Betrayal Trauma – causes, symptoms and treatment

What is betrayal trauma? 

If something happens to us where we feel that our life or that of others is threatened, we experience trauma. If we have been hurt by others we trust, we can experience trauma.

There are different types of trauma. However, betrayal trauma isn’t as well known and understood, but it can run just as deep. Betrayal trauma happens when there is a break in trust by someone very close to us. It can also happen on behalf of an institution. This was especially the case during COVID in the case of medical staff.

We can experience trauma due to a betrayal from an attachment figure, very close friends, individuals who are very important to our survival or institutions that care for us (either through work or otherwise).

This form of trauma can have profound, long lasting effects on the wellbeing of an individual. It impacts their trust in others, their mental and emotional wellbeing.

With attachment figures, such as parents and guardians, betrayal trust can arise from abuse (emotional, physical or sexual). In the case of romantic relationships it can also result from infidelity. When a loved one has harmed you or a close friend has betrayed you, you can develop betrayal trauma. It is especially damaging if the betrayal has occurred over the course of a considerable period of time and it was hidden from you. It can happen if institutions have let you down or you have feared for your safety and wellbeing.

As its a poorly understood condition, in this blog post, I will explore the impact of betrayal trauma has on people and discuss potential treatment approaches to help individuals navigate and heal from such challenging experiences.

Impact of Betrayal Trauma

The impact of betrayal trauma is multifaceted. Like all forms of trauma it results in tremendous emotional turmoil. The person experiencing the betrayal will experience initial shock, disbelief, anger and deep and profound sadness. Often there is an experience of grief and loss that accompanies the betrayal too, but usually at a later stage following the initial experience of shock.

There is lots of confusion as the individual struggles to make sense of the breach in trust by someone close to them. How could this happen? They will keep asking themselves. The breach of trust can result in a deep wound. Their understanding of the relationship and possibly other relationships has been shattered. Someone who they once trusted in, in whom they depended on, has now betrayed them. It can feel like their view of the world has been turned on its head. They may feel very alone and hurt.

One of the greatest victims of betrayal is trust. There is an inevitable erosion of trust towards the person, people or institution that was responsible for the betrayal. Unfortunately the erosion of trust can extend beyond, into further relationships too. In the aftermath of the betrayal, it can be hard to trust others and this can lead to a strain in other relationships and a heightened sense of vulnerability and loneliness. This is especially the case when the person who has betrayed you is the person you most counted on or confided in.

Another victim of the process is the individuals own self esteem. Often the betrayed party is left questioning themselves, wondering why and how it happened and whether it was their fault. They feel guilty, lonely, ashamed and wonder if they were somehow responsible. They find themselves ruminating over the events to try and make sense of the experience. This only leads to further hurt as they don’t find answers and inevitably the memories of the event lead to more hurt and sadness.

Victims of betrayal can experience anxiety, much like other forms of PTSD. There can be hyperarousal where the individual feels easily startled and may struggle to sleep. They can also experience hyper-vigilance. The betrayed individual can keep looking out for signs they will be betrayed again. They may want to check phones, ask lots of questions about the partners whereabouts. They can also question behaviour and wonder about intentions. They become suspicious and often dislike this behaviour in themselves. They resent becoming anxious, insecure and irritable.

Individuals can also experience flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the betrayal. These can come out of nowhere. These can plague the individual leading to further distress. Sleep can also be impacted by nightmares. The lack of sleep can lead to further irritability and anger. The tiredness can lead the individual to feel helpless.

The betrayal can significantly impact an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth. The perceived betrayal may result in feelings of inadequacy, shame, and a distorted sense of one’s value. The betrayed individual can start to isolate and avoid situations for risk of being betrayed once again. This can impact mood and reduce their social circle.

Treatment Approaches

Effective treatments for betrayal trauma are available. Like other forms of trauma it can be a slow process and requires the support of an experienced and caring clinician.

The models with the most evidence base are Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). Both of these models can assist individuals in processing the trauma and challenging some of the unhelpful behaviour that get in the way of processing the event and continuing to develop close and nurturing relationships.

Couples Counselling

In the case of infidelity, couples counselling can be a very effective way to address the betrayal. With an experienced couples therapist, the betrayal can be processed and trust can be rebuilt through therapy. It is complex and requires both parties to be onboard with the process and willing to rebuild the relationship through open communication, empathy and understanding.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Because the betrayal can be such a blow for an individuals self esteem, engaging in self-care activities and practicing self-compassion can be a very important and essential aspect of healing from betrayal trauma. Nurturing oneself physically, emotionally, and spiritually can contribute to overall well-being and resilience.

If you have been affected by betrayal trauma, you will know that it can have a profound impact on individuals, affecting their emotional, psychological, and relational well-being. Recognising the signs and seeking appropriate treatment is crucial for healing. Through therapy, support networks, and self-care practices, individuals can embark on a journey towards recovery and rediscovery of trust and resilience in their lives.

If you would like to explore therapy options, get in touch with our friendly team of professional therapists in Singapore who would love to help.

Written and Reviewed by Dr.Emma Waddington, in 2024