What Is Betrayal Trauma?

betrayal Aug 01, 2023



Betrayal trauma theory was first introduced in 1991 by the psychologist Jennifer Freyd.  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.

The theory predicted that the more necessary a person or institution is perceived to be, the more likely a person is to experience an “unawareness” or “blindness” to betrayal.  The brain is hardwired to help us by blocking out painful realities so we can instead focus on meeting basic needs of survival and attachment

This phenomenon is often labeled "Betrayal Blindness" and explains why people often seem unable to see what is happening right in front of them.

It also explains why a child may appear to have a positive relationship with a certain adult, when in fact they are secretly being abused.  It's also why adults tend to stay in abusive relationships and make excuses for the abuser's bad behavior.



In recent years, the term "Betrayal Trauma" has been modified slightly for use in supporting spouses who experience marriage infidelity.  The framework is helpful to name and explain what women and men experience after discovering hidden sexual behaviors of their spouse. 

While this is a helpful application, it does not wholly describe the psychological experience of betrayal trauma.

From a more holistic approach, betrayal trauma occurs when a trusted person or group of people deviate from expected behavior so dramatically that you experience extreme shock and pain. The degree to which you are impacted by those deviations becomes the degree of trauma you experience.

For example, if your spouse agrees to make salad for dinner, but makes hamburgers instead, there is a deviation from expected behavior and a sense of betrayal. While frustrating, the overall impact is likely small.

In comparison, discovering your spouse has secretly been viewing pornography or having an affair with your best friend is also a deviation from expected behavior, but the impacts are far-reaching and the betrayal far worse.  Your whole life is turned upside down, not just your dinner plans.


Trauma or Narrative

While both examples above are categorically betrayal, the first is likely to be within a person's ability to process emotionally and thus NOT be encoded in the brain as trauma.  The second example, on the other hand, would likely be significantly outside of a person's ability to process emotionally and thus WOULD be encoded in the brain as trauma.  To understand this concept further, enroll in the Transforming Trauma course where you'll learn about how a person's Window of Tolerance at the time of experience dictates whether memories are encoded in the brain as trauma or narrative.

Because a person's Window of Tolerance changes across the lifespan, betrayal trauma can happen at all stages of development.  Children may experience betrayal when parents are unable to create physical and emotional safety.  For young adults, betrayal often occurs in friendships and romantic relationships. In early adulthood, betrayal can occur when it becomes obvious that parents are not mature enough to help guide them through the challenges of life.  In marriage, betrayal trauma occurs when a spouse violates the boundaries agreed to preserve the sanctity of their relationship.  This form of betrayal is sometimes called "Infidelity Trauma."



There are also complications in a marriage dynamic that make betrayal especially traumatic.  It is often the case that one spouse lacks financial or social resources outside of their relationship and thus are hesitant to confront the betrayal or leave the relationship.  This is often the case for betrayed women who have invested heavily in children and family over personal financial and professional accomplishment. 

In such cases, it's tempting to minimize or dismiss the trauma in order to maintain status quo, but this comes at great personal cost emotionally, mentally and physically (reference the Polyvagal Theory & Bessel von der Kolk's book The Body Keeps The Score).  This phenomenon is sometimes called "Betrayal Blindness," which can occur not only in marriage, but also during dating and engagement as well.  While it is rational and appropriate to pull away from a relationship that feels unsafe due to betrayal, if you depend on that person to meet certain needs, this healthy protective response may be extremely difficult to navigate.  This is why it is advantageous to work with a professional who understands betrayal trauma specifically.


Take Action

First, read the remaining three articles in this series about betrayal trauma, linked below, on the various types of betrayal trauma, the symptoms of betrayal trauma and how to start healing from betrayal trauma.

Second, enroll in our course specifically for betrayed women.  Hear from others who similarly experienced intimate partner betrayal, did the personal recovery work taught in Conquering Betrayal and are now flourishing and want to you help you experience the same freedom and healing.  Enroll in...


Conquering Betrayal







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