Yes, Betrayal is Real: The Psychological Trauma You Probably Don't Even Know You're Dealing With

I just finished watching a Tanmay Bhat vlog, which also happens to be my new midnight guilty pleasure. As I scrolled through YouTube, I stumbled upon a MedCircle video on Betrayal Trauma — a type of psychological trauma that more people need to talk about. Since I find everything related to the impact of infidelity interesting, you can only imagine my delight when I chanced upon this nugget online! And boy, was I in for a treat.

Betrayal trauma is not a pop psychology term; it is a clinically recognized term. Jennifer Freyd coined this term in 1994 to address situations where people or institutions, which were primarily relied upon for protection and support, violated the trust or well-being of an individual. Doesn’t that sound loaded?

This type of psychological trauma can be experienced in a relationship with a parent, a romantic partner, a family member, or even a coworker - anyone that you share a social relationship with and rely on for support or protection.

One experiences an intense feeling of hurt, pain, and disillusionment because of a breakdown in trust.

What you thought was - ends up being not 100% true. You realize that you were living a lie - yes, the clothes you wore and the people you spoke to were real, but the facts on which your feelings were based were not completely true - they were built on half-truths, deception, and lies. 

A prime example is when you are living with a partner for years only to find out they have been withholding vital information from you - this can range from financial infidelity, physical infidelity, and even emotional infidelity. It could also happen when you realize your parent has not been shielding you from an abusive relative. 

All too often, people ruminate in therapy. They get obsessive, playing instances on repeat, sieving through their actions and those of their partners to check if they missed something - a sign. It becomes all-encompassing and grows to become a part of their personality - mistrust, self-doubt, discomfort, second-guessing themselves, feeling unsure, etc. 

What becomes crucial is understanding what betrayal is. Betrayal is when you rely on someone for your psychological and emotional needs like love, protection, and safety - only to discover that the love does not exist or there is no safety in the relationship. Now, what we see unravel in therapy is the self-doubt, anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment, difficulty controlling emotions, intrusive thoughts about the betrayal, hypervigilance, suspicion, low self-esteem, low self-worth, depression, anxiety, physical symptoms (sigh! It’s a long and difficult list, indeed). Why does this happen?

Because the person who broke their trust reserved a special seat - a seat on which a lot of who and how they thought about themselves was influenced. Thus, when a betrayal happens, a person’s sense of who they think they are also shatters. We see the world through our eyes but lensed by the people around us, and someone we rely on for our basic psychological needs has a strong influence on our perception of ourselves.

For a betrayal to exist, a relationship must first exist, and thus, enters attachment theory. Like every good therapist, we know our earliest childhood relationships lay the groundwork for later relationships. When these bonds are strong and secure, they pave the way toward secure attachments in adulthood, and when they are not, this often leads to insecure bonds.

A 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 depend on your partner 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.

This helps me make sense of why some couples, despite loving each other insatiably, cannot get over the infidelity, and some can. It depends on aspects like their attachment styles that influence their reliance on the relationship and the said and unsaid rules of the relationship. 

Feeling betrayed is hard, experiencing betrayal trauma is harder. The relationship breakdown can bring about all the symptoms of PTSD caused due to a betrayal in the relationship. It may take months and years to work past it but with the right help, you can. Research suggests these three things are proven to be effective in helping one work through betrayal trauma:

  1. Accept all your emotions (this means the hard, negative, unhelpful ones like vengeance, grief, humiliation shame). This helps you navigate these emotions better and enables you to emotionally regulate them sooner and effectively.
  2. Build a support network that includes friends, family, loved ones, and your therapist.
  3. Speak, you need to start expressing yourself more. Try spreading it out because caregiver burnout is real.
  4. Curate a toolkit of exercises, distressing activities, affirmations, and helpful thoughts that can enable you to work through the repeated waves of immense hurt you will experience.

Betrayal trauma is a type of psychological trauma where one feels a lingering sense of pain after one has experienced trauma. It’s real! It’s not pop psychology! It requires real attention! And above everything else, it needs compassion.

Never forget that.

Back to blog

Meet The Author

Meet the Author

Priyanka Varma

Priyanka believes emotional and mental health care are at the very core of us experiencing happiness in our life. Priyanka enjoys working with young adults and understanding life as it changes with intrusions like the internet and the pandemic. Above everything else her true love is homemade chocolate cake.

Book A Session