The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies, it comes from those you trust the most.” – Author unknown

There’s no doubt that the ones we love can hurt us the most. And when a betrayal is disclosed or unveiled, the impacted partner can suffer betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma typically occurs in intimate relationships when there is a violation of trust. The emotional impact of a betrayal trauma can be extensive as the betrayed person questions their safety and has symptoms similar to PTSD (and may include complex PTSD). Some typical betrayal traumas include infidelity and sexual addiction. 

Healing from intimate partner betrayal is time-consuming and challenging, but there is hope through self-reflection and therapy for both the betrayed and the betrayer. At the end of this post, you’ll find a downloadable worksheet you and your partner can use to start navigating betrayal trauma. 

The Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma

The Very Well Mind outlines the symptoms of betrayal trauma. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociation
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Emotional Dysregulation
  • Questioning the gut and instinctual choices
  • Replaying the betrayal over and over in one’s mind

In order to heal, it can be helpful for both the betrayer and the betrayed to use a model to make sense of their experience. One resource that has proved successful for betrayal trauma is the Minwilla Model. 

The Minwilla Model for Betrayal Trauma

The Minwilla Model explores how to understand, treat, and diagnose deceptive sexuality and trauma (DST). Deceptive sexuality refers to acting out sexual behaviors, which negatively impact the couple’s relationship. Dr. Minwilla believes that the sexual behaviors and acting out partner’s responses can be so difficult for the betrayed partner that he categorizes deceptive sexuality as a form of relational intimate partner violence. Dr. Minwilla breaks down the DST model into three stages: the covert phase, exposure phase, and symptom progression phase. These phases may fluctuate or overlap as the couple goes through treatment. 

Dr. Minwilla uses a metaphor of “the secret basement” — a trap door in the floor of the couple’s home, which accesses a basement only the betraying partner knows about. This secret basement provides the betrayer a foundation to watch pornography, interface with another person, hire a sex worker, or have an extramarital affair. The betraying partner may go down to the secret basement only a few times or frequently. Regardless of the number of times the person goes to the secret basement, it is still an area to which only the betraying partner has access. Minwilla stresses that the secret basement impacts the rest of the house and home life without its other members realizing it. This metaphor shows that the family and home life are affected even before disclosing the betrayal.

Dr. Minwilla has been on several podcasts, including Moving Beyond Betrayal. He highlights the betrayal trauma and its impact on both the betrayed and betraying partners. From his perspective, betrayal trauma is a form of domestic violence as the betrayed partner experiences PTSD symptoms and questions all the lies related to the disclosure. The couple can heal and recover from the betrayal trauma with individual and couples therapy through transparency and building trust. 

Trust can not be rebuilt without transparency and awareness of one’s impact on their relationship and their partner. The 4 Circle plan, which is outlined below, can allow a couple to look at the problematic behaviors of DST and its impact on the relationship. The open dialogue can have the couple consider accountability and boundaries to begin to work toward integrity and more healthful living. 

4 Circle Plan For Betrayal Trauma Explained

Dr. Minwill’s 4 Circle Plan is framed around the idea of a stop light. Each of the three inner circles of the 4 Circle plan includes red, yellow, and green areas for the betrayer. 

Red: Behaviors to Avoid

The red area or the smallest, most innermost circle is for the behaviors to avoid. The goal is for the couple to state the problematic behaviors clearly. For example, if infidelity has occurred, the behaviors to avoid may include: not talking to the previous affair partner, not texting other women, and not having sex outside of the couple’s relationship. 

Yellow: Triggers, Thoughts, and Associations

Next, the second circle, when you are working from the innermost circle out, is the yellow circle. This area has the couple consider the thoughts, triggers, and associations that lead to the problematic behaviors in the red circle. These actions may include: being around others who are drinking, smoking, or watching pornography; being alone with your phone late at night; traveling for a business trip; or fantasizing about a coworker.

Green: Coping Strategies 

Then, there is the third circle, which includes the coping strategies. The couple can consider helpful strategies to manage the root issues behind addictive behaviors. There are some addictions rooted in anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, or traumatic childhood such as a narcissistic parent. Useful distractions and coping strategies can prevent relapse of addictive behaviors. For example, exercising, breathing exercises, meditation, journaling, or listening to music can be helpful techniques. A trained clinician can help the betrayed partner develop and implement healthy coping strategies.

The Other Circle 

The last and remaining circle in the 4 circle plan is the impact of the three other circles. Sometimes the betraying partner has not considered the impact of their behaviors, triggers, and coping strategies on people in their life. The last circle allows the couple to write out all the people impacted by the betrayal. 

Try the 4 Circle Plan

It can be helpful for the couple to complete the activity together to consider the important behaviors to both partners. By completing the worksheet together or individually for the betraying partner, the couple can start an open dialogue about how their relationship has been impacted by the betrayed partner’s acting out behaviors. Couples that are struggling with sexual addiction and infidelity usually need the support of a clinician to be able to work on the relationship and each partner’s individual healing journey. If there are issues completing the worksheet, then the support of a therapist may be needed.

Downloadable 4 Circle Plan

Get Support with Betrayal Trauma

Therapists and workshops can help you and your partner work on the betrayal trauma. Check out the Helping Couples Heal podcast for more insights. If you do not yet have a therapist, please get in touch with us to set up an intake appointment.