Partner Sexual Betrayal

By Gloria Gilbert - 07/01/2023


When a partner or spouse in a relationship learns that the person whom they have trusted has been unfaithful to them, the pain of that discovery can be incredibly intense, leaving the person with an overwhelming sense of betrayal. 

Betrayal as an Attachment Trauma

Betrayal in a committed relationship includes the violation of relationship norms.  When a partner violates the standards considered to be the norm in the relationship, relational trauma may be experienced.  Relational traumas are attachment injuries, which occur when “one individual betrays, abandons, or refuses to provide support for another with whom they have developed an attachment bond” (Steffens & Means, 2010).  According to Judith Herman, attachment injuries are a “violation of human connection” and lead to the relationship being perceived as a source of danger rather than a safe haven.

PTSD Symptoms

Many betrayed partners, after learning about the betrayal, exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD symptoms may include:

  • Increased anxiety, which may include the following:  
  • Hypervigilance (scanning the environment for any signs of potential danger/threat)
  • Paranoia
  • Overwhelming terror
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Startling easily
  • Avoiding reminders or conversations of the event or not being able to remember some or all aspects of the event (blocking/denial)
  • Re-experiencing the event through invading thoughts or memories that can’t be held back, be it through flashbacks and/or nightmares

The person’s distress can grow so intense that it impacts them in multiple areas of their lives (e.g., their ability to work, take care of day-to-day responsibilities, or participate in relationships).

Carol Juergensen Sheets has created a powerful short video that explains the “brain science” of partner betrayal and how these acute symptoms can manifest in a partner’s life.  Please be aware that the video depicts a cisgender female in a heterosexual relationship.  It is important to be aware that partner betrayal can occur in any relationship, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identification. (The animated video starts at 5:15 minutes.)

Betrayed Partner Needs

Following Discovery of the infidelity, betrayed partners often need the following:

  • To feel a sense of emotional safety in the relationship
  • To feel that their partner is willing to change and make a serious commitment to do so (Certified Sex Addiction Therapists – CSATs may be found at: IITAP Community )
  • To feel the betraying behavior has stopped
  • To feel that repair of the relationship is the betraying partner’s #1 priority 

How Betrayed Partners Can Begin Their Healing Process

  • Physical Self-Care
    • STI testing
    • Healthy eating
    • Exercise
    • Making sleep/rest a priority
  • Spiritual Self-Care
    • Attending spiritual service
    • Connecting with one’s spiritual community
    • Time for practicing your spirituality (e.g., praying, meditating, walking in nature, etc.)

While healing from betrayal trauma can be a long and arduous process, recovery of the partner’s sense of a “Reintegrated Self” is absolutely possible! The right tools and resources can facilitate that process.


For additional information related to betrayal trauma and healing, the following resources are recommended:

Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal, by Barbara Steffens, Ph.D., and Marsha Means, MA

Mending a Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, edited by Stephanie Carnes, Ph.D.

Courageous Love: A Couples Guide to Conquering Betrayal, by Stephanie Carnes, Ph.D.

Help.Them.Heal: Teaching You Both How to Heal Your Relationship After Sexual Betrayal, by Carol Juergensen Sheets, LCSW, CSAT, CCPS-S, CPC-S, PCC

Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal, by Dr. Sheri Keffer

Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, by Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S

A Man’s Tools for Addressing Betrayal: Keys to Unlocking Freedom & Moving Forward, by Sibylle Georgianna, Ph.D.

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