August 15, 2023

Betrayal Trauma: Complex, Longterm Deceit

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Trauma & PTSD

Betrayal trauma refers to a kind of trauma that occurs relationally. When someone (or something) disregards or disrespects your trust, that can cause betrayal trauma. This type of trauma can be hard to define and also challenging to recover from. However, it can leave a profound impact on someone’s self-esteem and sense of safety in relationships. 

Understanding Betrayal Trauma Theory 

The psychologist Jennifer Freyd coined the concept of betrayal trauma in the early 1990s, citing it as a particular trauma that happens in interpersonal relationships where the betrayed victim still needs to have a relationship with the betrayer (1). For example, a child who is betrayed by their parent still needs to rely on them for basic survival. They can’t just leave the traumatic situation- they have to remain in it and risk facing more trauma as a result. 

However, betrayal trauma theory also suggests that, instead of recognizing the trauma for what it is, people experiencing betrayal trauma tend to be unaware or “blind” to what’s happening. This is a coping mechanism. The victim must avoid or discard the problem to function in everyday life. Sometimes, it takes being removed from the situation to fully absorb the magnitude of the abuse. 

Many people dissociate from their trauma as a way of reconciling it. Sometimes, they also develop addictions or other compulsive behaviors- this provides an “escape,” even though it also creates further complications. 

Signs and Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma 

Betrayal trauma can affect people in varying forms. Symptoms may be compounded in cases of complex trauma. It’s not uncommon for someone to truly recognize the impact of their trauma many months or years after leaving the problematic situation. However, many people also start recognizing the signs of abuse while they’re in the middle of it. 

Some of the more common betrayal trauma symptoms include:

  • Increased anxiety and hypervigilance 
  • Feeling persistently sad or apathetic
  • Experiencing unexplained aches, pains, or body tension
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep problems (insomnia, hypersomnia, nightmares, lack of restful sleep)
  • Dissociation (feeling detached from yourself)
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Increase desire to escape or numb via substance use or other compulsive vices

Types of Betrayal Traumas 

Betrayal trauma can range in severity, length, and type. However, while these traumas are unique, they do share some common characteristics. 

Parental/Caregiver Trauma 

Children rely on their parents or caregivers as their primary attachment figures. These individuals are responsible for maintaining a sense of safety and stability within the home. It’s believed that home is where attachment is formed- a child who grows up in a nurturing and reliable home is more likely to develop a secure attachment type.

Parental/caregiver trauma can come in many forms, but it might look like:

  • Physical abuse (hitting, pushing, using physical force against the child)
  • Making threats or claims to hurt the child
  • Emotional neglect (failing to provide consistent love or warmth)
  • Financial neglect (failing to provide basic essentials like food, shelter, or water)
  • Having a parent with a severe mental illness or drug addiction
  • Constant instability within the family home
  • Sexual abuse or exploitation 

Intimate Partner Trauma 

Betrayal can occur in romantic relationships, and it can be confusing and devastating for loved ones to endure. Sometimes it happens gradually, but other times, it occurs suddenly and without warning. Some of the common types of intimate partner trauma include (2):

  • Physical abuse
  • Making threats or claiming to hurt or “ruin” the partner
  • Sexual violence or coercion
  • Stalking behaviors
  • Name-calling, criticism, or humiliation
  • Isolating behaviors
  • Controlling large aspects of someone’s life (i.e. their money or friend group)

Interpersonal Trauma 

Interpersonal trauma refers to traumas that can occur between groups of people, such as between friends, coworkers or bosses, neighbors, or other family members. This type of trauma can range from being more covert and insidious to downright blatant. 

In all cases, there’s a sense of trust that’s eroded. This can lead someone to feel increasingly vulnerable and hesitant to trust others in the future.

Institutional Trauma 

People can experience trauma from institutions, where their actions directly clash with their mission or outward presentation (3). Institutional trauma refers to a specific institution failing to prevent or react appropriately to its own wrongdoings. 

For example, someone might trust a doctor who then causes medical negligence. Or, they might trust that their child is safe at a school, only to find out that the school continues to enable their child to be bullied. There’s also the effect of betrayal trauma within cults and rigid religious groups. 

Betrayal Trauma and PTSD 

Betrayal trauma can cause someone to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition characterized by both emotional and physical symptoms that persist for several months or years. Not all trauma causes PTSD, but it’s certainly a risk factor to consider.

The main symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Increased agitation and irritability
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Isolation from others
  • Flashbacks to the past
  • Intense anxiety and/or mistrust
  • Anhedonia (loss of pleasure and interest in daily activities)
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares

Research shows that about 8% of women and 4% of men develop PTSD at some point in their lives. However, research also shows that most people who have PTSD can recover with treatment (4).  

Recovering From Betrayal Trauma 

If you have experienced betrayal trauma, it’s normal to feel confused, upset, or lonely. You might be overly distrustful toward others because you don’t want history to repeat itself. Or, you might recognize that you’re too trusting of others because you deeply want connection and safety. Trauma healing can be difficult, but it is possible to overcome your symptoms and live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. 

Name and Talk About What Happened 

Many survivors find that it’s important that they’re able to openly share what happened to them. Trauma often evokes such intense shame- people feel like they’re broken because of their experiences. Talking about it in a supportive and nurturing environment (like with a trusted friend, therapist, or within a support group) can dismantle some of that shame.

Acknowledge Your Emotions

Although it may be painful and might even seem foreign, it’s important to let yourself feel without judgment. Your emotions are your truth, but if you shame yourself for having them, you keep yourself in a self-loathing cycle of shame, self-doubt, and low self-esteem. The more you can embrace your feelings, the more you can come to terms with truly honoring yourself.

Focus on Building Your Self-Esteem 

Trauma can destroy someone’s self-esteem and leave them feeling incompetent, unlovable, and worthless. It’s important that you prioritize taking care of yourself. This can look like practicing more self-care, making time for hobbies and passions that feel meaningful to you, and being gentle with yourself. When you learn to truly love yourself, life may not seem as bleak.

Identify (And Work Through) Your Triggers

People with histories of trauma experience certain triggers that remind them of the abuse they endured. These triggers can be as obvious as someone screaming (which might remind them of their angry household growing up). But they can also be more discreet, such as a certain smell or type of clothing. Knowing your triggers is the first step to working through them. It’s important to develop a list of working coping skills you can use when you feel dysregulated.

Practice More Mindfulness 

Trauma can make it hard to stay in the present moment. This is often due to the heightened anxiety and panic people experience. Mindfulness can help. You can consider embracing meditation on a more regular basis. Or you can simply get in the habit of taking deep breaths throughout the day and trying to remind yourself of your gratitude. 

Set New Boundaries 

If you’re involved with someone causing or reinforcing betrayal trauma, it may be time to reestablish your limits with them. In some cases, this may mean going no-contact within the relationship. This allows you to move on without potentially feeling trapped in the abuse with them.

Other times, going no-contact may be unavoidable or not feasible based on where you’re at in life. But you can still focus on setting boundaries that protect your integrity and emotional well-being. It may be as simple as telling yourself that you won’t interact with the other person alone or that you won’t talk about certain topics with them.

Try Opposite Actions

The concept of opposite actions comes from DBT, and it entails doing the opposite of what your instincts or emotions tell you to do. For example, if you usually isolate yourself when you feel depressed, you would choose to reach out to a loved one. Or, if you tend to power through your to-do list when you feel overwhelmed, an opposite action might be to give yourself a few moments to regroup and reconnect with yourself. 

Seek Trauma Therapy

Betrayal trauma can affect every part of your functioning. If you don’t heal or recover from what happened to you, you risk reenacting its impact in your current life. Furthermore, you may continue to struggle with unwanted trauma symptoms. 

Trauma therapy can help you build a deeper sense of trust and safety and process the past productively. Look for a provider who has a deep understanding and expertise in complex trauma or betrayal trauma. Keep in mind that it may take time for you to truly open up and feel comfortable talking about your past. 

Focus on Prioritizing Healthy Relationships 

Betrayal trauma can certainly distort how safe you feel with other people. Relationships can be messy, and people can hurt one another. But in healthy relationships, there’s a sense of authenticity. You feel like you’re embraced for who you are. You also feel safe sharing your needs and feelings. Prioritize finding and nurturing these kinds of relationships. It may take time, but there are supportive people who can respect you wholeheartedly.

Be Patient With Your Process

Trauma recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s normal to experience setbacks throughout your journey. The key is to be self-compassionate with yourself. You will make mistakes along the way, but it’s important to learn from them and try to reflect on how you can do things differently moving forward. 

Final Thoughts 

Betrayal trauma can be incredibly painful to endure, and it also isn’t easy to name. You may feel like you’re overreacting to what happened to you, and you might be worried that others won’t truly validate your experience. Betrayal trauma is very real and valid. If you’re struggling, it’s important to attune to your emotions and take care of yourself. Reaching out for professional support can also help you if you feel stuck. 


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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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