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Why Betrayal Can Cause Trauma and How to Start Healing

If someone close to you has ever broken your trust, you’ve probably felt the sting of betrayal. This pain can leave deep wounds.


Any type of betrayal can cause emotional distress, but you might experience lingering trauma when someone you depend on to respect your needs and generally help safeguard your well-being violates the trust you’ve placed in them.



Betrayal trauma typically refers to the lingering pain and turmoil experienced after:

  • betrayal by a parent or other childhood caregiver

  • betrayal by a romantic partner

When you rely on someone for basic needs as well as love and protection, you might accept a betrayal in order to ensure your own safety.

You might also find yourself accepting the possibility of future betrayals — something that can begin to degrade self-esteem, emotional well-being, and the ability to form attachments with others.


Understanding betrayal trauma theory

Betrayal trauma was first introduced as a concept by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in 1991. 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.

Betrayal trauma theory suggests harm within attachment relationships, like relationships between a parent and child or between romantic partners, can cause lasting trauma.

People often respond to betrayal by pulling away from the person who betrayed them. But when you depend on someone to meet certain needs, this response might not be feasible.

Children, for example, depend on parents to meet emotional needs along with food, shelter, and safety needs.

Similarly, someone who lacks financial or social resources outside of their relationship may fear that acknowledging the betrayal and leaving the relationship could put their safety at risk.

This fear of the potential consequences of acknowledging the betrayal might prompt the betrayed person to bury the trauma. As a result, they may not fully process the betrayal or remember it correctly, especially if it happens in childhood.

Signs and symptoms

The trauma of betrayal can affect physical and mental health, but the specific effects can vary depending on the type of trauma. Keep in mind that not everyone experiences trauma in the same way, either.


Beginning the recovery process

After a betrayal in a romantic relationship, you might find yourself dealing with ongoing trust issues and self-doubt. Even if you choose to give your partner another chance, it might take months, even years, to successfully rebuild trust.


Acknowledge instead of avoiding

Healing often requires you to first come to terms with what happened.

When you don’t address the betrayal, your turmoil can spill over to other areas of your life. You can’t erase it, so no matter how carefully you try to suppress what happened, you might catch yourself replaying those memories when you’re with friends, caring for your children, or driving to work.


Instead of getting trapped in an unrelenting cycle of self-doubt and self-criticism, you can begin coming to terms with underlying relationship issues, such as lack of communication or intimacy, and explore ways to resolve them.

Note: This doesn’t mean the blame for the betrayal lies with you. Choosing to cheat is an unhealthy response to relationship problems.


Practice accepting difficult emotions

Plenty of unpleasant emotions can show up in the aftermath of betrayal. It’s common to feel humiliated or ashamed. You might also feel furious, vengeful, sick, or grieved. Naturally, you might find yourself trying to avoid this distress by denying or trying to block what happened. Recognizing exactly what you’re dealing with can make it easier and less frightening to sit with those emotions and slowly increase your awareness of them. Greater emotional awareness, in turn, can help you begin identifying strategies to cope with those feelings more productively.


Turn to others for support

Opening up about betrayal isn’t always easy. You may not want to talk about childhood trauma or your partner’s affair. Yet people need emotional support, especially during stressful times. Your loved ones may not need to know exactly what happened, but they can still offer companionship when you don’t want to be alone and a distraction when you can’t get away from your looping thoughts.


Focus on what you need

After a partner cheats, most people need some time to decide whether to end the relationship or try repairing the damage. This isn’t something you should feel pressured to decide right away. A relationship therapist can offer support and guidance as you consider whether you believe rebuilding trust is possible.


How therapy can help

Trauma can be hard to confront on your own. Professional support can make a big difference in the healing process. In therapy, you can begin to acknowledge and work through a betrayal before it causes lingering distress.

Therapists trained to work with survivors of abuse and neglect can also help with unpacking the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma. If you have attachment issues, for example, a therapist might help you identify underlying causes of insecure attachment and explore strategies for building more secure relationships.


The bottom line

When someone you love and trust does something to shatter the foundations of your relationship, the resulting trauma can be severe.

You can heal, though, and you might even come back stronger as you rebuild your sense of self and gain tools for developing healthy relationships. Ready to take the first steps? A therapist can offer guidance along the way.






CTTO: healthline.com