Betrayal Trauma: What is it and how can you navigate it?

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Betrayal trauma can result from both interpersonal betrayal and institutional betrayal. (Credits: Getty Images)

Being hurt is one thing, but being hurt by someone you love – or someone you thought cared about you – cuts like a knife. 

Sometimes, it can have lasting effects.

A common example of this is in romantic relationships: when someone is hurt by a significant other or cheated on, they may find it difficult to trust other people in the future

This is what is known as betrayal trauma.

What is betrayal trauma?

The term betrayal trauma was coined in the early 1990s by American author and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon, Jennifer Joy Freyd.

It occurs when someone you trust and/or someone who has power over you mistreats you and can harm people psychologically and physically. 

‘When we have been betrayed by someone it can feel as if the ground is suddenly pulled from under our feet – what we believed was a solid basis of trust and security is shattered,’ psychologist and author Dr Meg Arroll tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The emotional pain that emanates after a betrayal can feel as acute as a physical injury and leave enduring psychological scars if not processed adequately.’

Betrayal trauma can occur in childhood, often resulting from inconsistent or neglectful early life caregiving, but it can also form from romantic relationships, close friendships and within grown-up families. 

‘We often only think of betrayal in terms of our romantic partners but breaches of trust in other close relationships can have just as much impact as infidelity,’ Dr Arroll adds. 

But why does it cut so deep? According to Dr Arroll, it’s down to evolution.

‘In evolutionary terms we are social creatures that rely on our groups for safety, security and survival,’ she notes. ‘In this day and age, we may not necessarily need others to fend off dangerous predators, but we are still hardwired in the same way as early humans. 

‘This is why a betrayal can feel so overwhelming as it is a perceived threat to survival.’

Interpersonal vs institutional betrayal

Betrayal trauma can result from interpersonal betrayal (like the examples mentioned above), but also from institutional betrayal. 

Harley Street Trauma Specialist Olivia James gives the example of the recent sexual harassment allegations and murder charges in the UK police force. 

‘The police have a duty of care towards the public, and they also have a duty of care towards the people who work for them, but they often betray the trust we have placed in the institution,’ she tells us.

‘When Wayne Couzens was convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, we got the message that we weren’t safe.’

The same can be said for police brutality against Black people.

Another example can be sexual harassment from strangers. 

‘Being harassed or undermined in the workplace, being catcalled in the street, being followed, groped, shouted at and feeling unable to defend ourselves takes its toll,’ says James.

‘When other men witness this and do nothing it feels like interpersonal betrayal, which is a type of trauma. We feel we cannot count on the good guys to protect us.’

Betrayal trauma can result in post-traumatic stress disorder or cause someone to develop trust issues that damage their interpersonal relationships.

‘Betrayal trauma can destabilise us completely,’ James tells us. ‘We can lose trust in our own judgement and we feel unsafe and unsupported. 

‘It truly is one of the most severe types of trauma as we exist in connection with others.

‘Betrayal like that can alter the course of someone’s life, and there are no easy fixes.’

With that being said, how can someone dealing with betrayal trauma learn to navigate it?

How to navigate betrayal trauma

For one, there are a number of different kinds of therapies that can help people dealing with betrayal trauma, including Integral Eye Movement Therapy (IEMT), Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).

‘They all have a somatic element because trauma is stored in the body not just in the mind,’ says James.

Coping mechanisms are also a natural reaction, but it’s important to learn to be present with uncomfortable feelings.

‘Our instinct is to push emotional hurt aside, sometimes with food, alcohol, obsessive behaviours and other maladaptive strategies, but the only way to reduce the negative effects of a betrayal is to acknowledge the pain,’ says Dr Arroll. 

‘This doesn’t mean letting the negative feelings take over, rather noticing them, experiencing these emotions and developing coping strategies. 

‘This can be achieved with the help of a therapist or through self-help means such as emotional writing. 

‘However if you do feel that you’re not coping well, seek out the support from a professional who will help you to work through his type of trauma.’ 

To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.


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