Betrayal trauma occurs when an individual’s well-being is threatened by an important person or institution in their life. They will have had a close relationship, dependence, or trust with the person or institution who betrayed them.

An individual affected by betrayal trauma endures not only the traumatic events but also a violation of the trust they had in the person or institution responsible for hurting them.

Read on to learn about betrayal trauma, as well as its types, effects, potential causes, and more.

A morning commuter going up an escalator who may be experiencing betrayal trauma -2.Share on Pinterest
EschCollection/Getty Images

Introduced by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in 1991, the concept of betrayal trauma examines how a person processes and remembers a betrayal committed by a trusted and needed person.

The authors of a 2016 study believe that this may differ depending on the relationship between the person who was betrayed and the perpetrator.

For example, trauma from situations like caregiver abuse or institutionalized racism has a different effect than events like hurricanes or automotive accidents.

When a person has a relationship that involves dependence or trust with the person or institution responsible for their pain, they can experience a high amount of betrayal along with trauma.

The authors cite previous research suggesting that a person is more likely to forget traumatic events with a high degree of betrayal. “Betrayal blindness” is a term used to describe this phenomenon.

Betrayal blindness makes it easier for the person to maintain their connection to the source of their trauma.

Usually, distancing oneself from the person or institution causing the trauma is beneficial. However, when a person needs to maintain their alliance with a perpetrator, betrayal blindness makes this easier.

They might need that person to provide for them, the way a child does a parent or guardian. They could also be a dependent spouse or a person with limited job prospects.

Numerous scenarios involve dependent associations in which a person might exhibit betrayal blindness.

Significant emotional upheaval like grief or trauma has distinct stages a person goes through as they process their experience. These include:

  • Denial: This is a defense mechanism that may reduce the effects of the trauma.
  • Anger: This is a coping mechanism that helps keep a person from becoming overwhelmed by other emotions like sadness and pain. The sadness and pain may lie underneath the anger.
  • Bargaining: This is an attempt to gain control of the situation. A person may overthink or overanalyze a hypothetical scenario or action that they think could have changed a specific outcome.
  • Depression: This is an unmasked response to a person’s trauma experience. Depression may also occur as a result of anger that has been turned inward.
  • Acceptance: This is when a person comes to terms with what has happened and the effect it has had on their life.

Betrayal trauma includes the following additional stages:

  • Shock: At this stage, a person experiences disbelief that the betrayal has occurred.
  • Obsession: This is the stage where a person persists in thinking about the betrayal to the point where it becomes disruptive in their life.

The stages are not sequential or time-bound. One person may move through them in an order and pace that differs from someone else.

Several types of betrayal trauma exist:

  • Parental: Children who live with abuse from their parents or guardians can experience betrayal trauma.
  • Institutional: This includes professional relationships and social support systems in categories such as employers and lawmakers.
  • Partner: Betrayal trauma can occur because of spousal abuse.
  • Interpersonal: Dysfunctional interactions between friends, co-workers, and family members can cause betrayal trauma.

High betrayal trauma affects a person beyond the scope of the traumatic event or experience.

It can contribute to revictimization, where people who experience betrayal trauma as children are more likely to encounter it repeatedly throughout their lives.

They may seek familiar relationship roles and come to see dysfunctional behavior as acceptable rather than processing their trauma.

People who have experienced high betrayal trauma may also be less likely to access social support enough to help them develop emotional regulation skills, according to a 2021 study.

Betrayal trauma can also have other effects, such as:

A 2016 study found a link between betrayal trauma in childhood and shorter leukocyte telomeres.

Leukocytes are immune system cells, and telomeres are the ends of chromosomes that shorten as cells divide. The length of a person’s telomeres is believed to be a possible indicator of cellular aging.

Mistrust of helpful institutions like the healthcare system is another effect of betrayal trauma. A 2019 study found that participants with a history of betrayal trauma were less likely to adhere to medical treatment, potentially leading to poorer overall health.

Any breach of trust from someone a person depends on can lead to betrayal trauma.

Examples include:

  • abuse
  • sexual harassment
  • manipulation
  • infidelity
  • neglect
  • dishonesty

A person’s attachment style may contribute to their chances of staying in a situation that might lead to betrayal trauma.

Attachment theory explains that bonds between parents and children increase the chances that children survive to reach adulthood. This occurs because distressing emotions such as anxiety or fear encourage children to stay close to adults for protection.

Early childhood experiences can influence the type of attachment style a person develops, which persists and influences future relationships.

Four attachment styles exist:

  • Secure: A person with this style had their emotional needs met in childhood and can build healthy relationships as adults.
  • Anxious: When a person has lived with inconsistent parenting that was not attuned to their needs, they can develop an anxious attachment style characterized by codependence and fear of rejection.
  • Avoidant: This attachment style can stem from emotionally unavailable parenting and results in a person who has difficulty with intimacy and longevity in relationships.
  • Disorganized: Childhood neglect, trauma, or abuse can cause a person to have inconsistent behavior and problems trusting people.

People with an anxious attachment style are at risk of betrayal trauma as adults.

This is because when they feel threatened in a relationship, their attachment style causes them to try mending the conflict. They are motivated to avoid rejection and maintain proximity rather than distance themselves from potential trauma.

People with a disorganized attachment style are also susceptible to betrayal trauma.

The effects of betrayal trauma can take time to resolve.

A trauma-informed therapist can help a person uncover the connections between betrayal trauma and their current symptoms in a safe and healing way.

Therapy can support areas such as:

  • acknowledging betrayal
  • understanding insecure attachment
  • building secure relationships
  • improving self-esteem
  • developing coping strategies

Anyone interested in exploring therapy for betrayal trauma can begin by talking with their family doctor, who may be able to provide a referral.

Alternatively, online directories are available for locating a therapist, such as:

It is important to find a practitioner who is trained to manage the effects of trauma.

Betrayal trauma combines painful events with damage to a person’s trust in someone or an institution important to them.

To maintain their connection with that person or important social system, a person might exhibit betrayal blindness to their trauma.

Betrayal trauma can have lasting effects, and recovery can take time. Sessions with a trauma-informed therapist can help a person work through the effects of their trauma and learn coping strategies to promote healing.