Betrayal Trauma: A Painful and All Too Frequent Experience

Have you ever offered your trust to someone only to have them completely annihilate it? It can happen with family, friends, and even partners. These experiences can cause psychological trauma. Here are some guidelines.
Betrayal Trauma: A Painful and All Too Frequent Experience
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 05 May, 2023

When a heart breaks due to betrayal, it makes no sound. However, for the sufferer, their whole world breaks into a thousand pieces and the cost of putting it back together is beyond measure. This is because the psychological impact of betrayal configures one of the most traumatic experiences for the human being. Therefore, we mustn’t underestimate these kinds of situations.

But, surprisingly, we’re often urged to turn the page and move on from these kinds of experiences. We’re told not to give too much importance to that snub by a friend, unpleasant action by a sibling, or an unexpected hurtful act by a colleague. Not to mention relationship betrayals? They’re often devastating events that leave constant echoes within us.

In fact, the wound of a betrayal is like a scar on the brain and an attack against the basic principles of survival. We need to build social ties to feel safe. When these fail, many of our mental and emotional foundations collapse. Healing them is a must.

In the face of betrayal trauma, it’s important not to blame ourselves.

Sad Man Due to Betrayal Trauma
There are many adults who still suffer betrayal trauma that originated with their attachment figures in childhood.

Betrayal trauma

Betrayal trauma defines the psycho-emotional experience suffered after the bonds of trust are broken or violated. This experience can be caused by one or several individuals and even some institutions. The concept was coined by the academic, Jennifer Freyd, in 1994. She emphasized the importance of paying greater attention to this type of experience.

In one of her most prominent works, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse, 1998, Freyd claims that children who are mistreated and abused by their parents, in addition to the trauma associated with such acts, also develop betrayal trauma.

Indeed, feeling that their lives depend on the kinds of people who cause them harm causes deep psychic pain in children’s minds. Some erase or block these events from their memories. In fact, when children depend on those who cause them suffering, their brains can repress those acts in the form of defense (and survival) mechanisms. These are complex situations.

Types of betrayal trauma

When thinking about the traumas caused by disappointments and betrayals, we might immediately visualize those caused by emotional relationships. However, there are many types and all are equally harmful.

The impact of a betrayal always depends on how much we depend on those figures that undermine our pillars of trust. Here are the different types of betrayal trauma.

  • Attachment figures (family members). This is the most frequent type.
  • Institutional betrayal. It happens when institutions or organizations that should support us or cover our needs act against us or neglect us. It usually involves social, health, military institutions, etc.
  • Romantic betrayals. Relationships are common scenarios of betrayal traumas. They appear due to unhappiness, lies, and also violence within the couple.
  • The breakdown of trust between friends. These experiences can be especially painful.

The manifestation of betrayal trauma

Rush University (USA) conducted research to understand this psychological reality. They claimed that a betrayal can leave physical and psychological consequences.

Moreover, the researchers stated that the more intimate the links with the figures that threaten us, the greater the consequences we’re left with. These are the effects that they observed.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Anxiety, which leads to depressive symptoms.
  • Problems in the regulation of emotions.
  • Alexithymia. (In children who experience betrayal trauma from their caregivers).
  • Dissociation. (The mind disconnects from the present moment or displaces the traumatic experience).
  • Sufferers stop trusting people and problems arise in relationships.
  • Eating disorders (TCA).
  • Physical health problems. For instance, digestive disorders, fatigue, allergies, etc.

Many betrayals come out of nowhere with no explanations. Moreover, as much as we may try to find meanings, there are none. This is extremely difficult for us to accept.

Patient in therapy due to betrayal trauma
Addressing the wound of broken trust means making room for our pain instead of repressing it and trying to move on.

How to treat psychological trauma

In today’s world, we’re determined to convince ourselves that we must avoid pain and move on. Yet, most of us have experienced betrayal at some time or another. However, what do we usually do after these experiences? As a rule, we grit our teeth, suppress our pain, and try to forget it.

But, displacing what happened doesn’t always work. Generally, the substrate of anger, sadness, and even guilt always remains. It’s necessary to address the wound of all betrayals. Here are some guidelines:

Leave space for the pain of betrayal and describe it

The first step is to recognize the pain, leave space for the experience of betrayal, and describe it. We must be honest with ourselves and show how we feel.

Detecting emotions

Betrayals arouse high emotional charges that are nourished by extremely complex states. For instance, sadness, anger, hopelessness, and even guilt. It can be helpful to write these sensations and emotions down or share them with those close to us. Indeed, expressing out loud how we feel can be of great help.

After recognizing the wound, seek psychological support

There can also be other betrayals behind this kind of trauma. In fact, we frequently reach adulthood without healing the wounds caused in childhood by our parents. In these cases, the weight of the violated and damaged affective bonds become heavy burdens. They often veto our ability to achieve well-being in adulthood.

Finally, if you’re suffering trauma betrayal, you should seek the support of professionals specialized in trauma. Addressing these wounds might be a long and painful journey, but it’s possible to achieve well-being and regain a sense of calm along with feelings of self-love.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

    • Babcock RL, DePrince AP. Childhood betrayal trauma and self-blame appraisals among survivors of intimate partner abuse. J Trauma Dissociation. 2012;13(5):526-538. doi:10.1080/15299732.2012.694842
    • Gagnon, K. L., Lee, M. S., & DePrince, A. P. (2019). Victim–perpetrator dynamics through the lens of betrayal trauma theory. In The Abused and the Abuser (pp. 131-140). Routledge.
    • Goldsmith RE, Freyd JJ, DePrince AP. Betrayal trauma: associations with psychological and physical symptoms in young adults. J Interpers Violence. 2012;27(3):547-567. doi:10.1177/0886260511421672
    • Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma. Encyclopedia of psychological trauma, 76.
    • Kahn, L. (2006). The understanding and treatment of betrayal trauma as a traumatic experience of love. Journal of Trauma Practice, 5(3), 57-72.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.