What is Betrayal Trauma?

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or overwhelming experience that is commonly followed by emotional and physical shock. If left unresolved or untreated, traumatic experiences can lead to short and long-term challenges.

Examples of traumatic events include:

  • sudden death of a loved one
  • physical or sexual assault
  • witnessing violence

  • natural disasters
  • car accidents
  • military combat

In contrast, betrayal trauma occurs when someone we depend on for survival, or are significantly attached to, violates our trust in a critical way. 

Examples of betrayal trauma include:

  • contracting an STD from a supposedly faithful partner
  • discovering evidence of a spouse’s sex addiction

  • sexual or physical abuse by a parent
  • financial deceitfulness in marriage

Although betrayal trauma shares many of the same psychological, physiological and neurological symptoms associated with fear-based traumas, it is distinct in two important ways:

The perpetrator is in close relationship with the victim:

Perpetrators of betrayal traumas are in close relationship with the victim, and therefore the violation of trust is experienced as a deeply personalized (versus random) offense.

 

Due to the personalized nature of the betrayal, betrayal trauma can be more destabilizing to one’s social schema than a strictly fear-based trauma. Research has also shown betrayal trauma to be associated with more physical illness, anxiety, dissociation and depression than traumas low in betrayal.[1]

 

For example, a serious car accident may be intensely frightening or even life-threatening, but it would be unusual for a car accident to cause someone to question the legitimacy of a primary relationship. Betrayal trauma, on the other hand, jeopardizes the safety of the very relationship one would normally turn to for comfort when distressed, thereby causing extraordinary vulnerability at a time of great need.

[1] Jennifer J. Freyd, Bridget Klest & Carolyn B. Allard (2005) Betrayal Trauma: Relationship to Physical Health, Psychological Distress, and a Written Disclosure Intervention, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 6:3, 83-104, DOI: 10.1300/J229v06n03_04

High risk of reoccurrence:

Due to the close and interconnected relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, it can be can be difficult to confront or sever ties with the perpetrator. As a result, victims may feel trapped and remain in the relationship out of necessity, thereby making the risk of future reoccurrence of betrayal trauma higher than with random or accidental traumas.

 

A person who is physically assaulted by a stranger, for instance, is unlikely to encounter the same aggressor a second time. A betrayed spouse, on the other hand, typically shares a life, home, children, extended family, and finances with the perpetrator. These life ties make extrication infinitely more complex and prolonged — even if the victim chooses to divorce the perpetrator.

 

Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma

  • Anxiety
  • Hypervigilance
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Withdrawal & isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty regulating intense emotions

  • Avoidance
  • Flashbacks
  • Negative thoughts
  • Numbness & detachment
  • Sleep & appetite disturbances
  • Somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, tremors)

Betrayal trauma is a deeply shattering experience. Many symptoms arise immediately after a betrayal trauma, while other symptoms have a delayed onset. For example, depression, grief reactions, skepticism, shame, and engagement in high-risk behavior are common delayed reactions to betrayal trauma.  Delayed reactions may start months, and sometimes years, after the initial discovery of a betrayal.

 

A growing number of resources, supports and treatments are available to assist individuals in finding emotional and physical resolution of trauma-related symptoms and to facilitate post-traumatic growth.

Healing from betrayal trauma is possible.