Updated: Sep 23
Published June 8, 2023 | Written by Stephanie Underwood, BSW RSW
Betrayal trauma occurs when someone we rely on or feel close to violates our trust in a critical and often shocking manner.
Betrayal Trauma can come in many forms, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, infidelity, or a significant broken promise.
Betrayal trauma involves a unique rupture of trust and safety, often by someone whom the victim believed had their best interests at heart, someone with whom they had developed an attachment to.
The effects of betrayal trauma are far-reaching, affecting an individual's mental, emotional, and physical health. Betrayal trauma can lead to a complex array of psychological, emotional, and even physical symptoms.
At its core, this healing journey is about rediscovering trust and rebuilding it within the sanctuary of safe, nurturing relationships.
Betrayal trauma is a unique form of psychological trauma that can have significant long-term impacts. It happens when someone we trust or depend upon harms us in a deeply personal way. However, with understanding, support, and intentional healing practices, it's possible to move through and beyond this distressing experience.
Defining Betrayal Trauma
Betrayal trauma occurs when someone we rely on or feel close to violates our trust in a critical and often shocking manner. This violation can come in many forms, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, infidelity, or a significant broken promise. It is often associated with interpersonal relationships, particularly those involving dependence or power imbalance like parent-child, teacher-student, or employer-employee relationships, or even a toxic romantic relationship.
This concept was introduced by Jennifer Freyd in the mid-1990s within the framework of betrayal trauma theory. According to Freyd, the closer the relationship, the more traumatic the betrayal can be. The theory suggests that betrayal has such a severe impact on the victim that they might block or forget the incident to maintain a relationship with the betrayer, especially if their survival depends on it.
Examples of Betrayal Trauma
Some examples of betrayal trauma (but not limited to) can include the following:
Infidelity: A partner engaging in emotional or physical relationships outside of a committed relationship without the other partner's knowledge or consent.
Deception: Being lied to or misled by someone trusted, like a close friend hiding a significant secret or a business partner engaging in secret financial transactions.
Abuse by a Trusted Figure: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse by someone close, such as a family member, teacher, coach, or spiritual leader.
Breach of Confidentiality: A friend or professional (like a therapist or medical doctor) sharing personal, confidential information without consent.
Financial Betrayal: A trusted person, like a spouse or business partner, hiding debt, spending money irresponsibly, or stealing funds.
Emotional Manipulation: Gaslighting or other manipulative behaviours by someone close that lead to doubt in one's perceptions and experiences.
Parental Alienation: One parent undermining the child's relationship with the other parent.
Neglect by Caregivers: Caregivers, whether parents or medical professionals, failing to provide essential emotional or physical care.
Institutional Betrayal: Organizations or institutions that don’t protect their members from harm, such as a school ignoring bullying or a religious institution covering up misconduct.
Broken Promises: A close friend or family member repeatedly failing to follow through on commitments or promises.
Betrayal Trauma Versus Other Types of Trauma
While all types of trauma can be deeply unsettling, betrayal trauma involves a unique rupture of trust and safety, often by someone whom the victim believed had their best interests at heart, someone with whom they had developed an attachment to. This breach intensifies feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness, which can be more deeply internalized than traumas stemming from impersonal or random events. This violation of relational trust, combined with the unexpected nature of betrayal from someone close, can lead to heightened cognitive dissonance and emotional turmoil. Consequently, individuals who experience betrayal trauma may be more at risk of developing symptoms of PTSD. The very foundation of their relational safety is shaken, making it challenging for them to reconcile their traumatic experience, leading to the repetitive and intrusive thoughts commonly seen in PTSD.
How Betrayal Trauma Happens
Betrayal trauma can occur in various contexts but generally happens when someone violates the implicit or explicit trust in a relationship. It often comes as a surprise, leading to shock and disbelief. A spouse might discover their partner's infidelity, a child might experience abuse from a trusted adult, or an employee might face exploitation from a respected boss. Betrayal shatters the sense of safety and trust we thought we shared with the individual, leaving us questioning the foundation of the relationship and our own perceptions. The betrayal cuts deeper when it comes from a trusted individual who has an essential role in the victim's life. The victim may feel trapped, particularly in situations where there is a power imbalance, such as in familial relationships or workplaces, leading to a high level of distress and trauma.
Impacts of Betrayal Trauma
The effects of betrayal trauma are far-reaching, affecting an individual's mental, emotional, and physical health. Betrayal trauma can lead to a complex array of psychological, emotional, and even physical symptoms. Here are some potential symptoms and consequences someone with betrayal trauma might experience:
Emotional and Psychological Symptoms:
Intense emotional reactions such as anger, sadness, or disbelief.
Feelings of confusion or disorientation.
Anxiety, particularly in situations that remind the individual of the betrayal.
Depression or persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Feelings of guilt or self-blame.
Decreased self-worth or self-esteem.
A pervasive sense of mistrust or difficulty trusting others.
Isolation or withdrawal from social situations.
Intrusive thoughts or rumination about the betrayal event.
Sleep disturbances, including nightmares or insomnia.
Changes in appetite (either increased or decreased).
Physical manifestations of stress such as headaches, stomach problems, or muscle tension.
Fatigue or decreased energy levels.
Increased heart rate or palpitations in stressful situations.
Difficulty forming new relationships or maintaining current ones.
Fear of intimacy or avoidance of close connections.
Problems with setting or maintaining boundaries.
Hyper-vigilance or always being on guard in relationships.
Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
Memory problems, particularly related to the traumatic event.
Dissociation or feeling disconnected from oneself or surroundings.
Cognitive dissonance, or struggling to reconcile conflicting feelings and beliefs about the person who caused the betrayal.
Avoidance of situations, places, or people that are reminders of the trauma.
Engaging in self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-harm.
Overcompensating behaviours, such as being overly accommodating to avoid further betrayals.
Existential or Spiritual Distress:
Questioning one's purpose, beliefs, or values.
Feeling disconnected or distant from one's spiritual or religious beliefs.
It's important to note that betrayal trauma, like all forms of trauma, affects individuals differently. The severity and combination of symptoms can vary widely based on factors such as the individual's resilience, past traumas, support system, and the nature of the betrayal.
Impacts of Betrayal Trauma on Future Relationships
Betrayal trauma can have profound implications for a person's future romantic relationships. The violation of trust that characterizes such trauma can significantly impact how one perceives, approaches, and maintains relationships. Here are some specific ways betrayal trauma can influence future romantic relationships:
When the trust that forms the foundation of a close relationship is shattered, it can make it challenging for the betrayed person to trust again. This mistrust can spill over into future romantic relationships, making it difficult for the individual to believe in their partner's sincerity, fidelity, or intentions. The fear of experiencing a similar betrayal can create walls and barriers, potentially preventing authentic connection and intimacy.
Fear of Vulnerability
Being vulnerable is essential in a romantic relationship as it enables emotional intimacy. However, for those who have experienced betrayal trauma, opening up and being vulnerable can be associated with potential harm or betrayal. They might fear that showing their true selves or expressing their needs and emotions will make them susceptible to further hurt.
Betrayal trauma can lead to insecure attachment styles in future relationships. An individual may become anxiously attached, constantly fearing abandonment and seeking reassurance from their partner. Alternatively, they might become avoidantly attached, distancing themselves emotionally to avoid potential pain. Both styles can create tension and imbalance in romantic relationships.
The emotional pain and unresolved feelings from the betrayal can carry into new relationships, often in the form of emotional baggage. This can manifest as anger, resentment, jealousy, self-sabotaging behaviours, or a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness, all of which can be detrimental to the development of a healthy, positive relationship.
Healing from Betrayal Trauma
Healing from betrayal trauma is a profound journey that demands time, patience, and compassionate support. At its core, this healing journey is about rediscovering trust and rebuilding it within the sanctuary of safe, nurturing relationships. It's also about understanding one's emotions, setting boundaries, and embracing self-care to ensure holistic well-being.
Here are some steps one can take to begin the healing journey:
Seeking Professional Help: Psychologists, therapists, and counsellors trained in trauma can provide valuable tools and strategies to manage and recover from the effects of betrayal trauma. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and other trauma-focused therapies can be effective. It is crucial to seek professional support after experiencing betrayal trauma in order to minimize the risks of developing symptoms of PTSD.
Self-Care/Focusing on Basic Needs: Ensuring proper rest, nutrition, and physical activity can help manage the physical symptoms of trauma and enhance overall well-being. Mindfulness practices, like meditation and yoga, can also help regulate stress and emotions.
Support Systems: Connecting with supportive and understanding individuals can provide emotional comfort and validation. Support groups, either in person or online, can offer a space to share experiences and learn from others who have experienced similar trauma.
In conclusion, betrayal trauma is a significant psychological injury that occurs when trust is violated in a critical and shocking manner by a close or trusted individual. The impacts of this trauma are far-reaching and deep, influencing the mental, emotional, and physical health of the person who experiences the betrayal. It can also affect the individual's future relationships, particularly romantic ones, making it challenging to trust, be vulnerable, and form secure attachments. However, despite the challenges, healing from betrayal trauma is indeed possible. With the support of trained mental health professionals, the practice of self-care and mindfulness, and the connection with supportive individuals or groups, individuals can work through their trauma, regain their sense of self-worth, and eventually reestablish trust in others. It's a journey that requires time, patience, and a good deal of courage, but recovery and the potential for healthier, stronger relationships in the future are very much within reach.