In the 1990s, psychologist Jennifer Freyd coined the concept “betrayal trauma” to describe what “occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being.” Infidelity, child abuse, and intimate partner violence are examples of events that can cause betrayal trauma because they all involve a breach of trust between people in an intimate relationship. Betrayal trauma can also happen when an institution, such as a government or law enforcement body, harms the individuals it claims to serve.
“Generally speaking, betrayal trauma is ‘triggered’ when a person/institution that we rely on for support (food, shelter, safety, emotional needs, job security) violates our boundaries,” Coker explains. “This can range from early childhood experiences where our basic needs weren’t met, to infidelity within romantic relationships, to institutional silence with regards to highly charged social justice issues.”
The impacts of betrayal trauma are often compounded by the fact that the person who was harmed may need to remain in the abusive relationship for survival, as in the case of child abuse or institutional abuse, Coker explains. “In this case, it isn’t to our advantage to react in the ‘normal way’ to the betrayal (i.e., leave the relationship or institution). Instead, we must suppress and ignore the betrayal in order to have our needs met.”
According to the 2008 Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma, in instances of betrayal trauma, “the victim may be less aware or less able to recall the traumatic experience because to do so will likely lead to confrontation or withdrawal by the betraying caregiver, threatening a necessary attachment relationship and thus the victim’s survival.” Betrayal triggers can be particularly hard to grasp in situations where there isn’t a direct antecedent, Coker adds.
That said, betrayal trauma theory argues that safe and trustworthy attachments can be developed if these traumas are properly confronted and healed.