couple discussing relationship betrayal challenges

Betrayal Trauma in a Relationship: What Is It?

“Stab the body and it heals, but injure the heart and the wound lasts a lifetime.”

 ~ Mineko Iwasaki

“For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been trust first.”

~ Suzanne Collins

Painful as they may be to accept, the above betrayal in a relationship quotes have more than a single element of truth to them.

Betrayal is a blade. When it strikes, it strikes with brutal efficiency. When it cuts, it cuts with merciless precision. And when it wounds, it wounds the very soul, for the victim is unsuspecting.

Betrayal trauma in a relationship is so potent and enduring because it shatters the very essence, the very premise upon which every connection is built: trust. Fortunately, there is a silver lining. What’s been shattered can be rebuilt, and every wound, no matter how deep, can heal. 

However, for the restoration process to even begin, the foundation needs to be rebuilt with a deeper understanding of its constituents. So, let us delve deep and familiarize ourselves with the definition of betrayal trauma and the psychological reasons behind it.

What Is Betrayal Trauma In A Relationship?

First introduced in 1991 by psychologist Jennifer Freyd, Betrayal Trauma Theory was developed as a framework to explain cognitive and emotional processes that occur when a person experiences betrayal, most notably in instances of abuse or harm within close relationships.

Since then, numerous studies have explored the impact of betrayal in various contexts, ultimately crystallizing the definition of betrayal trauma into what it is today:

  • Betrayal trauma refers to emotional and psychological distress that a person experiences after suffering betrayal within a relationship, particularly by someone they trust and/or depend upon.

Let’s put this in simpler terms through a hypothetical scenario: Person A relies upon Person B (e.g., romantic partner, caregiver, etc.) to fulfill their physical or emotional needs. If Person B continuously fails to meet expectations, whether deliberately or unintentionally, this effectively erodes the trust upon which the relationship is built.

However, since Person A is dependent on Person B, they can remain trapped in this cycle of shattered trust, broken promises, and endless disappointment, which typically triggers betrayal trauma, taking a severe toll on their physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

What Triggers Betrayal Trauma?

Betrayal is a complex issue for three main reasons. First, it can take many forms, some of which may seem innocent or insignificant at a glance. Second, the perception of this issue varies on an individual level, making it difficult (not impossible) to address the problem.

Third, betrayal in a relationship doesn’t have to be conscious or deliberate. While some instances involve intentional actions, many others may result from misunderstandings, poor communication, or individual struggles.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that unintentional betrayals are excusable or negligible. They can still cause significant harm, triggering or contributing to the formation of a betrayal trauma response.

What Counts As Betrayal In A Relationship?

From a socio-cultural standpoint, there is sort of a widely accepted “consensus” on what betrayal in a relationship is in terms of actions and behaviors. The most common examples include:

  • Infidelity: For most people, this is the very definition of betrayal in a relationship, as engaging in a romantic/sexual affair with a third party directly violates the exclusivity implied by the nature of a committed partnership.
  • Deception/dishonesty: Withholding critical information or outright lying about things directly pertaining to the relationship, including thoughts, feelings, or concerns, are all typically considered a gross violation of trust.
  • Broken promises: In this instance, the “promise” does not necessarily mean a verbal pledge. Instead, it’s about failing to fulfill commitments upon which the premises of the relationship reside.
  • Emotional neglect: Being dismissive, unsupportive, or outright ignoring a partner’s emotional needs often leaves a person feeling let down.
  • Disrespect: Whether through words or actions, being continuously inconsiderate of the partner’s thoughts, ideas, dreams, standpoints, worldviews, boundaries, or actions undermines one of the most fundamental principles of a healthy relationship: mutual respect.
  • Financial betrayal: Making financial decisions without the partner’s knowledge or agreement can constitute betrayal in a relationship, especially if both parties’ livelihood depends on joint finances.

The important thing to note here is that, with the exception of infidelity, the previous examples aren’t exclusive to romantic partnerships. Rather, they are applicable to various instances, including parent/child, friendly/platonic, and even professional relationships.

What Does Betrayal Trauma Look Like?

Like any other type of trauma, this one can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways, many of which can have far-fetched consequences on a person’s mental, emotional, and even physical health. Some common reactions to betrayal in a relationship include:

  • Emotional Distress:
    • Shock and disbelief are common initial reactions, especially if betrayal is sudden and unexpected.
    • Intense sadness usually follows after shock and disbelief, with a profound sense of loss and deep emotional pain resembling a grieving process.
  • Behavioral changes:
    • Self-isolation: A person may withdraw from social interactions, closing themselves off from family and friends.
    • Irritability: Anger is a common response to betrayal and can lead to bouts of short temper.
  • Cognitive responses:
    • Intrusive thoughts: Betrayal can cause a person to relive the traumatic event over and over, making it challenging to focus on other aspects of life.
    • Impaired cognitive functions: Persistent distressing thoughts may lead to difficulty concentrating, focusing, and decision-making.
  • Altered perceptions:
    • Diminished self-esteem: A severe breach of trust can lead a person to start questioning their own value and self-worth.
    • Trust issues: Betrayal trauma can cause an overwhelming and persistent lack of trust, even in aspects of life unrelated to relationships.
    • Re-victimization potential: In some instances, the victim’s perception of love can be altered to include betrayal as a default operating method, driving the person to not only expect it but continuously seek it out.
  • Mental health challenges:
    • Dissociation: Some individuals may temporarily “disconnect” from their feelings, becoming emotionally numb as a way of coping with overwhelming pain.
    • Hypervigilance: A victim may become overly cautious or reactive to potential threats.
    • Anxiety/Depression: These are among the most common psychological responses to betrayal trauma.
    • Maladaptive coping mechanisms: In the most severe cases, victims may turn to substance abuse or excessive use of distractions to deal with emotional pain.

Who Can Help Me Overcome Betrayal Trauma In A Relationship?

“Love comes to those who still hope after disappointment, 

who still believe after betrayal, and who still love after they’ve been hurt.”

 ~ Unknown Author

There’s an undeniable truth in the previous relationship betrayal quote. Yet, for the betrayed, it may be difficult to grasp that they are still deserving of love and a partnership, at least not without a gentle nudge in the right direction.

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PIVOT is here to provide more than a gentle nudge. At our serene Glass House Retreat, compassionate coaches provide personalized support, empowering individuals to embrace the future of healthy relationships and genuine connections. Join us today and let us help you uncover the true motives behind treacherous actions and turn the betrayal trauma of a past relationship into a tool for carving a better future!

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