Understanding Complex Betrayal Trauma: Symptoms, Signs, and More

CEO, Co-founder and Partner
Cheryl has been working in the private Mental Health and Addiction treatment world for 30 years, as a clinician, clinical director, program founder, program administrator, and facility decorator!

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Understanding Complex Betrayal Trauma: Symptoms, Signs, and More

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Following a betrayal by someone we loved or trusted, we often feel shattered, wondering if or how we will ever regain ourselves. It can cause shock, loss, anger and grief. We even might doubt if we will ever have a future. The acutely despondent or even depressed feeling after a betrayal can leave us crushed with self-doubt and chronically distrustful. 

Many never overcome the impact of betrayal, so understanding what Betrayal Trauma is can be an important step to healing. In this article I provide a brief explanation of what it is, the various types, main symptoms and relationship to PTSD.

Understanding Betrayal Trauma

If you’ve ever been betrayed by an intimate partner, family member or institution, you may have suffered Complex Betrayal Trauma. It was first proposed by Jennifer Joy Freyd, PhD who defined it as: “Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person“. 

What really sets this kind of trauma apart is that the betrayed person still needs to have a relationship with the betrayer and so risks facing more trauma as a result. 

Betrayal trauma is mainly a result of breaches of trust and safety as well as emotional or sexual abuse or physical violence. It can deeply affect your self-esteem, emotional health and relationships with others. 

Someone who has experienced betrayal trauma also suffers from the severe violation of trust they formerly had in the individual or institution. And that’s in addition to anxiety and depression. 

Betrayal trauma can be hard to define. It’s also challenging to recover from. While different from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it can lead to and provoke the development of PTSD’s emotional, psychological and physical symptoms.

People who have experienced betrayal forget or minimize the traumatic events. This causes them to disconnect or dissociate from their emotions and feel fear and shame. They do this in an attempt to distance themselves from the pain, but still maintain their connection or alliance to the source of their trauma. 

This is called “betrayal blindness”.  Often it’s done because of some dependence on the perpetrator, usually to provide materially for them, but emotionally as well for some.

In addition to the betrayal itself, an individual may have had to deal with other emotionally and psychologically abusive behaviors including:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Neglect
  • Manipulation
  • Gaslighting
  • Lying
  • Infidelity
  • Dishonesty about finances, sexual behaviors 

Types of Betrayal Traumas

There are a variety of types of betrayal trauma, including:

Familial Betrayal

This involves broken trust between people in intimate relationships who are the primary attachment figures for their children. There are documented links between this form of betrayal in childhood to dissociation and PTSD later in life. It may take many forms including:

  • Sexual abuse from a caregiver
  • Violence among intimate partners
  • Threatening the child
  • Constant instability at home
  • Emotional neglect
  • Financial neglect
  • Parent with mental illness or drug addiction

Intimate Partner Betrayal 

Betrayal may commonly occur in love relationships. This can be devastating to live through. It may take place gradually or suddenly with no notice. Common types include:

  • Physical or verbal abuse
  • Making threats 
  • Sexual violence or coercion
  • Stalking 
  • Humiliation
  • Controlling behaviors (e.g. their money or social circle)

Interpersonal Betrayal 

Traumas between groups of people, such as friends, coworkers or bosses, neighbors, or other family members. May range from covert to very obvious. Trust is eroded leading someone to feel reluctant to trust others.

Institutional Betrayal

This form of trauma can happen when an institution causes harm to the people it is designed to serve. This may be in governments, mental health facilities, hospitals among others, for example where a caregiver who has abused a patient, worsens the patient’s condition. Or a school consistently fails to prevent a child from being bullied.

Cultural Betrayal

Primarily among minority groups where there is a high level of trust among group members and sense of security against social inequalities. Betrayal trauma of this type may cause dissociation and internalized prejudice. 

Betrayal Trauma Symptoms

There is a wide range of symptoms for Betrayal Trauma, including:

Childhood Trauma

  • Difficulty expressing or managing emotions
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nightmares
  • Physical pains
  • Stomachaches
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Trust and relationship issues
  • Attachment issues
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance use

Intimate Relationship Betrayal

  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-blame
  • Dissociation
  • Grief
  • Ruminating about affairs
  • Fixation on the betrayer
  • Obsession
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of faith in others
  • Numbness
  • Self-blame
  • Shame
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Suspicion and hypervigilance
  • Dysregulated emotions
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia, pain and stomach distress
  • Loss of trust

Is Betrayal Trauma the Same as PTSD?

Betrayal trauma does not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5). But, symptoms of Betrayal Trauma are closely related to those of Complex PTSD (CPTSD) which occurs as a result of abuse and ongoing trauma (DSM-5-TR 2022).

So, Betrayal Trauma is not PTSD and not all trauma causes PTSD. The primary differences between PTSD and CPTSD are the length of trauma and the symptoms. Both have symptoms of psychological and behavioral stress responses, such as:

  • Flashback
  • Hypervigilance
  • Efforts to avoid distressing reminders of the traumatic events. 

In addition, those with CPTSD typically have additional symptoms including chronic and extensive issues with:

  • Emotion regulation
  • Identity and sense of self
  • Relationships

Do I Need Help?

If you have several of the above symptoms for at least two weeks, then you may benefit from professional help with a doctor or mental health professional.

Therapy is especially important to provide you with a place to:

  • Vent without judgment
  • Process grief patiently
  • Find empathy
  • Get psychoeducation
  • Guidance when ready

A licensed trauma-informed therapist with experience in Complex PTSD and Betrayal Therapy is your best choice, if available. This is a specialized area and experience is important. Especially helpful therapeutic approaches include:

  • Talk therapy
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness

Corner Canyon Can Help

Treatment for Betrayal Trauma and CPTSD is available in Utah. If you or a loved one are looking for a compassionate space to heal from mental health issues such as Betrayal Trauma or CPTSD with our licensed professional counselors, reach out to our Admissions team now at Corner Canyon Health Centers. We’re in a peaceful setting bordered by the beautiful Wasatch Mountains.


Freyd JJ. What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory?. University of Oregon.

CPTSD (Complex PTSD). 2023. Cleveland Clinic.

CEO, Co-founder and Partner
Cheryl has been working in the private Mental Health and Addiction treatment world for 30 years, as a clinician, clinical director, program founder, program administrator, and facility decorator!

Liz Lund, MPA

Liz is originally from lush green Washington State. She is a life enthusiast and a huge fan of people. Liz has always loved learning why people are the way they are. She moved to UT in 2013 and completed her bachelors degree in Psychology in 2016. After college Liz worked at a residential treatment center and found that she was not only passionate about people, but also administration. Liz is recently finished her MPA in April 2022. Liz loves serving people and is excited and looking forward to learning about; and from our clients here at Corner Canyon.
When Liz is not busy working she love being outdoors, eating ice cream, taking naps, and spending time with her precious baby girl and sweet husband.