Betrayal trauma is a type of trauma that refers to the pain and emotional distress that occurs when a trusted institution, loved one, or intimate partner violates someone’s trust. Betrayal trauma may occur alongside things like gaslighting and lead to anxiety and depression. However, therapy and mindfulness can help you to heal and move forward to make healthier relationships.
What Is Betrayal Trauma?
Betrayal trauma occurs when a person or an organization that you depend on goes outside your expectation of them in a way that hurts you.1 The amount of trauma caused has to do with the impact. If your car gets rear-ended in traffic, your level of trauma may not be as profound as if you were to find out that your spouse of 20 years has been carrying on an affair with your best friend.
Understand Betrayal Trauma Theory
Betrayal trauma theory seeks to understand how an individual will interpret betrayal and store it in their memory.1 This theory predicts that the more necessary a person or institution is deemed to be in a person’s life, the more likely there will be an “unawareness” or “blindness” to that betrayal.2 Third party observers are often left wondering, “How can they not see what is happening?”
In order to cope, a survivor blocks out painful information so their brain can focus on more basic needs of survival and attachment. This is called betrayal blindness—it’s how we can not know what is right in front of our faces.
This explains why a child can have what appears to be a good, healthy relationship with a trusted caregiver who secretly abuses them. Or why someone stays in an abusive relationship or a narcissistic relationship and makes excuses for their partner.
4 Types of Betrayal Trauma
There are many types of betrayal trauma, including parental, intimate partner, institutional, and interpersonal.
Here are four types of betrayal trauma:
- Parental: when a parent or caretaker, someone you depend on for your needs to be met, abuses you or fails to protect you from harm
- Intimate partner: when the person doing the betraying is your intimate partner. This can take place when your partner is having an emotional or physical affair. If one of the partners has an active sexual addiction, there is often betrayal present.
- Institutional: when an institution impacts you in a way that is in direct opposition to how they portray themselves or stated in their mottos and goals. This can also occur when the institution protects a perpetrator vs. a victim or “whistleblower.” This may include an educational institution, the military, healthcare systems, etc.
- Interpersonal: when a trusted friend, peer, or individual betrays your trust
Betrayal Trauma Symptoms
Betrayal trauma alters the mind and body. A person can suffer from betrayal trauma and not yet be aware of the betrayal. That nagging sense that something is off in the relationship, that something isn’t quite right, can be a clue.
Here are betrayal trauma symptoms:
- Alexithymia: being unable or finding it very difficult to recognize your own emotions and/or describe them
- Physical symptoms: in his book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk expounds upon how trauma can have significant physiological impacts on the brain and body. While the mind can blind us to the pain of betrayal, the body remembers. This may manifest as headaches, stomach aches, chronic fatigue, obesity, gastrointestinal issues, sleep issues, laryngitis, a weakened immune system, etc.3, 4
- Increased dissociation: the feeling of being “in a fog” or “zoned out” is dissociation; you’re vaguely aware of your emotions and feelings, but not really being able to clearly grasp them
- Anxiety: this can either manifest as a generalized anxiety or specific fears related to the betrayal, like relationship anxiety
- Depression: when you are unable to recognize and/or express your emotions, depression becomes more likely
Betrayal trauma, like all trauma, can have long-term damaging effects on your psychological and physical health. The mind often dissociates to deal with painful betrayal. This is meant to be a temporary strategy to help you cope until you have the strength and resources to face your pain and heal. Without proper treatment, the damaging effects may deepen and escalate, leading to other problems like hyper-independence and trust issues.
11 Tips to Heal From Betrayal Trauma Recovery
If you’re suffering from betrayal trauma, trying to imagine your life as bright and happy can seem impossible. It’s normal to think that you will never be able to love or trust another person again; however, this does not have to be the case. You can heal, develop better skills to identify safe people, and begin to feel comfortable trusting again.
Here are eleven tips to heal from betrayal trauma:
1. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about becoming more aware of the moment as experienced in our bodies. It’s not about clearing your mind or trying to change your thoughts. It’s about noticing and leading with compassion vs. judgment.
Other elements of mindfulness include grounding techniques. For example, name one thing that you sense for each of your senses. For example, I see a picture on my wall, I taste coffee, I hear the music playing in the next room, and so on.
2. Take Care of Your Body
The body and mind are connected. Taking care of your physical health lays the foundation for a healthy mind. It has the added benefit of sending yourself a message that you are someone for whom it’s worth making the effort.
Here are ways to take care of your body:
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat nourishing meals with lots of vegetables
- Find a form of exercise that you enjoy to support your mental health
- Practice good sleep habits
3. Get a Physical
If you’ve experienced sexual betrayal, this becomes even more of a necessity. When infidelity or sex addiction is disclosed or discovered, it’s rare that all the details and facts are provided. While it may be uncomfortable to think about the possibility of having a STD or STI when you’ve been monogamous, see your doctor or gynecologist to find out for sure.
4. Pamper Yourself
If you’re doing all the basics of taking care of your physical body, then take self-care to the next level. Pamper yourself. Get a massage or manicure. Try various forms of body work, such as reflexology, rolfing, chiropractic, postural integration, etc. Not only will you feel better in the moment, but you are also building on your foundation of long-term physical and mental health.
5. Try a Variety of Calming Activities
Mindful exercise and activities, such as martial arts, tai chi, yoga, and pilates, can be helpful to calm our nervous system and deepen our connection with our bodies. Progressive muscle relaxation is beneficial in so many ways. Experimenting with different types of body work can also be helpful.
6. Build Healthy Relationships
No relationship is perfect. People we love will let us down. So what makes a safe relationship versus a dysfunctional one? Basically, in a safe relationship, you feel free to be yourself. If mistakes are made or feelings are hurt, you and the other person can talk about it. When you walk away from the conversation, you feel heard and understood.
Make sure that at least the five closest relationships in your life are healthy, safe, and supportive. If you have no such relationships in your life, and don’t know how to create healthy relationships with someone, you may need to add this to your goals as you work with a therapist.
7. Set Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries is not the same thing as setting limits. It can be very confusing when you are first learning about boundaries. Boundaries are what I am going to do to protect myself when a disrespectful event is taking place.
If you are not used to setting boundaries, start with soft boundaries. A soft boundary doesn’t involve your voluntary behavior. It informs the other person of what is already taking place. For example, something like, “When you come home late without calling, it makes me feel like I’m not important to you. This makes me lose a little more hope in the relationship.”
8. Tell Your Story
When we tell our story to others, we are often telling it to ourselves.5 This can happen in a safe, nurturing environment, such as with a good friend or with a therapist with whom you’ve established a trusting relationship. The ability to become vulnerable is important. If you learn to do it with safe, supportive people, the potential for healing is magnified.
Journaling for mental health is a great opportunity to share your story without any negative feedback. Putting your story (and your thoughts and feelings about it) on paper is a great way to get it out of your head. This process often gives us clarity and perspective.
9. Find Your Passion (Or Rediscover an Old One)
Make a list of what you enjoy doing. Think of the things you used to enjoy as a child. What are creative or artistic activities that even the smallest part of you might like to try? As you make your list, try to avoid screen time activities, such as TV, social media, and video games; instead, focus on creative activities like writing, drawing, or playing an instrument.
Look at your list. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t remember the last time you did some of these activities. Set aside 2-3 hours a week to try some of these activities. If you enjoy something, schedule time to do it again.
10. Commit to Your Own Personal Growth
Once you begin to heal and practice new skills, you will also begin experiencing new growth in your life. This growth can continue indefinitely. Post traumatic growth is a term that describes the growth that occurs in response to one’s trauma. It doesn’t happen automatically, though. It takes commitment and investment in yourself.
11. Talk to a Therapist
If you’re dealing with betrayal trauma or infidelity PTSD, it can be extremely healing to talk to a therapist. It’s important to feel comfortable and safe with your therapist. This is even more true with trauma. A good trauma therapist will know that trust might be a struggle for you and will support you wherever you’re at in that process.
How Therapy Can Facilitate Betrayal Trauma Recovery
Betrayal trauma may damage your ability to clearly see who is trustworthy vs. untrustworthy. A good therapist will help you find balance and learn how to help yourself first so you can continue to support the people you care for in your life.
Recovering from betrayal trauma is a really difficult process and can take some time to fully heal. Like any other new journey, without proper guidance, it can be frustrating when you get stuck or lost. A trauma-informed therapist will be able to help guide you out of the fog into the clear air.
How to Find a Therapist
An online therapist directory will allow you to search for therapists in your area and filter by specialty (like being trauma-informed). Sometimes you will find a therapist that you click with right away. Other times, it takes meeting a few before you find the one that works for you.
Questions to Ask a Therapist
A good therapist will be comfortable with you asking them plenty of questions upfront. They should even encourage it. Consider asking about fees, credentials, and their general approach to therapy.
Here are questions to ask a therapist:
- What are your fees?
- Do you accept my insurance?
- What do your credentials mean for me?
- Do you have experience working with people who have concerns like mine?
- How do you approach helping people?
- Do you make treatment plans? If so, will you share mine with me?
- How do the sessions work with you?
- How long might I be working with you?
Final Thoughts on Betrayal Trauma
If you have experienced significant betrayal, such as abuse by a trusted caregiver or intimate partner betrayal, you will likely need professional help to walk with you through your healing journey. You don’t need to be fixed, only to heal. It’s worth the investment in your healing, not just for yourself, but for the people in your life who you impact.