PTSD Causes What Is Betrayal Trauma? By Sanjana Gupta Sanjana Gupta Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. Learn about our editorial process Updated on May 18, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Yolanda Renteria, LPC Medically reviewed by Yolanda Renteria, LPC Yolanda Renteria, LPC, is a licensed therapist, somatic practitioner, national certified counselor, adjunct faculty professor, speaker specializing in the treatment of trauma and intergenerational trauma. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print FG Trade / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Is Betrayal Trauma? Betrayal Trauma Theory Impact and Symptoms Causes Coping What Is Betrayal Trauma? Betrayal trauma describes the emotional impact a person experiences after their trust or well-being is violated, either by people or institutions that are significant in their life. “This type of trauma usually relates to primary attachment figures like a parent, caregiver, or other important relationship from childhood. In adulthood, it tends to repeat among romantic partners,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University. This article explores the causes, symptoms, and impact of betrayal trauma, as well as some coping mechanisms that may be helpful. Press Play for Advice On Healing From Trauma Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger & daughter Dr. Marianne Engle shares how to heal from trauma and build resilience. Click below to listen now. Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts Origin of the Betrayal Trauma Theory The betrayal trauma theory was proposed in 1991 by Jennifer Freyd, PhD, an American psychology researcher, author, and educator. According to the theory, someone may experience betrayal trauma when: They are terrified, sometimes for their physical safety or their life. They are betrayed by someone who they depend on for survival, such as a parent or caregiver, whom they rely on food, shelter, and other basic needs. The theory lists experiences like physical, sexual, or sadistic abuse in childhood by a caregiver as examples of traumatic betrayals. The betrayal can cause children to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly if the incident caused a lot of fear. The theory notes that the child may be more likely to block the abuse or betrayal from their mind and develop dissociative amnesia if they are dependent on the caregiver for their daily needs and survival. The child's brain essentially ignores the betrayal in order to maintain their relationship with their caregiver and survive. Otherwise, if the child processed the betrayal normally, they may start to avoid the caregiver and stop interacting with them which could threaten their survival. Impact and Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma Below, Dr. Romanoff explains the impact of betrayal trauma and the symptoms a person may experience as a result. Impact of Betrayal Trauma What makes betrayal trauma so painful is that the person who is betrayed often cannot simply sever their relationship with the perpetrator. In the instance of a parent or caregiver who is abusive or acts in a way that betrays a child’s trust, the child remains reliant on them even though the parent is no longer dependable or safe. This creates a complex relationship with primary attachment figures who are simultaneously providing harm and support. These children may grow up to be adults who end up in relationships with partners who violate their needs in familiar ways. In order to reconcile the two opposites of people who provide harm and care, they tend to avoid processing damaging behavior, normalize unhealthy behaviors, fabricate fantasies to compensate for painful memories, or even blame themselves. At the core, people who have experienced betrayal trauma tend to dissociate from the trauma. In turn, they struggle with the consequences of extreme dissociation of their emotions, feelings, and reactions to the trauma. It's common for people to self-medicate with substances, food, relationships, sex, or other forms of distraction. Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma Betrayal trauma can have a severe impact on the person and cause them to experience symptoms or health conditions such as: PTSD Depression Anxiety Dissociation Difficulty concentrating Emotional dysregulation Trust and relationship issues Physical pain and gastrointestinal issues Substance abuse Eating disorders Childhood Abuse and Neglect Actually Change Brain Structure Causes of Betrayal Trauma Below, Dr. Romanoff explains some of the causes of betrayal trauma, in childhood and adulthood. Childhood Trauma Abuse experienced in childhood is one of the most common causes of betrayal trauma. It can include physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse. Trauma in Adulthood In adulthood, betrayal trauma is usually experienced in relationships with intimate partners, especially if a person has experienced trauma in the past. However, people may also experience betrayal trauma at the hands of others such as a close friend, colleague, or other person in their life. Someone can also experience institutional betrayal, which occurs when an institution that someone relies upon fails to prevent or appropriately respond to wrongdoings by individuals within the context of the institution (for instance, in cases of sexual assault at a workplace or school). Betrayal trauma in adulthood could look like: Physical, emotional, sexual, or verbal abuse Infidelity Revelations of financial problems or significant debt Ulterior motives or other secretive behaviors Why Does Abuse and Violence Occur? Coping With Betrayal Trauma If you have experienced betrayal trauma, Dr. Romanoff suggests some steps that can help you cope: Acknowledge the betrayal: The first step is acknowledging how you were betrayed and hurt. Be honest with yourself and consider the impact of the betrayal on the relationship and your life. Write your feelings in a journal: You may find relief through writing down your feelings in a journal. It can help you identify the emotions you’re experiencing and create space to reflect on them, instead of suppressing or avoiding them. Process your emotions: Confronting the trauma you experienced in the past can bring up a lot of emotions, including grief, fear, anger, regret, loss, and anxiety. It’s important to process these emotions so you can start healing. Seek support or treatment: It is also helpful to seek support by talking with a friend or therapist. People who have experienced betrayal trauma often feel like they can only rely on themselves and tend to isolate themselves when they are betrayed. Instead, it is important to do the opposite and reach out for support or treatment. Set boundaries: If the person who betrayed you is still in your life in some capacity, set firm boundaries in your relationship with them to protect your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Recognize patterns: If you have experienced betrayal trauma in the past, it’s important to recognize whether it’s affecting your relationships in the present. Understand that you deserve to have relationships that are mutually supportive and beneficial. What Is Trauma Therapy? A Word From Verywell Being abused or betrayed by someone you’re close to or someone you depend on can be devastating. It can affect all your subsequent relationships and take a toll on your mental and physical health. It’s important to address the betrayal you faced, process it, and take steps toward healing and self-care. 9 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. University of Oregon. The Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma. University of Oregon. What is a Betrayal Trauma? Science Direct. 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A model exploring the relationship between betrayal trauma and health: the roles of mental health, attachment, trust in healthcare systems, and nonadherence to treatment. Psychol Trauma. 2019;11(6):656-662. doi:10.1037/tra0000453 By Sanjana Gupta Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for PTSD Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.