RTR (Relational Trauma Response)

If there was a Richter Scale for emotional earthquakes, finding out your spouse has been living a secret life would break the meter.  Whether your spouse has had an affair, has been involved in pornography, using drugs, making financial decisions without your knowledge, etc…it can feel like a bomb has exploded in the epicenter of your life.  The life and reality you believed you were living in feels like it has been shattered into a million pieces.  When this happens, you have experienced a Relational Trauma.  Relational trauma occurs when one person betrays, abandons, harms, or refuses to provide support for another with whom he/she has developed an attachment bond.  Relational Trauma occurs basically in any situation in which the spouse has been leading a double life.  There have been secrets, lies, and behaviors the spouse did not know about.  Common situations in which Relational Trauma occur include, but are not limited to:

- Finding out your spouse is addicted to/has been involved in pornography and/or any form of sexual acting out
- Finding out your spouse has had an affair
- Finding out your spouse has been spending money or making financial decisions without your knowledge
- Finding out your spouse has been using drugs
- Finding out your spouse has been contacting other people on-line
- Finding out your spouse has an emotional connection/relationship with someone else
- Finding out your spouse has been gambling
- Finding out your parent has done any of the above

Researchers have found that these traumas “overwhelm coping capacities and define the relationship as a source of danger rather than a safe haven.”  These types of traumas are equivalent to, and often potentially worse than, a soldier coming back from combat with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Researchers say “worse than” because the trauma occurred in what was thought to be a safe environment vs. war where at least there was an expectation of danger.  The same brain circuitries are triggered in both conditions.  According to Dr. Judith Herman, a trauma expert, the most severe form of trauma results from the betrayal within significant relationships  (Herman, J.L. (1992) Trauma and Recovery New York:  Basic Books).  Relational trauma can be a one time event or a series of events that occur over the course of the relationship.    

In the past, the mental health field has recognized that symptoms associated with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) have been present when someone has sustained a relational trauma, but has not officially identified nor named what was unique about relational trauma. In our work with couples, we have identified that although the reaction is similar, there are many unique facets to what happens to a person when they have been betrayed by their partner.  In the weeks, months, and years after the discovery of a secret life in whatever form it takes, betrayed spouses go through what we have named a “Relational Trauma Response” (RTR).  Relational Trauma Response is a mental health condition triggered when one sustains a relational trauma.  RTR is akin to PTSD in that they share similar categories of symptoms:  intrusion, constriction, and hyperarousal.  However, there are two distinct characteristics related to RTR that are not present in PTSD.  First, RTR has an additional category of symptoms that we’ve named Reality Disorientation.  Reality Disorientation only occurs when one has sustained a trauma within the context of a committed relationship and is unique to the Relational Trauma Response.  Second, in contrast to PTSD, where the event usually ends and the person gets away from the initial trauma (i.e., car accident, war, etc…), the spouse has continued exposure to the person and relationship that has traumatized them.     


The symptoms of RTR are divided into four categories:    

1.  REALITY DISORIENTATION:  Reality Disorientation is a mental state of confusion and shock experienced by the betrayed spouse where they begin to question and process what actually existed vs. what was portrayed to them and/or what they believed about their relationship.  Physical symptoms can include loss of appetite, overeating, insomnia/oversleeping, difficulty performing everyday tasks, loss of functioning, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, anxiety, irritability, uncontrollable crying, and a variety of other psychosomatic symptoms.  Psychological symptoms can include a feeling of “unreality”, dissociation, confusion, loss of a sense of safety, hopelessness, loss of a sense of time, loss of a sense of self, loss of confidence, clinical depression, and/or clinical anxiety.

There are two types of Reality Disorientation:  Primary and Secondary.  Primary RD affects how the person experiences their marriage and perceives their spouse and the relationship they thought they had.  Betrayed spouses are plagued with a sense of complete loss of trust and safety.  They may feel like the entire life they had been living, or thought they had been living, was a lie.  Every event, every memory, every situation in the relationship is now “tainted” by the realization that there was a secret life occurring at the same time.  As a part of Reality Disorientation, the fact that there was a secret negates the “good times” and every interaction the couple had within that timeframe.

This catastrophic loss of trust, safety, and perceived reality will then expand to relationships outside of the primary relationship with the significant other.This is called Secondary Reality Disorientation.Typically the betrayed spouse will then lose trust in themselves, in others, and in God (if that is a part of their life). Below are some examples of thoughts betrayed spouses with Secondary RD suffer from:

How could You allow this to happen?
You must not be looking out for me…
Why didn’t You let me know?
If you loved me, you would have let me know.
Why did you allow me to marry him if you knew this was going to happen?
You betrayed me…
Why didn’t you stop him/her?

I can’t trust my own feelings…
How could I not have seen this?
I can’t trust I’ll make right decisions…
I don’t know what’s real and what’s not…
I am frozen in fear…
I feel like a fool because I was believing a lie…

I’ll never trust anyone ever again…
I can’t believe what they say…
Everything I knew was a lie…
If I can’t trust my spouse, how can I trust a friend?

The severity of Reality Disorientation is often in direct connection to how much a betrayed spouse thought their spouse was capable of betraying them.  For some, the behaviors are a complete surprise and the reality of what their spouse has done is inconsistent with the character of the person they thought they knew.  For others, they may have had a suspicion or experienced other behaviors indicating the possibility of trauma.  This can leave a betrayed spouse feeling completely alone with no sense of what is “real”.  If not treated properly, this can lead to clinical levels of severe depression.

2.  INTRUSION:  Traumatic images associated with the betrayal such as the moment of disclosure/discovery, lies told preceding the disclosure, visualizing exactly what happened, etc... The betrayed spouse will likely re-experience the psychosocial distress of the traumatic event when memories, dreams or flashbacks intrude.  Things that were benign before the revelation now seem electrified with the pain of betrayal.  Movies, songs, restaurants, driving past common everyday places, etc…now become a source of pain. Obsessive thoughts plague the weeks and months after the discovery.  Betrayed spouses commonly review over and over again the period in their life during which the behavior was possibly taking place.  Images, memories, and unanswered questions intrusively flood their mind day and night.  They get out calendars, review phone logs/emails, family events and try to put the pieces together.  They try to figure out what was going on in their lives to try and reconcile their perceived life and how it coordinated with what was really going on in their spouse’s double life.  Sometimes these obsessions completely take over a person; causing them to decline in daily functioning.  They can feel like their whole world needs to stop until they have their questions answered.

3.  CONSTRICTION:  Inhibiting thoughts, feelings, and activities that are associated with the traumatic event are signs of constriction.  Some betrayed spouses describe feeling numb, show no interest in normal activities and become detached from other people.  Numbing can be an adaptive mechanism to survive unbearable pain.  Many betrayed spouses find themselves vacillating between excessive emotionality and constrictive symptoms of avoidance and withdrawal. As another form of constriction, betrayed spouses can withdraw or isolate themselves from friends, family, and/or social supports.  A feeling of embarrassment and/or “couples shame” influences the degree of withdrawal.

4.  HYPERAROUSAL:  Hyperarousal is marked by a constant state of “being on alert”, assessing all situations for potential dangers.  Severe mood swings, anger/rage, panic attacks, crying fits, wanting assurances, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, racing heartbeat, “shakiness”, muscle tension, fatigue, and nightmares plague the betrayed spouse.  The brain gets “stuck” in this “danger” mode perceiving anything and everything as potential for harm.  This is especially difficult as the betrayed spouse has continued exposure to the source of the initial trauma.  Many betrayed spouses say it’s like they have been in a traumatic car accident that has forever changed their life.  However, instead of being able to leave the crash site, the car is now in their living room everyday and they have to see it, touch it, and interact with it.  The betrayed spouse can be in a constant state of alert and can re-experience all the feelings associated by the trauma just from seeing or talking to their spouse.        
The severity of the overall Relational Trauma Response is determined by:  how the discovery was made, the extent of shattered assumptions, individual and situational vulnerabilities, the nature of the betrayal, the response of the unfaithful spouse, co-occurring mental health disorders, and whether the threat of betrayal continues.  These factors interact with one another to determine the intensity, scope and persistence of the RTR.


In general, although each individual is unique, the betrayed spouse will go through the following three stages in healing from Relational Trauma Response: 

Revelation Stage:  This stage is marked with shock and catastrophic loss of emotional safety and trust as the betrayed spouse finds out/attempts to find out the full scope of the traumatic behaviors. Betrayed spouses are flooded with questions and want answers to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the situation.  Betrayed spouses can feel “frantic” trying to assess the truth of the situation. 

Response Stage:  This is when the Reality Disorientation is at its peak.  All of the physical and psychological symptoms are at their most intense.  These include, but are not limited to, anger, grief, depression, anxiety, bargaining, avoidance, and confusion.  There can be extreme mood swings from intense anger to severe depression/numbness/confusion.  This stage is also marked by continued collection and verification of evidence, deciding if the relationship will continue, evaluating the spouse’s response to the trauma, beginning to set boundaries and/or consequences, dealing with trauma triggers, questioning what the future holds, seeking treatment, and deciding whether to tell family and friends.

Reorientation Stage:  This stage is marked by an acceptance of the situation, symptoms becoming more manageable, engaging in personal healing work from the trauma, integrating the past, present, and future reality, restoring trust and safety with God, self, and others.


As evidenced by the complexity of symptomology described above, Relational Trauma recovery is not a quick fix.  Many counselors and well meaning people do not understand RTR and will try to employ traditional marital interventions and speak to the couple in terms of “forgiveness” and “moving forward”.  Healing from RTR is not just a matter of “forgiveness”.  Forgiveness is completely different than trust.  Restoring trust and safety are foundational and essential in repairing the damage that has been done by Relational Trauma.  Relational trauma and all of its causes must be addressed before engaging in traditional marital therapy or the couple will stay “stuck” because there is no safety.  It is a complicated psychological condition and must be treated appropriately by knowledgeable counselors.

Copyright 2016. Jenny Upton & Lauren Mauck. All Rights Reserved. This document, either in whole or in part may not be copied, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way without permission of the owners. Contact for permission.