Over the past five years or so, betrayal trauma has started to enter our lexicon and be used in our everyday language. When I founded the Center for Relational Recovery (CRR) we had a page about betrayal trauma on our website, and when I would do a Google search for that term CRR’s page came up first or second, along with Jennifer Freyd’s research (she initiated Betrayal Trauma Theory back in the mid-90s), and there was very little else. Now if you search for that term you get links to many different articles and websites. So, we are starting to catch on to the fact that betrayal trauma is one of the major issues of our time.
As we start to hear and use this terminology more, I think it is essential that we don’t become numb to the word betrayal and the world of significance contained within that one three-syllable word. Betrayal is the thing that separates relational trauma from other types of trauma, changing the nature of the experience for those impacted.
Betrayal is a form of disloyalty or unfaithfulness to someone we’ve promised, explicitly or implicitly, to be loyal and/or faithful to. At the heart of this disloyalty are issues of dependence, vulnerability, and trust. When we are dependent on another person, whether that person is a spouse, a parent, or a trusted friend, inherent in that dependence is vulnerability and trust. By relying on that person, we have made ourselves vulnerable. We have shown our soft underbelly, trusting that that individual will understand the gift that our vulnerability is, and will treasure it, holding it with faithful, dependable kid gloves.
The two most vulnerable relationships we will ever have are with our parents or caregivers and our significant other. As children, we are at our most dependent and most vulnerable. As a result, betrayal by a parent or caregiver often reverberates long afterward, shaping our adult lives and relationships significantly. As adults, we are no longer physically and emotionally dependent in the same ways as when we were children, but we are still vulnerable in our relational connections.
We used to think that as we grew up, we became independent and no longer needed people. This idea of independence is deeply embedded in our cultural psyche and our understanding of what it means to be a mature adult both individually and in our relationships. How many times have you heard someone say, “Once I am OK by myself and doing well, I will be ready to be in a relationship.”
What research about attachment has shown us is that this is a profound misunderstanding of how we are wired for connection as humans. We now know that our dependency needs don’t go away as we mature. They stay with us and are transferred from our caregivers to our adult relationships. And the most important of these adult relationships is the one we have with our spouse or significant other.
In this relationship, we look to each other to find the affirmation, attention, support, consistency, and sense of importance that we need. We turn to one another and say to each other, “You are my home, where I get my need for belonging met. You are my lover, where I get my need to be desired and wanted met. You are my companion, where I get my need to matter, feel important, and paid attention to met. You are my comfort, where I get my need for support and care in the face of hardship met.”
By entrusting ourselves to our partner in these profoundly important ways, we make ourselves deeply vulnerable to and dependent on that person. We give our partner the keys to parts of ourselves that no one else gets to access. We invite our partner into the deepest parts of who we are.
It is this vulnerable, dependent entrusting of ourselves to the care of another that betrayal shatters. Betrayal is the metaphorical experience of having someone ask us to leap off the cliff, promising to catch us when we do, and then, after much hesitation and checking and many promises and reassurances, we jump, only to have that person step away at the last moment, letting us crash and burn. Our bodies will be bruised and broken, but our biggest wound will be the betrayal—believing we would be safely caught only to have the person violate his or her promise and step away, leaving us to shatter against the ground.
This experience—finding that our dependency, vulnerability, and trust have been broken—is at the heart of betrayal. And it is this experience that makes betrayal trauma so challenging to heal from.