What Is Transitional Distrust in Betrayal Trauma Recovery?

Many of our clients have reported that the pain stemming from a betrayal trauma is one they wouldn’t wish upon their worst enemy.  For those who have experienced this type of relational trauma –  infidelity, secret addiction, double life – broken trust seems to be at the helm of the heartache.  Adding insult to injury, this lack of trust tends to linger well after the secrets have been revealed and the initial crisis is over.  It is common for partners who have experienced the trauma of infidelity and/or sex addiction to battle with the question, “Will I ever trust again?”  The simple answer to this question is “yes, you can learn to trust again.”  However, relationships are more complicated than that, especially after being wounded by betrayal. In this article, we hope to unravel some of the complexities of the trust-distrust phenomenon in couples following infidelity.

Maybe ‘NOT trusting’ is exactly where you are supposed to be.

Injured couples who want to stay together and heal their relationships after the discovery of infidelity might long to go “back to how things were,” but they intuitively know that this is not in cards.  For a couple in the throes of betrayal trauma, “going back” is not only risky, but not very smart either.  Going back to the old relationship (i.e., how things were), also means going back to the old way of functioning.  If a couple tries to reestablish the old ways of functioning in their relationship, then they are destined to repeat old patterns.  And where does that lead?  I think you know the answer.  So, if the couple can’t go back, where does that leave them?

You must grieve the loss of the old relationship in effort to make way for the new coupleship. In this transitional space is where trust is reborn.

When a couple decides to create a new relationship with one another, this also means creating a new trust. This doesn’t mean they forget about the past; in fact, it is just the opposite.  Couples need to remember their history, because their past informs their present, and the present determines the future.  It’s sort of like building a new house on an existing slab.  The slab, which represents a couple’s love for each other, is the foundation.  However, most people want more than a slab for a home; they also want walls, a roof, a floor plan, and many other things.  Therefore, in order to determine a floor plan, the couple not only needs to remember the old floor plan, they also need to remember that it didn’t work. But how do we know the new plan will work? You don’t.

You don’t get to have a fully developed trust right now; but, what type of distrust you experience is vital in determining progress or the lack thereof.

When a couple in betrayal trauma recovery begins to actively work to transition out of the old and into the new, there are two types of distrust they may experience.  Both types are functional in that they help couples measure progress.  But, there is one type that we want couples to experience less and less of as it represents backsliding, while the other type represents forward movement. Let’s begin with the first and less desirable type.

Remember, distrust does NOT feel good despite which type you are experiencing.

The first type we call REACTIVE DISTRUST. Think of this type of distrust as a red light, a no-go experience. This kind of distrust is best described as feelings, actions or behaviors that are all too familiar. It feels and looks like the old relationship. You know – the one where secrecy gained a foothold which led to infidelity. These actions or exchanges represent “more of the same.” And, as we say, more of the same will only get you more of the same.

Examples may include: hiding money or keeping purchases secret; blocking or hiding screens from the view of the other person; time and whereabouts unaccounted for; and finally gaslighting behaviors that distract and distort reality.  In our experience, the betrayed partner is astute in recognizing these patterns and is quick to react and say some version of, “No way! Absolutely not!”  This type of “red light” reaction draws a clear boundary suggesting that the old patterns are not welcome in the space of the new relationship.

Reactive distrust helps you recognize relational backsliding.  As mentioned, unfaithful partners, being driven by guilt, shame, and fear, would love nothing more than to just “go back to the way things were.” On the other hand, the injured spouse, being driven by intense pain and suffering, often recognizes these behaviors as soon as they are out of the gate. We often say that this type of distrust is couched in CERTAINTY. These behaviors are dangerous to the injured partner, that is why the betrayed partner is “certain” they do NOT want to go back!  Thus, when s/he responds to this type of distrust, one can often hear or feel the certainty emanating from the betrayed party – “HELL NO!”

’More of the same’ only gets you more of the same; whereas ‘different’ gets you something different.

The second type of distrust is CAUTIONARY DISTRUST. This is the yellow light type of distrust. This type is different from reactive distrust although they both feel unsettling, which makes sense because cautionary distrust is still a form of NOT trusting. This type of distrust is more about confusion and the fear of uncertainty. This often sounds like “What was that?” and “Is this real?” This can look like healthy communication, openness, transparency, and integrity, which sometimes feels too good to be true to injured partners. This leads injured partners to question if they can even believe what they see, much less what they hear and feel. One of the most confusing behaviors is when the injured partner experiences the unfaithful partner beginning to love and forgive self. Why would this be alarming to the injured spouse? Because in most cases, s/he has never seen it before – it’s different!

We don’t know if it’s a ‘good different’ or a ‘bad different,’ but ‘different’ is what we are going for.

While these examples are acknowledging a deficit of trust, they reflect an effort in moving the couple forward as they work to rebuild their new relationship together. The lack of trust is part of the growing pains of healing.  Reactive distrust, cemented in certainty, informs the couple that this path is sure to bring them more heartache and disruption.  Cautionary distrust, on the other hand, recognizes a new relationship on the horizon. And although they don’t quite trust it yet (i.e., uncertainty), the couple is hopeful that they can learn a new dance together.   As couples therapists working in the area of betrayal trauma recovery, we are eager to build upon these new experiences as our goal is to promote change. Thus, we expect our couples to proceed with caution.

We hope that these ideas spark reflection for any reader struggling to heal after a betrayal.  Recovery is a painful and expansive process that often leaves one unsure of how their emotions are helping them.  In this case, a lack of trust is a very appropriate and natural reaction to the wound of betrayal.   Our goal is to help couples be intentional with their transitional distrust so they can grow and build their new relationship.

Reactive DistrustCautionary Distrust
A.K.A., The Red LightA.K.A., The Yellow Light
Embedded in: CertaintyEmbedded in: Uncertainty
Feels familiar; looks familiarFeels familiar,  looks different
Reflects: More of the sameReflects: Different
Example: “HELL NO!”Example: “What the HELL?”

If you find yourself in throes of betrayal trauma, don’t hesitate to contact us or search for a betrayal trauma therapist in your area.

~Carrie Kyger and Joshua Nichols~
Licensed Marital & Family Therapists
Certified Sex Addictions Therapists

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