Credit: Karla Ruiz

What is Betrayal Trauma?

  • How do you begin to heal when you discover that your partner has been unfaithful?
  • How do you learn to trust again when a family member has betrayed you?
  • How do you move forward when your boss abused their position of power and sexually harassed you?

In the wake of a betrayal, many people feel their world has been shattered. Some are left wondering whether they even have a future at all. Betrayal and the ensuing sense of despondence can leave victims with chronic distrust problems and crippling self-doubt. Being betrayed by a trusted person can have a long-lasting impact on physical and mental well-being and compromises the ability to form lasting relationships with others.

In her article ‘Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches’  Dr. Christine Courtois highlights the interconnectedness of betrayal trauma and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), stating that “complex trauma generally refers to traumatic stressors that are interpersonal, that is, they are premeditated, planned, and caused by other humans, such as violating and/or exploitation of another person” (Courtois, 2019). Betrayal causes immense emotional pain and has far-reaching physical and psychological consequences, which are not easily overcome in a day, a week, a month, or even a year. Some people never get over the impact of betrayal. Healing from betrayal requires intense reflection and work on personal growth to rebuild a sense of worthiness, self-confidence, and belonging. Learning to trust others is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. Recovery from betrayal is isolating and painfully difficult and often leads to a transformation of the self.

Types of Betrayal

The most common types of betrayal include the disclosing of confidential information, disloyalty, infidelity, and dishonesty. At the least, betrayal causes shock, loss, anger, and grief; at worst, it can cause anxiety disorders and PTSD (Rachman, 2010).

Examples of betrayal:

  • Discovering that your husband/wife/partner had a physical, emotional or online affair.
  • Finding out that your husband/wife/partner has engaged in addictive behaviour, e.g. drug-taking, gambling, porn.
  • Experiencing sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a family member or by a key relationship.
  • Discovering that your friend told someone a secret that you entrusted them with.
  • Finding out that your co-worker used your work as their own to elevate their status.
  • When your family justifies your partner’s abusive behaviour.
  • When a boss abuses their position of power and takes advantage of you.
  • Failure to offer or provide support and assistance during times of physical or emotional need.

Types of Betrayal Trauma

  • Institutional
  • Parental
  • Partner
  • Interpersonal, e.g. friends.

Additionally, any of these types of betrayal trauma may be accompanied by ‘betrayal blindness’,  an unawareness or forgetting of the act of betrayal. (Freyd, 1999).  This adaptive response may be associated with betrayals not traditionally recognised as trauma, such as adultery, inequities in the workplace and society, etc. Victims may unwittingly manifest symptoms of betrayal blindness to preserve the relationships and social systems upon which they depend. (Freyd, 2021). 

Symptoms of Betrayal Trauma 

  • Chronic mistrust
  • Commitment issues
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Hopelessness
  • Dissociation
  • OCD
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Confusion & self-doubt
  • Panic, anxiety & depression
  • Irritability and rage
  • Fear
  • Toxic shame and guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loss of confidence & self-worth
  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Withdrawal from social interactions
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships

Childhood trauma and the associated betrayal can elicit symptoms that continue through adulthood and often prevent the formation of deep, intimate relationships due to past experiences. The severity of betrayal trauma is complex because it concerns not only the experience of the act of abuse but also the experience of being betrayed by a trusted person or someone the victim relies on for support and survival. Symptoms of betrayal trauma do not meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) diagnostic criteria for PTSD. However, symptoms of betrayal trauma are closely related to those of CPTSD which occurs as a result of abuse and ongoing trauma. (Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5-TR 2022)

Feelings and effects of betrayal such as degradation, rejection, and humiliation can be catastrophic and life-changing. Betrayal on any level causes immense emotional pain and can be incredibly isolating, but with professional help, therapy, and support, many trauma victims go on to live fulfilling lives. Trauma-informed therapy, such as that offered by the C-PTSD Foundation, helps individuals move forward in their personal and professional lives with ongoing support that promotes healing and recovery. Some individuals with extensive trauma histories may remain in therapy for years; however, recovery is possible with a trauma-informed approach and lots of determination and support.


  • Courtois, C. A. (2019). Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches. Understanding complex trauma, complex reactions, and treatment approaches – Gift From Within. Retrieved from
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: Dsm-5-Tr
  • Freyd, J. J. (1999, June). Blind to Betrayal: New Perspectives on Memory for Trauma. Retrieved from
  • Freyd, J. J. (2021). What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory? Definition of Betrayal Trauma Theory. Retrieved from
  • Rachman, S. (2010). Betrayal: A psychological analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48(4), 304–311.

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