If a parent or romantic partner violates your trust, you may experience betrayal trauma. This trauma may affect your self-esteem, emotional health, and relationships with others, but support can help you heal.
Any betrayal can cause emotional distress. But you might experience lingering trauma when someone you depend on to respect your needs and help safeguard your well-being violates your trust.
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 to ensure your safety.
You might also find yourself accepting the possibility of future betrayals — which can begin to degrade your self-esteem, emotional well-being, and ability to form attachments.
The psychologist Jennifer Freyd first introduced betrayal trauma as a concept 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.
The fear of the 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.
Relation to attachment theory
Though experts originally applied the concept of betrayal trauma to children betrayed by caregivers, this type of trauma can also happen in other relationships.
Let’s take a step back to the basics of attachment theory — attachment comes before betrayal, after all.
Your 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.
Insecure bonds, on the other hand, often lead to shaky or troubled relationships.
A parent bringing a child into the world has a responsibility to protect and care for that child. This responsibility forms an unspoken agreement between parent and child. The child looks to the parent to prioritize their well-being, and they typically trust their parents entirely — until the parent lets them down.
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.
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.
The effects of betrayal can appear shortly after the trauma and persist into adulthood.
Key signs include:
- trouble recognizing, expressing, or managing emotions
- anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms
- physical pain or stomach distress
- panic attacks
- thoughts of suicide
- difficulty trusting others
- attachment issues
- eating disorders
- substance use
Children who experience betrayal may also dissociate or detach from reality to avoid memories of the abuse.
If your parent fails to protect you, this betrayal can so deeply contradict what you expect that you end up blocking it to maintain the attachment. Blinding yourself to the betrayal and your fear of future betrayals helps you survive in a relationship you believe you can’t escape.
Your ability to “forget” becomes a coping mechanism. Yet, while dissociation might help you cope with the trauma, it can also affect your memory and sense of self.
Betrayal in a romantic relationship usually takes the form of infidelity, though other types of betrayal, such as financial betrayal, can also provoke a trauma response.
The discovery of infidelity often leads to:
- loss of self-esteem and self-worth
- difficulty controlling emotions
- intrusive thoughts about affair details
- loss of faith in others
- suspicion and hypervigilance
- depression, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms
- physical symptoms, including insomnia, pain, and stomach distress
Betrayal blindness can also happen in the context of romantic relationships.
Maybe you don’t exactly need your partner to survive, but you might still feel unable to leave for any number of reasons — children, lack of options, no income of your own.
Relationships also fulfill important belonging and social connection needs, and a betrayal can leave you wondering how to get those needs met in the future.
Instead of staying alert to signs of cheating, you might choose (often unconsciously) to ignore or overlook clues to safeguard your relationship and protect your mental health.
You can experience betrayal trauma when someone you rely on for support breaks your trust. This may occur due to:
- physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse
- dishonesty, such as about financial problems, debt, or other secretive behaviors
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.
If you dealt with childhood trauma by dissociating or blocking out what happened, your memories may eventually resurface, especially if something similar happens to trigger their return. Blocking them again may not be an option. Even if you manage to shove your memories away again, this won’t help you heal.
The route to recovery may not look the same for everyone, but these strategies can help you take the first steps.
Acknowledge instead of avoid
Healing often requires you to first come to terms with what happened.
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.
Leaning into a trauma like infidelity might seem too painful even to consider. But acknowledging it allows you to begin exploring the reasons behind it, which can help kick off the healing process.
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
Unpleasant emotions can show up in the aftermath of betrayal. You may feel:
- furious or vengeful
Naturally, you might try to avoid this distress by denying or trying to block what happened.
Although hiding from upsetting emotions might seem easy and safe, avoiding or masking them can make regulating them more difficult.
Putting a name to specific emotions — anger, regret, loss — can help you navigate them more effectively.
Recognizing your emotions can make sitting with them easier and less frightening. Greater emotional awareness, in turn, can help you identify 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 it. Plus, once someone has betrayed your trust, you might have difficulty confiding in others.
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 distraction when needed.
It’s perfectly OK to politely let your friends know when you’d like guidance and want to share feelings.
You may want to step carefully when discussing a partner’s cheating with mutual friends. Gossip can make a difficult situation even more painful, so you may want to save the in-depth details for your most trusted loved ones.
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.
As you begin to recover from the initial shock of trauma, pay extra attention to your needs:
- Instead of lying awake, cycling through distressing thoughts, try aromatherapy, a warm bath, or soothing music to relax and improve your sleep.
- Instead of skipping meals when you feel nauseous or have no appetite, snack on energy-boosting foods and keep yourself hydrated.
- Favorite movies and TV shows can provide calm and comfort but try to mix in some other hobbies, too. Yoga, walking, reading, or gardening all offer mood-boosting benefits.
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 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.
Most mental health experts recommend some form of couples therapy when attempting to heal a relationship after infidelity.
It’s also important, however, to work with a therapist on your own to:
- examine any feelings of self-blame
- work to rebuild self-esteem
- learn healthy strategies for coping with difficult emotions
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.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.