If someone close to you has ever broken your trust, you’ve probably felt the sting of betrayal. This pain can leave deep wounds.
Any type of betrayal can cause emotional distress, but you might experience lingering trauma when someone you depend on to respect your needs and generally help safeguard your well-being violates the trust you’ve placed in them.
Betrayal trauma typically refers to the lingering pain and turmoil experienced after:
- betrayal by a parent or other childhood caregiver
- betrayal by a romantic partner
When you rely on someone for basic needs as well as love and protection, you might accept a betrayal in order to ensure your own safety.
You might also find yourself accepting the possibility of future betrayals — something that can begin to degrade self-esteem, emotional well-being, and the ability to form attachments with others.
Understanding betrayal trauma theory
Betrayal trauma was first introduced as a concept by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in 1991. She described it as a specific trauma that happens in key social relationships where the betrayed person needs to maintain a relationship with the betrayer for support or protection.
Betrayal trauma theory suggests harm within attachment relationships, like relationships between a parent and child or between romantic partners, can cause lasting trauma.
People often respond to betrayal by pulling away from the person who betrayed them. But when you depend on someone to meet certain needs, this response might not be feasible.
Children, for example, depend on parents to meet emotional needs along with food, shelter, and safety needs.
Similarly, someone who lacks financial or social resources outside of their relationship may fear that acknowledging the betrayal and leaving the relationship could put their safety at risk.
This fear of the potential consequences of acknowledging the betrayal might prompt the betrayed person to bury the trauma. As a result, they may not fully process the betrayal or remember it correctly, especially if it happens in childhood.
Relation to attachment theory
Though experts originally applied the concept of betrayal trauma to children betrayed by caregivers, it became clear that this type of trauma could also happen in other relationships.
Let’s take a step back to the basics of attachment theory — attachment comes before betrayal, after all.
Your earliest childhood relationships are so significant because they lay the groundwork for later relationships. When these bonds are strong and secure, they pave the way toward secure attachments in adulthood.
Insecure bonds, on the other hand, often lead to shaky or troubled relationships.
A parent bringing a child into the world has a responsibility to protect and care for that child. This responsibility forms an unspoken agreement between parent and child. The child looks to the parent to prioritize their well-being, and they typically trust their parents entirely — until the parent lets them down.
In a romantic relationship, you might not need your partner to survive, but you probably depend on them for love, emotional support, and companionship.
These relationships also rest on agreements — the boundaries defining the relationship. Partners in a monogamous relationship, for example, generally have some shared understanding of what defines cheating and agree to trust each other not to cheat.
A partner who cheats betrays the terms of that understanding.
Signs and symptoms
The trauma of betrayal can affect physical and emotional health, but the specific effects can vary depending on the type of trauma. Keep in mind that not everyone experiences trauma in the same way, either.
The effects of betrayal can show up shortly after the trauma and persist into adulthood.
Key signs include:
- trouble recognizing, expressing, or managing emotions
- anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms
- physical pain or stomach distress
- panic attacks
- thoughts of suicide
- difficulty trusting others
- attachment issues
- eating disorders
- substance use
Children who experience betrayal may also end up dissociating, or detaching from reality to avoid memories of the abuse.
If your parent fails to protect you, this betrayal can so deeply contradict what you expect that you end up blocking it in order to maintain the attachment. Blinding yourself to the betrayal and your fear of future betrayals helps you survive in a relationship you believe you can’t escape.
Your ability to “forget” becomes a coping mechanism. Yet while dissociation might help you cope with the trauma, it can also affect your memory and sense of self.
Betrayal in a romantic relationship usually takes the form of infidelity, though other types of betrayal, such as financial betrayal, can also provoke a trauma response.
The discovery of infidelity often leads to:
- loss of self-esteem and self-worth
- difficulty controlling emotions
- intrusive thoughts about affair details
- loss of faith in others
- suspicion and hypervigilance
- depression, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms
- physical symptoms, including insomnia, pain, and stomach distress
Betrayal blindness can also happen in the context of romantic relationships.
Maybe you don’t exactly need your partner to survive, but you might still feel unable to leave, for any number of reasons — children, lack of options, no income of your own.
Relationships also fulfill important belonging and social connection needs, and a betrayal can leave you wondering how you’ll get those needs met in the future.
Instead of staying alert to signs of cheating, you might choose (often unconsciously) to ignore or overlook clues in order to safeguard your relationship and protect emotional health.
Beginning the recovery process
After a betrayal in a romantic relationship, you might find yourself dealing with ongoing trust issues and self-doubt. Even if you choose to give your partner another chance, it might take months, even years, to successfully rebuild trust.
If you dealt with childhood trauma by dissociating or blocking out what happened, your memories will eventually resurface, especially if something similar happens to trigger their return. Blocking them again may not be an option. Even if you do manage to shove your memories away again, this won’t help you heal.
The route to recovery may not look the same for everyone, but these strategies can help you take the first steps.
Acknowledge instead of avoid
Healing often requires you to first come to terms with what happened.
When you don’t address the betrayal, your turmoil can spill over to other areas of your life. You can’t erase it, so no matter how carefully you try to suppress what happened, you might catch yourself replaying those memories when you’re with friends, caring for your children, or driving to work.
Leaning into a trauma like infidelity might seem too painful to even consider. In reality, though, acknowledging it allows you to begin exploring the reasons behind it, which can help kick off the healing process.
Instead of getting trapped in an unrelenting cycle of self-doubt and self-criticism, you can begin coming to terms with underlying relationship issues, such as lack of communication or intimacy, and explore ways to resolve them.
Note: This doesn’t mean the blame for the betrayal lies with you. Choosing to cheat is an unhealthy response to relationship problems.
Practice accepting difficult emotions
Plenty of unpleasant emotions can show up in the aftermath of betrayal. It’s common to feel humiliated or ashamed. You might also feel furious, vengeful, sick, or grieved. Naturally, you might find yourself trying to avoid this distress by denying or trying to block what happened.
Although hiding from painful or upsetting emotions might seem easy and safe, avoiding or masking your emotions can make it more difficult to regulate them.
Putting a name to specific emotions — anger, regret, sadness, loss — can help you begin navigating them more effectively.
Recognizing exactly what you’re dealing with can make it easier and less frightening to sit with those emotions and slowly increase your awareness of them. Greater emotional awareness, in turn, can help you begin identifying strategies to cope with those feelings more productively.
Turn to others for support
Opening up about betrayal isn’t always easy. You may not want to talk about childhood trauma or your partner’s affair. Plus, once someone has betrayed your trust, you might have a hard time trusting anyone at all.
Yet people need emotional support, especially during stressful times. Your loved ones may not need to know exactly what happened, but they can still offer companionship when you don’t want to be alone and distraction when you can’t get away from your looping thoughts.
It’s perfectly OK to politely let your friends know when you’d like guidance and when you’re just looking to share feelings without any well-intentioned advice.
You may want to step carefully when discussing a partner’s cheating with mutual friends. Gossip can make a difficult situation even more painful, so you may want to save the in-depth details for your most trusted loved ones.
Focus on what you need
After a partner cheats, most people need some time to decide whether to end the relationship or try repairing the damage. This isn’t something you should feel pressured to decide right away. A relationship therapist can offer support and guidance as you consider whether you believe rebuilding trust is possible.
As you begin to recover from the initial shock of trauma, pay extra attention to your needs:
- Instead of lying awake cycling through distressing thoughts, try aromatherapy, a warm bath, or soothing music to relax and improve your sleep.
- Instead of skipping meals when you feel nauseous or have no appetite, snack on energy-boosting foods and keep yourself hydrated.
- Favorite movies and familiar TV shows can calm and comfort you, but try to mix in some other hobbies, too. Yoga, walking, reading, or gardening all offer mood-boosting benefits.