Romantic partners have betrayed my confidence, I have felt deeply hurt and wronged by the actions of trusted colleagues, and I have friends that I am no longer in contact with due to feeling betrayed. Not a single incident is easy to recall or write about, but I can still feel the sting and remember the nights spent ruminating. I would stay up trying to make sense of what happened, trying to figure out how I contributed to the terrible feeling I was feeling, and trying to tolerate what felt intolerable. In my family, there are instances of betrayal that have continued to leave scars decades later. Family members have cut off contact due to betrayals, and those relationships have never recovered.
To be in a relationship means being vulnerable, and that vulnerability includes the potential for betrayal. When we think about betrayal, we often think about romantic relationships, but really, anyone we trust and let in can betray our trust and impact how we feel about ourselves and how we operate in the world. Betrayal can be devastating and have enduring consequences; it can also be challenging to move on once betrayed, and it has the potential to impact future relationships.
How Is Betrayal Defined?
From a psychological perspective, betrayal involves the violation of trust or confidence in a way that causes significant emotional distress. It typically consists of a rupture in trust to the degree that it is broken and cannot be easily resolved. Betrayal can be intentional, including purposefully omitting information. Simply put, in a relationship, those involved have agreed to certain expectations, and one party voluntarily breaches the expectations. Betrayal is complex and multifaceted and can occur in various relationships, including friendships, romantic partnerships, familial bonds, or professional connections. What remains the same is that psychologically, betrayal is repeatedly associated with feelings of hurt, disappointment, and anger. Regardless of the type of relationship, a sense of betrayal can profoundly affect a person’s mental and emotional well-being.
Holli Kenley, an author who writes about betrayal, further expands on the definition by naming how the loss of trust is not the only loss one experiences. Kenley explains that when betrayed, we also lose ourselves. She declares, “The loss of self is buried in shame. It includes the loss of innocence and identity. The loss of role and reputation. The loss of being seen and of being heard.” When betrayed, we may lose a relationship; even if the relationship endures, we lose the version of ourselves that existed before the betrayal.
What Are the Types of Betrayal?
According to research, some of the most common forms of betrayal are infidelity, dishonesty, disloyalty, and harmful disclosures of confidential information. Importantly, what constitutes a betrayal is subjective because it depends on people’s beliefs and expectations about how others should behave in a relationship. Within most relationships, we have implied rules that we have agreed to, and in some relationships, those agreements are spoken. Some betrayals are clear, and both the perpetrator and the betrayed can see the violation. In other instances, however, both parties can’t even agree that a betrayal occurred, which can further complicate the recovery process.
One of the most recognized forms of betrayal is infidelity in romantic or sexual relationships. It can include emotional affairs, physical affairs, or other forms of intimate deception. Given how much we invest in our romantic relationships and how much we value them, it is logical that infidelity can leave devastating effects.
Deception and dishonesty involve deliberately misleading or withholding information from someone, prompting them to believe something untrue. This can occur in personal relationships, friendships, or professional settings and can also happen on a larger scale. This form of betrayal can be simple or complex. Someone having an affair may use deception to hide their actions from their partner, for example. Dishonesty and deception can also be observed in systemic betrayals. When organizations knowingly market and sell harmful products to the public to make revenue, this is also a betrayal of trust.
What Is Betrayal Trauma?
We have defined betrayal; now, let’s define trauma. Trauma can be understood as an emotional response to a terrible event. For years, when we thought about or spoke about trauma, we referred to “big T trauma.” War, a plane crash, rape, and the sudden death of a loved one, are under this category. We now understand that trauma doesn’t stop there. “Small T trauma,” which can be more challenging to capture, can be just as impactful. These incidents can include painful interpersonal experiences, like rejection and emotional abuse, harassment, and microaggressions. And like with most things, there aren’t just two categories but a spectrum of traumatic experiences, all of which can negatively impact one’s mental health.
Traumatic experiences prompt a trauma response in the body. While you may be familiar with the fight, flight or freeze responses, some theorists also include the fawn response. All are ways our body responds to threats so that we can survive challenging situations. These are unconscious and automatic, fast-acting physical responses. The fight response is when we face a perceived threat aggressively, the flight response is when we run away from the danger, and freezing is when we cannot move or act. Fawning is immediately taking action to please to avoid the threat or conflict. These are all adaptive responses in the face of a traumatic experience.
Betrayal trauma is when a betrayal is impactful and prompts a trauma response. It refers to the psychological and emotional distress one experiences when betrayed by a person or institution they depend on. According to Dr. Jennifer Freyd, the researcher who first coined the term, “Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’ s trust or well-being.”
Betrayal trauma can also be understood as attachment trauma that people experience when something happens that betrays their bond with an attachment figure. Early attachment theory research primarily looked at the ways that betrayal trauma can result from a parent-child relationship. According to John Bowlby’s concept of attachment theory, humans instinctively form attachments to their primary caregivers for survival and security. These bonds influence a person’s development, shaping how they understand relationships and impacting how they engage with their world.
Adults also rely on our attachment figures (friends, partners, and sometimes colleagues) for survival and security. We now understand that we are wired for connection and that any significant relationship can influence our feelings of safety and have adverse effects when there’s a rupture. Betrayal trauma can have significant impacts on a person’s emotional and mental health. While we may be physically safe, our bodies respond to betrayal trauma just as they would if there was a physical threat. Our trauma response can make it difficult to process the trauma and to know how to proceed after the betrayal is revealed. Betrayal trauma can create symptoms like depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, poor emotional regulation, and intrusive thoughts, to name a few.
How Can Betrayal Trauma Affect You?
Researchers found that exposure to traumas with high betrayal was significantly correlated with a number of physical illnesses, anxiety, dissociation, and depression symptoms. This reveals that the effects can be both short-term and longer-term. In the immediate aftermath of a betrayal, the betrayed will experience intense emotional distress. Individuals may experience various emotions, including shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, fear, shame, and grief. The emotional impact can be overwhelming and persistent. The body may also struggle to recover after a betrayal, which can cause physical symptoms like headaches, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, and changes in appetite.
Beyond the initial reactions, those struggling after a betrayal may also develop symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Just as with other traumas, an individual may experience intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, and heightened anxiety. The trauma may be relived, impacting the person’s daily life and functioning. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are also common, while the betrayed may also struggle with their self-esteem and self-worth. Feelings of inadequacy, shame, and self-blame may arise, influencing how the person sees themselves.
Other possible longer-term impacts of betrayal include the erosion of trust, not only in the specific relationship where the betrayal occurred but also in future relationships. Individuals may feel wary of trusting others, leading to difficulties forming new connections or engaging in other relationships. Given a reluctance to be harmed again, betrayal trauma can lead to challenges in creating intimate connections. Fear of vulnerability and concerns about being hurt again may hinder the ability to engage emotionally and physically in relationships.
Finally, someone trying to manage their response to betrayal trauma may find that they have difficulty coping and may engage in unhealthy or unsafe coping such as avoidance, substance use, or self-isolation while trying to manage the overwhelming emotions.
What Are the Effects of Betrayal Trauma on Your Brain?
Exposure to trauma has long been known to impact a person’s mental and emotional health, and it can also affect us on a physiological level. Trauma occurs when an individual experiences a shock to their nervous system that is so overwhelming it changes the way their brain functions. Studies tell us this happens precisely in the brain’s three areas associated with the physiological stress response: the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. Our fight-or-flight response is highly associated with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. When we experience a traumatic event, our norepinephrine levels show an abnormal increase, and our cortisol levels drastically decrease. Cortisol is our body’s primary stress hormone, and it keeps our norepinephrine levels in check, so when it’s decreased, we are much less able to effectively respond to stressors in the immediate and aftermath of a stressful event.
What Are the Effects of Betrayal on a Relationship?
Betrayal can have profound and lasting effects on a relationship. The impact may vary depending on the nature and severity of the betrayal, the individuals involved, and the relationship dynamics. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, says that betrayal traumas “overwhelm coping capacities and define the relationship as a source of danger rather than a safe haven in times of stress.”
Most individuals who have been betrayed respond by confronting the betrayer or cutting off the relationship (or doing both). Due to their attachment styles, some may struggle to prioritize their safety and well-being and may maintain the connection without addressing the rupture and need for repair. And for some who have long experienced betrayal at the hands of someone they care about and rely on, they may initially be somewhat blind to the trauma. Eventually, this approach is rarely sustainable, and the relationship will likely deteriorate. If the betrayed person does not decide to end the relationship, the relationship’s future is possible but will be impacted and tenuous.
In any relationship, betrayal shatters the trust necessary for intimacy and continued vulnerability, making rebuilding challenging. The betrayed party may become wary, skeptical, or hesitant to trust the other party again. Additionally, betrayal can wreck communication. The betrayed individual may struggle to express their emotions, and the betrayer may face challenges in understanding and empathizing with the hurt they’ve caused.
How Can You Recover From Betrayal Trauma?
Recovery from betrayal trauma is a multifaceted process that involves both emotional and cognitive components. While individual responses to betrayal vary, different relationship types may also require different approaches. Nonetheless, some commonalities may help you get back in touch with yourself and help you begin the healing process. Here are some suggestions:
Tend to yourself:
So often, when we find ourselves feeling betrayed, our first instinct is to either withdraw from the betrayer or confront them. We want to make ourselves safe again and believe we must make a swift decision. While you may ultimately need to have a really tough conversation with the one who betrayed you, and you may conclude that what is best is to end a relationship, the most important thing to address first is YOU and not the betrayer. What do you need to help your nervous system? What would be soothing and would help your way back to yourself? Take care of yourself first, before anything else.
Offer yourself compassion:
This won’t be the case for everyone who experiences betrayal, but some of us will find a way to blame ourselves for the betrayal. In trying to make sense of what happened, we will consider what we could have done differently to avoid feeling betrayed, and we may even feel ashamed for being betrayed. Struggling afterward and being unable to move on can serve as another cause for shame. Anyone who has suffered due to being betrayed knows that it’s not something they would seek out and that if they could have avoided it, they would have. Offer yourself care and compassion as you recover. You didn’t choose to be treated in this way. Now, treat yourself with the kindness we all deserve.
Find your people:
When you’ve been betrayed, it is a very lonely and isolating experience. Most often, the betrayal happens to you, and no one else is experiencing the feelings you’re experiencing in the same way at this exact time. And given that betrayal trauma is the result of a betrayal by someone significant in your life, you may feel even more alone as you’re trying to process your feelings about this relationship on your own. But you’re not alone. A network of supportive friends, family, or a therapeutic community can contribute immensely to emotional healing and resilience. Look to your loved ones to hold you up and remind you of who you are.
Take your time:
It will take time to recover, and it will take time to create your path through betrayal trauma. When betrayal trauma knocks your world off its center, expect that it will take time to right things and to come back to yourself. If you have decided to work through the betrayal and preserve the relationship, this will take time, too. While you might be eager to just get past it, you may benefit from honoring the pain together and acknowledging that recovery is possible and that it will require patience, perseverance, and vulnerability to recreate your relationship.
Betrayal can be devastating, and when betrayal is conceptualized as trauma, we can better understand the effects and the need for interpersonal healing for recovery. We all need connection and attachment, and the risk of vulnerability is necessary and worthwhile. Still, sometimes, the risk leads to betrayal and pain. When that’s the case, navigating the aftermath of betrayal is a complex and deeply personal journey, marked by the emotional toll it takes on individuals and relationships. And there is a way forward and a way through. If you’re working through the aftermath of betrayal, we hope this article has helped. If you need additional support in recovering, please get in touch with us. We are eager to help you find your agency and your trust again.