Betrayal trauma: What it is and how to heal
Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW
Written byAmye Archer, MFA
Imagine discovering one day that your spouse has been living a double life. Whether you find out through a phone call, a note, a receipt, or any other way, it means the sudden implosion of everything you thought you knew.
You may not be in physical danger, but your fear and anguish can feel just as powerful. If you’re financially and emotionally dependent on the person who betrayed you, those feelings may run even deeper. How can you possibly move on?
For some, setting the betrayal aside and staying put is a matter of survival. But even those who can leave have to work through a range of consequences for their mental health.
What is betrayal trauma?
First defined by Jennifer Freyd, PhD, in 1991, betrayal trauma occurs when someone’s trust or well-being is violated by an institution or person they depend on for physical, emotional, or financial security.1
Symptoms of betrayal trauma
Trauma can happen at the hands of a stranger, but betrayal trauma requires a significant relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. It can lead to a number of symptoms, including:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Damaged self-esteem
- Chronic mistrust
- Emotional dysregulation
- Fixation on the perpetrator
Forms of betrayal trauma
Betrayal is often associated with being hurt by a romantic partner, but betrayal trauma can come from other sources as well.
Institutional betrayal happens when a person is harmed by an institution they depend on. Freyd offers the example of a government that doesn’t protect the rights of marginalized communities, or that responds too slowly (or not at all) to a natural disaster.
Romantic betrayal happens when a romantic partner is unfaithful or otherwise behaves harmfully (for example, abusing drugs without your knowledge).
The role of “betrayal blindness”
One of the key characteristics of this type of trauma is “betrayal blindness” (we’ll use “denial” here), which Freyd describes as the “unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting” someone might exhibit around a betrayal.2
She coined the term “betrayal trauma” in response to a question she’d spent many years trying to answer. “I was really curious as to how or why some people would seemingly forget the traumatic thing that happened to them,” Freyd says, “and I noticed it was happening often when there was a relationship between the abuser and the abused.”
Freyd also realized that, under some circumstances, recognizing betrayal may threaten the victim’s survival. “If you think about a child who’s being abused by a parent, that child can’t afford to alienate the parent because their whole life depends on the care they’re getting,” she explains. “So being able to block out the betrayal might be very advantageous.” This can also apply to relationships where victims are financially or emotionally dependent on their abusers.
Betrayal denial is frequently subconscious, as in the child and parent relationship, but Freyd says it can be a conscious decision and a protective choice. Research has shown that the closer a victim is to a perpetrator, the higher their risk of anxiety, suicidality, and anger.3 In these cases, forgetting or blocking out the betrayal serves an important function. “It lets you stay in a relationship that you really need,” says Freyd.
Denial is often a component of betrayal trauma, but it’s not a requirement. People can name and push back against a betrayal from the start, or they can block it out at first and acknowledge it later.
The risks of betrayal denial
Repressing a betrayal may be a protective factor in some circumstances, but it can also put your mental health at risk. “It’s hard to pretend everything is okay, especially for adults,” Freyd says. “So those negative emotions start leaking out and may show up as increased anxiety, depression, or PTSD.” According to one study, there’s a connection between betrayal denial and borderline personality disorder as well.4
Certain groups are more vulnerable to betrayal trauma. “Populations dependent on others, such as children and the elderly, are more likely to experience betrayal,” says Freyd.
Communities of color are at greater risk of institutional betrayal trauma because they’re less likely to feel supported. Freyd points to police brutality as an example.5 “Police are supposed to protect us—we depend on them,” she says, but that’s often not the lived experience of people of color.
Research shows that women experience betrayal trauma more often than men, but Freyd cautions this may be because women are more likely than men to report abuse by caregivers.6 In addition, the effects of this trauma may persist across generations: Children of mothers who suffered their own betrayal trauma are at higher risk of dissociation and other mental health concerns.7
If you’ve experienced betrayal trauma, you may be feeling hurt, alone, or scared. But there is hope: Freyd believes this trauma can be healed. Here are some ways you can begin to work through your experience.
Find a trauma-informed therapist. A therapist who works specifically with trauma will understand the unique challenges you’re facing. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.
Ask about relational-cultural therapy.8 This type of therapy is built on the premise that people need connections to flourish, even to stay alive.It views isolation as a major source of suffering at both the personal and cultural level. A practitioner will work to form a strong bond with you and help strengthen your relationships outside of therapy.
Try trauma-informed yoga.9 Yoga adapted for survivors of trauma can create a relaxing environment for healing to begin. In one study of women with a history of military sexual trauma and PTSD, trauma-informed yoga participants reported less severe symptoms, improvements in nutrition and sleep, and reduced pain and medication use.10
Seek out support groups. Talking with people who’ve experienced similar traumas can be an affirming experience. In a recent study of Latinx youth, group participants showed a significant reduction in trauma symptoms.11 If online groups are more your style and you identify as a woman, BTR.org offers several options for connecting with other women who are healing from betrayal trauma.
A path to understanding
Betrayal trauma treatment is still an emerging field, but Freyd and other practitioners have made strides in helping clients improve their lives and mental health. Rising awareness of the condition has also had some positive side effects for the public at large.
“We often wonder how or why someone stays in an abusive situation,” Freyd says. Learning about betrayal trauma—and how common it is to block out betrayal for the sake of survival—can give us more empathy for people who go through the experience. “It helps us to understand and to work toward a solution with compassion.”
About the author
Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.
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