- What is betrayal trauma
- Betrayal trauma theory
- Betrayal vs. non-betrayal trauma
What is betrayal trauma
Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being.
Abuse in childhood is one of the most common causes of familial betrayal trauma. It can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse.
In childhood betrayal traumas, a child’s trust is deeply violated, often by those they depend on for survival and well-being, such as parents or caregivers.
The trauma of betrayal in children is particularly insidious because it involves a violation of trust when the child develops their understanding of the world and their place in it.
This violation creates a significant conflict for the child.
On the one hand, they face the harsh reality of betrayal; on the other, they have an inherent need to maintain a relationship with the betrayer due to their dependence on them.
The complexity of this situation is further amplified because the child, despite the betrayal, must continue to behave in ways that foster attachment to their caregiver, as withdrawing from the caregiver could pose further threats to their life, both physically and mentally.1
Betrayal trauma theory
Betrayal Trauma Theory is a psychological framework developed by Jennifer J. Freyd in the 1990s. It suggests that there is a social utility in remaining unaware of abuse when the perpetrator is what the victim depends on.2
The essence of betrayal trauma lies in the necessity of survival hinging on the relationship with the abuser.
A victim – child or adult – who is fully aware of such abuse is more likely to withdraw or confront the perpetrator, endangering a relationship vital to their survival. As a result, they may subconsciously opt not to perceive or recall such an event as traumatic to avoid intense mental conflict.
In the context of children specifically, this theory suggests an adaptive response mechanism that safeguards their well-being.
Those who suffer abuse during childhood often do not process or remember these adverse childhood experiences as traumatic or remember them at all because acknowledging this harm would risk their survival – given their dependency on these very caregivers.
Consequently, there might be a subconscious or unconscious effort to block out, downplay or isolate information about the abuse from the parts of their brain that control attachment and social behavior. The result is memory impairment and dissociative experiences.
This mental adaptation also has implications that extend into later life. It helps explain why some individuals may neither recollect traumatic instances nor comprehend the degree of their trauma until much later in life.
This theory also provides a framework for understanding the complex dynamics of trust, dependence, and betrayal by romantic partners in abusive relationships.
Betrayal vs. non-betrayal trauma
Betrayal trauma occurs when someone a person relies on, or trusts significantly violates that trust. This psychological trauma is often associated with sexual assault, the discovery of infidelity, adult abusive relationships3, or child abuse by caregivers or family members.
Non-betrayal trauma refers to traumatic events not characterized by a violation of trust within a close relationship. These events can include natural disasters (like hurricanes or earthquakes), accidents (such as car crashes), health crises (like severe illness), or violent crimes perpetrated by strangers.
Both betrayal and non-betrayal traumas can lead to similar conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.
However, life-threatening non-betrayal experiences are linked to symptoms such as anxiety, constantly feeling on edge, and intrusive memories, while betrayal trauma is linked to symptoms related to the nature of the relationship between the perpetrators and the victims, such as dissociation, emotional numbness, and abusive relationships in adulthood.4
Betrayal trauma symptoms
Betrayal trauma shares many of the same symptoms with non-betrayal traumas. It is associated with the following PTSD symptom clusters.5
- Intrusive thoughts
- Emotional distress triggered by cues
- Physical symptoms and reactivity triggered by cues
- Social withdrawal
- Places avoidance
- Conversation avoidance
- People avoidance
- Thoughts, memories, or feelings avoidance
Cognition or mood change
- Forgetting or misremembering traumatic experience
- Decreased interest in activities
- Feelings of detachment or isolation from others
- Difficulty feeling positive emotions
- Irritability or aggression
- Self-injurious behavior
- Reckless behavior
- Easily startled
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disturbance
Effects of betrayal trauma
Borderline personality disorder
Besides PTSD symptoms, betrayal trauma is also associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD).
The closer the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, the higher the level of betrayal. This increases the likelihood of the victim developing BPD.6
Trauma caused by primary attachment figures disrupts the fundamental relationship between a child and their caregiver. It could lead to disorganized attachment, which is an insecure attachment style.
Insecure attachment is linked to a range of negative psychological and physical outcomes, such as depression and anxiety.7
Because betrayal trauma survivors’ adaptive mechanisms compromise their awareness of betrayal, they may have difficulty detecting risks in the social environment, including breaches of social contracts.
This difficulty in detecting risk may contribute to revictimization in adult relationships, including intimate relationships.8
As a result of PTSD, some trauma victims turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate, which can lead to substance abuse or alcohol addiction.
Having difficulty recognizing and responding to risks to oneself can contribute to the development of substance use.9
Not being able to trust others is another negative impact of betrayal trauma. These survivors may be suspicious of people’s intentions or overly cautious in relationships, fearing future betrayals. They tend to have poorer interpersonal relationships.10
Health and medical care
As a result of trauma, survivors can experience a loss of trust in interpersonal relationships, including distrust in healthcare providers. As a result, they may be less likely to adhere to medical treatment, which can further affect their physical health.
Intergenerational transmission of trauma-related distress
Children of mothers with a history of childhood betrayal trauma are more likely to experience interpersonal trauma and develop PTSD symptoms.
Research suggests that a reduction in maternal vigilance towards interpersonal threats contributes to the recurrence of victimization in mothers, thereby causing generational transmission of trauma to their children.11
Betrayal trauma recovery
Acknowledge the source of the problem
The proper treatment of betrayal trauma includes multiple steps, starting with recognizing the problem.
Survivors of betrayal trauma often bear an intense burden of shame and self-blame. However, the issue of relational trauma lies not within the person who has suffered but in the harmful nature of the act itself.
You are not the source of the problem, and you should not blame yourself.
The first step in healing from betrayal trauma is to recognize where the problem originates and seek assistance for recovery without casting guilt upon yourself.12
Betrayal trauma is a type of relational trauma. It creates a rupture in a significant relationship that an individual depends on for their emotional, physical, or spiritual well-being, resulting in attachment trauma.
Addressing the experience of relational rupture is an important part of betrayal trauma healing.
Relational scars can be mended by healing human bonds. Reach out and connect with trusted friends and family for social support.13
However, relationships have the power to heal and hurt.
Even the most well-meaning individuals who haven’t experienced similar childhood adversity may struggle to comprehend your situation or offer helpful advice. They might unintentionally end up saying things that exacerbate the pain rather than alleviate it.
So, carefully consider whom you reveal your struggles.
But even if someone doesn’t fully understand your experience, there are other ways to connect with them.
Shared hobbies or interests can present opportunities for forging meaningful connections.
Mental health professionals
Building healthy relationships is a significant step in healing emotional or psychological damage. This healing process often necessitates the guidance of an experienced mental health professional.
Unlike friends or acquaintances, who, despite their best intentions, might inadvertently say things that could be hurtful, mental health professionals are trained to listen empathetically and implement treatment approaches catered specifically to your needs. They can help you identify patterns, provide tools for managing intense emotions, and assist in setting realistic goals for recovery.
If financial constraints are a concern, consider exploring options such as free therapy, sliding-scale clinics, or subsidized counseling services.
Finding the right therapist may take some time and involve trial sessions with different practitioners until you find someone whose style resonates with you.
Don’t get discouraged if the first few attempts don’t yield the expected results; it’s part of the process.
Don’t isolate yourself
Some trauma survivors may isolate themselves or withdraw from social activities. But making social connections with others can help the recovery process.
Being immersed in positive experiences and interactions can help remodel the neural pathways in your brain. New experiences in life allow our brains to reorganize themselves and form new neural connections.
A support system is also invaluable, as engaging with others reinforces feelings of belonging.
Even if these people might not fully comprehend or help you process your emotional pain – a task best entrusted to a professional therapist – they can provide warmth, empathy, understanding, and companionship.
Also, consider joining a support group specifically designed for victims of childhood trauma.
Such groups offer an open forum for sharing experiences and coping strategies while providing mutual support under the guidance of trained professionals.
The sense of community these groups foster goes a long way in reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Participating in such groups allows you to connect with others who have had similar experiences. It validates your struggles by showing that you are not alone, an essential aspect of healing.
Get help for maladaptive behavior
If you are currently involved in an abusive romantic relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
For help with addiction, call SAMHSA’s National Helpful at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
For help with suicidal thoughts or self-harm behaviors, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 today.
Some survivors find themselves ensnared in a vicious cycle, reenacting harmful and destructive patterns they were exposed to early in life.
For example, they may inadvertently mirror the dynamics of domestic violence in their primary relationships. This troubling repetition can manifest itself in various ways: they might become victims mirroring the suffering they once endured or evolve into perpetrators, unwittingly echoing the abusive behavior they witnessed or experienced.
The good news is that these destructive cycles can be identified, interrupted, and altered with the help of an experienced therapist.
Once these behaviors are identified, replacing them with healthier behaviors and safe relationships becomes possible.
Breaking free from this cycle isn’t an overnight process; it requires patience, effort, and sometimes even painful self-reflection. But it’s achievable.
Growing up with deep wounds can often shape how you see yourself; more often than not, it’s not in a positive light.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
By integrating self-care and self-compassion into your everyday life, you can flip the script on that negative self-image.
Self-care isn’t always about fancy stuff like spa days or massages. Instead, it’s about finding activities that help bring out the best in you—physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Going to the gym, meditating, listening to music, having a balanced diet, and curling up with a comic book can be self-caring activities that help you relax or gives you satisfaction.
Make self-care part of your daily routine.
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- 3.Smith CP, Freyd JJ. Institutional betrayal. American Psychologist. Published online 2014:575-587. doi:10.1037/a0037564
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