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Trauma

The Cause and Effect of Partner Betrayal Trauma

What happens when you are hurt by the person you trust the most?

Key points

  • Betrayal Trauma occurs when someone's trust is violated by a person they rely on.
  • Partner Betrayal Trauma occurs when the perpetrator of the betrayal is a significant other, like a spouse.
  • Partner Betrayal Trauma can have a range of significant impacts on a person's life.
Christiana Rivers via Unsplash
Relationships aren’t always easy, and they certainly are never straightforward.
Source: Christiana Rivers via Unsplash

Relationships aren't always easy, and they are rarely straightforward.

However, most people go into a relationship, be it romantic, platonic, or otherwise, with an expectation that they will be able to trust the other person to meet certain needs.

In other instances, an individual not only expects the person to meet certain needs, but they depend on that person.

So, what happens when a significant other fails to meet those needs – or if they even go out of their way to reject those needs?

Betrayal Trauma Defined

First coined by psychologist Jennifer Freyd, betrayal trauma occurs when a person’s trust is violated by a person or system that they rely on for survival. In other words, when you trust a person or institution to provide for you physically, mentally, and/or emotionally, and they aren’t able to do so – or if they end up harming you instead – this can have a significant and lasting impact. A common example of betrayal trauma is when children have been neglected or abused by their caregivers.

A key distinguishing factor of betrayal trauma is the reliance on the betrayer. Victims of betrayal trauma do not have the choice to leave the situation they are in because they are dependent on the perpetrator to meet their physical, mental, and/or emotional needs.

Henri Pham via Unsplash
When a person relies on someone else to meet their needs, betrayal can leave a lasting impact
Source: Henri Pham via Unsplash

Failure on behalf of the perpetrator to meet these needs forces the victim to adapt in order to try to survive and/or maintain the relationship.

Partner Betrayal Trauma

Regular use of the term “betrayal trauma” is pretty new. Many mental health professionals might be more familiar with seeing the foundations of betrayal trauma in certain attachment styles, or developmental trauma — in other words, when focusing on the relationship between a child and their caregiver.

Betrayal trauma doesn’t just occur in the caregiver context. Partner Betrayal Trauma is when the perpetrator is a significant other, such as a boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse.

It is entirely possible – in fact, it's relatively common — for an individual to be reliant in some way on a partner, or to trust that they will meet the other’s needs. These needs might be financial (paying bills, managing funds), emotional (intimacy, support) or physical (sex, safety, basic needs). To betray that trust might look like cheating, manipulation, physical/sexual/emotional abuse, or withholding/misusing financial resources.

In some cases, a person might not even be entirely reliant on their partner – at least not literally – but it still feels as though leaving the perpetrator is not an option.

Regardless of how or in what way a person is reliant on a partner, when the perpetrator betrays the victim’s trust it can leave a lasting mark. Say a person was happily married for 20 years. They shared everything with the spouse, including a home and children, and relied on the spouse to provide a stable, loving relationship. If they suddenly learned that their spouse was cheating on them, how might that affect them?

The Impact of Partner Betrayal Trauma

Many current therapy clients are seeking help with partner betrayal trauma, and yet they have no idea of the root of their problems. This is because partner betrayal trauma can take many different forms, depending on the person, their age when the trauma occurred, and the trauma itself:

  • Betrayal Blindness. A large part of partner betrayal trauma is betrayal blindness. This is when a person consciously or unconsciously ignores signs of betrayal to try to preserve the relationship. They may deny behaviors, make excuses, and even become defensive if questioned about a partner’s actions. By avoiding the signs of betrayal, an individual can make the impact on themselves significantly worse as they work harder and harder to maintain the relationship.
  • Difficulty Trusting in Other Relationships. Having been betrayed in previous relationships, a victim of partner betrayal trauma may find it incredibly difficult to establish new positive, trusting relationships. They may be terrified of experiencing more betrayal, which could then prevent them from being able to develop trust in their partners, friends, or even family members.
  • Altered Definition of Love. Someone who has experienced significant betrayal by a partner might subconsciously come to terms with this by adjusting their personal definition of love. In other words, they may begin to consider things like abuse, infidelity, or any other form of betrayal as a normal part of love, and begin to not only expect it, but seek it out.
  • Re-Victimization. If a person’s definition of love has been altered to include betrayal, it makes sense that they would be at high risk to be victimized again in the future by either the same or by other partners.
  • Lowered Self-Esteem. Being betrayed by one’s partner can seriously affect someone's perception of themselves. They may feel shame or even guilt at being betrayed in the first place, begin to think that they deserved the betrayal, or think that they don’t deserve a positive relationship.
  • Mental Health Challenges. Unsurprisingly, partner betrayal can lead to serious issues with mental health, potentially to the level of a diagnosable mental health disorder. Many individuals may experience anxiety and/or depression as a result of betrayal trauma. Additionally, people with partner betrayal trauma often exhibit symptoms of PTSD, like hyper-vigilance, insomnia, or dissociation.

Experiencing considerable betrayal by a person that you rely on to support you physically, mentally, and emotionally can cause damage from the present moment well into the future. Should you suspect that yourself or someone you know is a victim of betrayal trauma, the answer may not be as simple as leaving the relationship.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Gagnon, K. L., Lee, M. S., & DePrince, A. P. (2019). Victim–perpetrator dynamics through the lens of betrayal trauma theory. In The Abused and the Abuser (pp. 131-140). Routledge.

Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma. Encyclopedia of psychological trauma, 76.

Solomon, J., & George, C. (Eds.). (2011). Disorganized attachment and caregiving. Guilford Press.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2005). Developmental. Psychiatric annals, 35(5), 401.

Kahn, L. (2006). The understanding and treatment of betrayal trauma as a traumatic experience of love. Journal of Trauma Practice, 5(3), 57-72.

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