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Why Emotional Betrayal Can Be As Bad As Physical Betrayal

emotional betrayal

Emotional betrayal can be as bad as physical betrayal. And if you’ve lived it, these words will ring true. Though this has been fictionalized, the truth is so real. Take a look.

Claire was jolted from a deep sleep as the phone’s annoying tweet faded into the room’s solitude. Who’s texting at this ridiculous hour? She reached for her phone to silence the persistent message alerts, only to see a blank screen. It wasn’t her phone but Ben’s that had been vibrating on the nightstand.

Oh my god!emotional betrayal woman

Claire’s mouth fell open when she saw what was glowing from the small screen. She frantically tried to make sense of what she was seeing. There it was, incriminating evidence.

Who are you, Bridgette, and what are you doing with…. Claire couldn’t finish – she was struggling for breath. She lay motionless clutching the phone. What do I do?

What’s the truth about Emotional Connection?

These excerpts from our book Emotional Connection define the stories of so many people who are blindsided by emotional betrayal.

The emotions expressed by Claire in the fictional story above are actually a toned-down version of what the betrayed person often feels. Emotional betrayal is often experienced as a bigger threat to the relationship than physical betrayal.

Emotional affairs are on the rise. Maybe you’ve known of, or suspected them in your work place or at the gym. Perhaps a friend or loved one seems to have crossed the boundaries of a safe, monogamous relationship via a seemingly innocent Internet connection.

Or worse. Have you been emotionally betrayed by your partner?

Have you believed the lie that because it was “just” an emotional affair it wasn’t that big of a deal? That it shouldn’t hurt as much? Wrong!

Your pain and trauma are real. What you’re feeling as a result of a major breach of trust is as real as if there had been physical betrayal.

There is no way of knowing how many couples go through the trauma of an emotional betrayal. In my clinical experience though, it is common. Yet most people just don’t realize that emotional betrayal is often more traumatizing than a physical or sexual betrayal.

Emotional betrayers often minimize the significance of the betrayal by saying “nothing physical happened.”

For that reason, the person who has been emotionally betrayed may think they are crazy for having such intense emotions. That’s common.

Even though emotional betrayal feels like a major threat, most of the time the betrayer does not want to leave the primary relationship.

Even if the betrayer has no intention of leaving, when you’ve been betrayed and do not know how to make sense out of your emotions you can easily escalate the conflict. Escalating the conflict can put an already vulnerable relationship more at risk for failure.

Though you’re hurt, angry, confused and yes, traumatized, it’s important to reduce further damage. Here’s what you need to understand before you can heal.

The language of new-love

Every couple has their own private and intimate way of expressing their deepest affections.

I’m sure you and your partner have pet names, favorite songs, maybe a special place or food. You’ve probably got those “you had to be there” experiences. The little things that made your relationship very personally yours.

Some of your language of love was probably developed during the first months of your relationship. During the new-love stage of relationship.

If you’ve been emotionally betrayed, it is traumatizing to learn that these private affections have been given away to someone outside the relationship. You feel robbed of those precious, private things that are closest to your heart.

Those things that were once reserved for you and your partner are no longer exclusive to you as a couple.

The thought of your partner calling someone else honey is sickening. And even if honey becomes sweetie and their favorite song has a different name, the effect is the same. What once felt special, maybe even sacred, has been spoiled.

The mere thought of a new-love language between your beloved and someone else is so hurtful.

Like most people, you probably believe that you hold a special irreplaceable space in the heart of your partner. If you feel you have lost first place, panic and despair rapidly take over.

Even without any confession of love, you can easily convince yourself that the other person is more loved than you are. This is usually not true.

What you need to understand is that all new relationships are extremely intoxicating. They are addictive. The rush of dopamine that they produce turns even those who claim emotion to not be part of their DNA into romantic poets. But know this. New love is not true love.

We crave emotional connection with our beloved.

Our brains are wired for connection. We all need it, long for it, crave it, even if we don’t quite realize what “it” is. In fact, we’re more wired for emotional connection than we are for sex. Emotional connection is the glue that holds a relationship together. Sex is good, but there has to be more in order to sustain love for a lifetime.

Yet emotional connection is what is very often missing in a relationship.

Perhaps you’ve known that emotional connection was missing from your relationship. And now you learn that your partner is sharing his/her emotion with someone other than you. The very thing you’ve relentlessly pursued in your relationship is being given freely to someone else.

Would it be easier to hear the betrayal was all about sex? They didn’t talk. There was no emotion involved. Just lusty sex. Honestly, that’s often easier to handle then to learn that your partner has given their emotion to another.

The language of new-love and long term attachment

Fearing that the emotional affair will turn into a life long love relationship is incredibly destabilizing

This is especially true for married couples who have children, families, homes and livelihoods in common. The fear of having lost first place can feel like a tsunami that comes from out of nowhere and instantly kills and sweeps away everyone and everything once relied upon for love and life.

Continuing to review the words you heard or read in a message you found will increase your anxiety. It can eventually spiral out of control. You may develop full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This will cause you to be fearful, easily startled and prone to panic attack like symptoms when you are triggered.

This real, but exaggerated fear can make you feel like you are a prisoner of your own emotional reactions. You may have to leave social gatherings. You’ll be unable to drive certain places. Or you’ll insist that the betrayer stops using his smart phone because of all that it triggers.

Once PTSD sets in you will most likely need Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and possibly Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) to heal the trauma triggers.

Mindfulness meditation can also help you let go of your disabling recurring thoughts.

Communicating the threat and pain of emotional betrayal

Sure, everyone expects a person to become enraged by a sexual affair. It is pretty clear to most people that this is a major relationship violation. The betrayer will probably feel that their partner’s anger is appropriate. Guilt and repentance on the betrayer’s part is likely.

It’s so different with an emotional affair. The question of betrayal is usually less black and white with an emotional relationship. Usually those in an emotional affair will not see it as a betrayal to their partner.

When you are traumatized by an emotional betrayal your partner will likely stay in denial about how much he has hurt you and about how he violated your trust.

The more in denial he is, the angrier you will become and the longer your arguments will get. There is a real threat here that the arguments themselves will become a threat to the relationship. We call these negative cycle arguments. Over time they can destroy a relationship.

If you’re the victim of betrayal it’s important that you’re able to express to your partner how hurt and frightened you are. And the betrayer needs to be able to hear you and have compassion for you. The betrayer really has to understand what they’ve done to you, your trust and the foundations of your relationship.

This won’t be easy for either of you. And it’s likely you’ll need experienced professionals to help. An Emotionally Focused Therapist will help you get out of the attack mode. And only then will you be able to take the risk to express your deepest hurts and fears.

The betrayer will need help expressing their understanding and empathy about how deeply they’ve hurt you. And how wrong it was in crossing the emotional intimacy boundary with another person.

And then the betrayer will need to do their own work to regain inner peace. None of this is quick or easy.

Why is facing and expressing your emotional betrayal pain so important?

The loss of trust in a lifetime relationship can certainly break a couple up. If not, it can cause continual pain for years to come.

One couple who came in for therapy was still suffering in their 70’s the effects of a betrayal in their 30’s.

Emotional betrayal is so personal and at the same time easily deniable. It is important that you acknowledge that the pain is real and disabling. And that you get the help you need to heal the traumatic injuries.

Facing into and expressing the pain of the emotional betrayal cuts through the shame of what happened. It can even help the couple to understand each other at a deeper level.

This can lead to a deeper understanding of each other’s unmet needs for attachment. It can help the couple to become more proactive at protecting the relationship by setting healthy boundaries for all opposite-sex relationships.

If you’ve been betrayed it’s hard to imagine this. But it is even possible to turn the betrayal into a blessing by digging deep and taking the risk to be real about who each of you are and what you need from each other.

Facing into a betrayal will take courage. And honesty. And a desire and willingness to heal and possibly build a richer relationship than you ever had.

So yes. Emotional betrayal can be as bad as physical betrayal, or even worse. We hope you’ll find the courage and resources to face into it and seek the professional help you’ll need. Click here to find qualified emotionally focused therapists near you.


Hi, I’m Dr. Michael W. Regier. I have extensive training and experience in helping couples work through the difficult issue of betrayal. I’m a Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist with offices in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, California. My wife Paula and I are authors of the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.


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