At its core, betrayal is a wound that occurs when trust in someone (or something) is broken through lies, deceit, cheating, or stealing – to name a few. First introduced as a concept in 1991, betrayal trauma refers to the specific trauma that occurs in key social relationships where the betrayed person requires continued contact with the betrayer for support and/or survival. Some common examples of betrayal trauma include:
Parental: Someone you depend on for your basic needs, such as a parent or caretaker, abuses or fails to protect from harm.
Intimate Partner: Someone that you have an intimate relationship with has an affair or addiction that may or may not be kept secret. Some examples include an emotional liaison outside the relationship, sex addiction, or a physical affair.
Interpersonal: A close and trusted friend or peer betrays your trust – for example, a friend who lies and gossips behind your back, may cause you to feel betrayed and deceived.
Institutional: While lesser known, institutional betrayal can be just as impactful. It is often caused by an institution (educational/workplace/government/healthcare) that fails to live up to their stated policy/motto/mission. A common example of this type of betrayal includes a whistleblower who may not receive protection for speaking out against corporate lies or harm. In some cases, the institution might side with the perpetrator(s) or deny any involvement in such activities.
If the betrayal occurred early on in life, some may see lasting effects into adulthood. Some may develop anxious or avoidant attachment types that can affect one’s ability to trust or depend on others. Betrayal trauma can also lead to physical, mental, or emotional symptoms that can hinder one’s ability to function in healthy ways. Some of the common symptoms of betrayal trauma include:
- Panic attacks
- Nightmares/Night Terrors
- Suicidal thoughts
- Difficulty trusting others
- Dissociation – feeling in a “fog”
- Alexithymia – unable to express oneself or recognize one’s emotions
- Substance use/misuse
While the recovery process can be a long, difficult journey, one can rebuild trust in others and find greater peace over time. Some suggestions include:
1) Making self-care a priority: learning how to positively manage one’s physical, mental, and emotional needs with improved self-care activities can be an important step in healing. Taking care of your physical health, pampering yourself with a relaxing activity, or taking up a new interest such as yoga or mindfulness meditation can be helpful in managing the effects of the trauma.
2) Acknowledging rather than avoiding the trauma: While difficult, avoiding the traumatic experience and the emotions attached to it not only prolongs the pain but also can spillover into other areas of your life, including work and friendships. Coming to terms with and acknowledging the betrayal allows one to express difficult emotions in a healthier way and can be helpful in releasing the energy and pain associated with the betrayal. Support groups that focus on betrayal trauma can also help to build a supportive community and network aimed at fostering healthier, trusting relationships.
3) Therapy: Depending on the situation, you may find individual or couples therapy to be an important step forward. Unpacking the trauma in a safe space either alone or with your partner can assist you in understanding how the betrayal has led to poorer ways to cope or relate to others. If you and your partner want to work on restoring trust within your relationship, a couple’s therapist can help navigate through this process. Additionally, therapy can assist you in assessing feelings of self-blame, rebuilding self-esteem, and developing healthier strategies for managing difficult emotions in a positive way. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brain spotting are two specialized forms of therapy that can also help to heal the trauma associated with the betrayal.
It is important to remember that you are not your trauma, nor should you be defined by it. Taking the step forward to better understanding and healing your betrayal trauma can provide lasting, positive benefits in all areas of your life.
Adam Gelinas is our Short-Term Therapist (Intern) and is completing his Masters’s in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University. One of Adam’s areas of interest includes trauma. Adam uses evidence-based modalities and an integrative approach in order to help his clients receive treatment that is personalized to their unique needs.