Many betrayed partners enter therapy in a state of shock and disbelief, reeling from the discovery of their partner’s extracurricular sexual behaviors. They sit on my couch and tell me they had no idea, not even an inkling, of what their significant other was doing. They have been caught off guard, unaware, and they can’t believe this is happening to them.
I listen to their stories, and I know that their shock and bewilderment is real and they truly did not know what was happening. But, at the same time, I also know that they did know.
I know this because in the weeks that follow they inevitably tell me stories about their relationship and various clues they overlooked. I hear about previous infidelities; about finding pornography, condoms, and secret Internet accounts; about changes in the nature of their sex life and their sense of emotional intimacy; about conversations, conflicts, accusations, and denials all indicating the presence of a problem.
Yet they still did not know. Even though they knew.
How does this happen? How do betrayed partners know but not know? And where does the part of them that does know go?
In the past, this type of behavior has been labelled “denial” and addressed as a form of codependence on the part of the betrayed partner. Today, thanks to an enormous amount of research on attachment, affect regulation, and the mind-body connection, we have new models that help us dig deeper and better understand the function and purpose of these knowing-but-not-knowing behaviors.
Jennifer Freyd, PhD, one of the seminal researchers on the topic of betrayal trauma, has spent years investigating why people don’t allow themselves to see the betrayal that is unfolding right in front of their eyes and why they do not remember the traumas after they have happened. In short, she has explored the question, “What would make someone literally not see and not know that which is easily seeable and knowable?”
To answer to this question, Freyd has connected what we know about the nature of human attachment with what we know about the ways in which humans are hardwired to respond to traumatic events.
When we pair up and enter into a long-term relationship, we begin a process of bonding with one another that is a beautiful and profound intertwining of two lives. In this mysterious attachment, we start to physically operate as one biological organism. As attachment experts Rachel Heller and Amir Levine write, “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing and the levels of hormones in our blood.”
As our bond grows through perhaps getting married, combining our homes, having children together, and working toward common goals, we become more and more interdependent with one another. And this is not codependency. This is healthy, normal, mutual dependency – the basic interconnectivity that makes relationships fulfilling and sought after.
If it is true that when we attach to someone healthy and functional, it feels good and provides a sense of security, grounding, safety, and wholeness, then the opposite is also true. When we attach to someone who is less than healthy – sexually addicted, for example – it can affect our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health in teeth-rattling ways.
Instead of grounding us, it puts us in freefall. Instead of security, we experience fear. Because our partner has caused us such deep pain, that individual now feels like a threat to our wellbeing rather than a source of comfort and safety. This danger is often experienced as a primal threat to the our emotional, psychological, and perhaps even physical survival.
When we experience events that create a sense of threat or danger, whether physical or emotional, the threat center in our brains (the amygdala) lights up and we react to the threat in one of three hardwired ways. We fight, confronting the threat in order to remove it and return to safety, or we flee, withdrawing from the threat to a place where we are safe, or we freeze, staying in place while our body shuts down and our minds go numb. Generally, if we can fight or flee, we will. When fight and flight are not available (or are perceived as unavailable), our freeze response kicks in.
Based on her research, Freyd has argued that the behaviors of not seeing and not knowing in those dealing with betrayal trauma are forms of the freeze response. Rather than confronting the cheating partner or withdrawing from the relationship, betrayed partners go numb and fail to witness and process information about the betrayal. This allows them to continue operating in the relationship as though it remains safe. It allows them to preserve the relational bond that they often unconsciously believe they need to survive.
When we bring together what we know about attachment theory and how our threat response system operates, it creates the following equation for betrayed partners:
Freyd has called this survival-based form of not seeing and not knowing “betrayal blindness.” One of the most important things to note about betrayal blindness is that it is an unconscious process. Betrayed partners are not consciously saying to themselves, “I don’t think I’ll let myself know about that.” Instead, their bodies register danger before the information moves into conscious awareness. Their coping strategies instinctually move to protect them by blocking out the information, rationalizing it away, or in some way keeping it from landing in conscious awareness where they would have to deal with it. This instinctual survival response ensures that one plus one does not ever add up to two in ways that would rob them of their primary relationship and the sense of safety and connection it provides.
Understanding the internal unconscious mechanisms driving betrayal blindness is imperative in order to treat betrayal blindness effectively while avoiding further unintentional, traumatization of the betrayed partner. Betrayed partners need active intervention balanced with empathic support to move out of the state of simultaneously knowing but not knowing into a state of fully integrated conscious awareness.
My experience working with betrayed partners has shown that clients come out of betrayal blindness as their internal capacity to cope with the information they have been avoiding grows. Often, the initial therapeutic task is to grow the person’s internal strength, confidence, and sense of self to the point that they are able to look fully at what is happening in their relationship and survive it emotionally, even when it is incredibly painful. This is a slow and gentle process, requiring a skilled therapist who can balance challenging the client’s defenses with nonjudgmental empathetic support.
This process begins to move the client into a more conscious form of knowing but not knowing. They become aware of the not knowing and the purpose and function of that coping mechanism. With support, they are able to consider what it would be like to allow themselves to know and they start to imagine a world in which they can tolerate the information, survive it emotionally and begin to integrate it fully into their experience.
Michelle Mays LPC, CSAT-S is the founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Relational Recovery with offices in Leesburg, VA and Washington DC. She has spent the last 16 years specializing in treating sex addiction, betrayal trauma, relationship issues and childhood trauma. She is also the founder of PartnerHope, an online resource for betrayed partners and has recently published the book, The Aftermath of Betrayal.
 Levine, A. & Heller R. (2010). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find—and keep—love. Penguin.
 Freyd, J., & Birrell, P. (2013). Blind to betrayal: Why we fool ourselves we aren’t being fooled. John Wiley & Sons.
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