Betrayal Trauma

Estimated reading time: 23 minute(s)

Betrayal trauma is a prevalent yet highly underdiagnosed mental health issue in today’s society. The condition describes the emotional effects a person may experience following the violation of their trust, either by institutions or people that hold due importance in their lives. For most people, betrayal trauma comes from a primary attachment figure, which can be a caregiver, parent, or other guardians. In adulthood, romantic partners seem to be the biggest betrayal trauma triggers.

The only way to find out if you have been a victim of this condition is by understanding what is betrayal trauma, how it manifests, and what causes it. Fortunately, the condition remains treatable with a very high chance of recovery.

The Origin of Betrayal Trauma: How the Theory Came into Being?

An American psychologist who first coined the concept of betrayal trauma called, Jennifer Freyd in 1991. According to the initial theory, people may develop this time of trauma in the following situations:

  • When they are terrified for their physical safety or even life
  • When someone who they depend on for survival betrays them, such as a caregiver or parent who provides them with shelter and food while tending to their basic needs

The betrayal trauma theory also considers experiences, such as sadistic, sexual, or physical abuse in childhood by a parent or caregiver, as triggers of betrayal trauma. Such betrayals can force many children to acquire posttraumatic stress disorder, especially if the incident has provoked a lot of fear in their minds. Such children may attempt to block the abuse or betrayal from their minds and may even acquire dissociative amnesia, especially if they depend on their abuser for daily needs. Their minds start ignoring the betrayal to maintain healthy relationships for survival. If this does not happen, the victimized children may start ignoring their caregivers and drop all interactions, ending their survival.

Effects of Betrayal on the Brain and Body

When a caregiver or parent acts in a way that breaks a child’s trust, the child may remain reliant on them even though their caregiver may no longer feel safe, reliable, or dependable. This leads to the development of a complicated relationship with primary attachment figures who are providing support and harm simultaneously. When such children grow up, they may get into relationships with people who violate their needs in familiar ways.

To reconcile with such people who constantly provide them with care and harm, they ignore processing their damaging behavior while normalizing unhealthy behaviors. Moreover, they may make up fantasies to compensate for painful memories. Some of them may even start blaming themselves for what is happening to them.

At the bottom, individuals experiencing betrayal trauma attempt to dissociate themselves from the ongoing trauma. As a result, they keep facing the consequences of this dissociation of their reactions, feelings, and emotions. It is very common for people to turn to substances, sex, food, relationships, or other things to use them as a distraction.

Common Betrayal Trauma Symptoms

The following are the common mental and physical symptoms of betrayal trauma:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Poor concentration
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Dissociation
  • Eating disorders
  • Physical pain
  • Issues with trust and relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Gastrointestinal issues

What Causes Betrayal Trauma?

Following are some primary causes of betrayal trauma, both in adulthood and childhood:

Childhood Trauma

Abuse experienced as a child is one of the primary betrayal trauma triggers. This abuse can be sexual, verbal, emotional, or physical.

Adulthood Trauma

As adults, people usually experience betrayal trauma as a part of their personal relationships with intimate partners. People who have experienced trauma in the past are more vulnerable to betrayal trauma, typically at the hands of close friends, partners, colleagues, or other important people in their life.

People can also develop institutional betrayal when an institution fails to prevent or respond to wrongdoings of others, such as sexual assault at school or office. In adulthood, betrayal trauma can take the following forms:

  • Infidelity
  • Secretive behavior
  • Revealing financial difficulties, such as a huge debt
  • Physical or sexual abuse

How to Get Over Betrayal Trauma

People who have experienced betrayal trauma can use the following tips to overcome it:

Acknowledge the issue

The first step to overcoming betrayal trauma is acknowledging how you were hurt and betrayed. Be completely honest with yourself and find out how this has impacted your life and relationships.

Journal your feelings

Many people find that writing down their emotions and feelings regarding the betrayal trauma can help them find relief. Journaling can also help them better identify their feelings and give them a space to reflect on them properly instead of suppressing them all the time.

Process the emotions

Confront the traumatic feelings you experienced in the past and their associated emotions, such as fear, anger, grief, loss, anxiety, and regret.

Seek support and treatment

Ask your loved ones for support to get through difficult times. This may be difficult as many people hesitate to share their feelings. However, talking to others about your emotions can ease your burden and give you peace of mind. If no loved one is available to support you, consider joining professional treatment or look for local support groups.

Set healthy boundaries

If the person who has betrayed you is still a part of your life in any capacity, establish firm boundaries in your relationship with them so that you do not experience trauma coming from them once again

Recognize patterns

Evaluate if the trauma you experienced in the past is affecting your current relationships. Understand that you only deserve mutually beneficial relationships that give you happiness and confidence.

Recovery From Betrayal Trauma: How Therapy Can Help

It can be difficult to confront and manage trauma on your own, and seeking professional support can make a huge difference in terms of healing and recovery. In therapy, victims can acknowledge and work through their traumatic issues before they enforce lingering distress in their lives.

Therapists who provide professional help are specially trained to work delicately and gently with survivors of neglect and abuse and can support them in unpacking the long-lasting impacts of their childhood trauma. For instance, these therapists can help patients with attachment issues identify the reasons causing them and explore strategies to use for building stronger relationships. The choice of therapy may depend on individual issues and the type of underlying betrayal trauma. For instance, most mental health professionals also recommend undertaking a type of couples therapy for people trying to heal from betrayal trauma secondary to infidelity.

All in all, working with a therapist can help patients: 

  • Work on re-establishing healthy self-esteem
  • Examine the feelings of self-blame
  • Learn healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions


What puts a person at risk of experiencing betrayal trauma?

You are more likely to experience betrayal trauma when someone you rely on for help and support breaks your trust. This can happen due to the following issues:

  • Manipulation
  • Neglect
  • Infidelity
  • Physical, verbal, and emotional abuse
  • Dishonesty
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder

What are the different types of betrayal trauma?

Betrayal trauma can be of different types, such as the following:

  • Parental trauma is when a caretaker or parent abuses you or fails to save you from harm.
  • Intimate partner trauma is when your partner or spouse begins to betray you, such as by having a physical or emotional affair.
  • Institutional trauma is when an institution affects you in a way that is directly opposite to how they generally portray themselves.
  • Interpersonal trauma is when a trusted individual, peer, or friend breaks your trust.

What questions should I ask my therapist before beginning therapy for betrayal trauma?

A good therapist always welcomes queries and questions from a patient’s end comfortably and even encourages it for better outcomes. Following are some questions to ask a therapist to ensure that you make the right recovery choice.

  • What is your fee structure?
  • What are your credentials, and do you hold a license?
  • Do you accept insurance?
  • How do you approach people to overcome betrayal trauma?
  • Do you have experience working with people with betrayal trauma
  • How do the sessions work for you?
  • How do you make treatment plans? What will be your approach in my case?
  • How long should I expect to work with you?

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