation. We are often confronted with traumatic events. However, there are different levels of trauma, and our reactions to these traumas are as different as the traumatic events which occur.

The trauma literature identifies four different levels of trauma, with relation to the level of danger, as well as, the level of relationship to the individuals involved.  Consider a low level of danger with a low level of relationship with the other(s) involved in the trauma, e.g. backing out of a parking space and bumping into another car. Or again, where the danger level remains low, but instead with a high-value relationship with the person involved, e.g. hitting another car while driving your best friend’s car.  Both events would be upsetting and possibly tragic, but the overall effect of both is less likely to cause mental health concerns.

However, when a high level of danger is involved, with a high level of relationship to the person(s) is involved, there is an increased probability of mental health concerns or a traumatic response evolving. The following are examples of high danger/high relationship events:

  • Natural disasters
  • War
  • Life-threatening accidents or illnesses
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect
  • Sexual betrayal: affairs, hook-up apps, porn, sexual arrests, etc. 
  • Witnessing the above events or experiences   

Thus, a spouse who experiences painful betrayal with their addict partner (boundary violations, lies, STD’s, gaslighting, arrest, etc.), will show an enhanced likelihood of emotional dysregulation and traumatic reaction.  Additionally, those partners who have historical experiences of other traumatic events can exhibit even greater distress, which may require additional therapy and support strategies.  

We now know traumas are cumulative in impact and additive in effect, no matter how insignificant they may appear.  It is believed one in four girls is sexually abused before reaching age 16, with one in three by age 18.  The statistics on men are also scary.  One in five boys is reported to be sexually abused prior to reaching age 18.  When the traumatic effects of betrayal trauma, combined with adverse childhood events/trauma, there is a compounded interweaving of neurochemistry.  This can create a sense of life being “out of control” along with reactive/over-responsive emotions.  This is not a fault, but rather a fact to be supported therapeutically.

Advancements in understanding the brain, its neurobiology, and neuroplasticity has provided addiction and mental health professionals an enhanced knowledge. Targeted new therapies and interventions support change with trauma and addiction.  The betrayal trauma model has moved therapists to respond to the spouse through the trauma lens specifically, in an invitational and validating approach.  While the spouse in triaging the presenting crisis, the spouse and therapist are able to strategize interventions for safety and survival supportive of functional living.  Once immediate needs are attended to, the therapist can then educate the partner on addiction, and the fact the addict’s loved ones are neither the cause nor the cure. Therapy then begins to address the broken attachment and relational betrayal as a result of the devastation and pain caused by the addict. The partner can start to evaluate their needs and the next steps in relationship with the addict.   Through therapeutic interventions, the couple will safely work toward common goals of the relationship and co-parenting when children are involved.  This process remains thoughtful, supportive, and evolving based on the needs of the partner and evidence of empathy and accountability for the addict.  

At Paradise Creek Recovery Center we are acutely aware that hurtful behaviors never happen in a vacuum.  Our therapists are attentive to betrayal trauma and work hard to validate and support the partner’s voice in therapy with the addict. The PCRC Team helps the client in our care dig deeper to understand how their behavior affects others, as well as how this lack of understanding and empathy has brought them to this crisis point.  For those addicts and spouses interested in therapy, our therapists facilitate interaction with the partner and/or family members in a safe and supportive environment.  We offer options for face-to-face therapy at Paradise Creek Recovery Center, secure video or phone interaction, depending on the needs and desires of the partner or family members.  We are committed to helping healing take place, holding true to our treatment process motto, “A Safe Place to Heal.”

For more in-depth information on the topic of partners and betrayal trauma, relational trauma or attachment trauma, we suggest the following highly regarded book:  Your Sexually Addicted Spouse - How Partners Can Cope and Heal by Dr. Barbara Steffens, Ph.D., LPCC and Marsha Means, MA, New Horizon Press ©2009 


1 Steffens, Barbara and Means, Marsha, “Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How 

Partners can Cope and Heal”, Introduction, 1

How To Get Help

For more information about Paradise Creek Recovery Center and our services for sex and porn addiction, offending behaviors or those on Autism Spectrum with problem sexual behaviors, please call 855.442.1912; or email

We look forward to working with you!

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