What Is Betrayal Trauma?

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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.

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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

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 

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.

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.

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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.
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