Complex betrayal trauma makes you feel like you are losing your mind. It yanks your sense of security out from under you and puts you in a state of emotional free fall.
When complex betrayal trauma occurs, your brain begins to operate in a different way. The fear center fires up and stays fired up, creating hypervigilance, restlessness, anxiety, and a sense of being perpetually on guard. This alters your ability to regulate your mood, to calm yourself, to think, to reason, and to make intelligent decisions. Your fear center hijacks your normal functioning, and you find yourself in a world where every task feels challenging, your mind will not stop racing, your emotions feel out of control, and your coping skills are stretched to the limit.
What makes betrayal trauma qualify as a complex trauma? Christine Courtois, PhD, is a psychotherapist who wrote the book on complex trauma. She defines complex trauma as: “traumatic stressors that are interpersonal, that are premeditated, planned, and caused by other humans, such as violation and/or exploitation of another person.”[i]
Dr. Courtois defines complex betrayal trauma as: “multiple and repeated experiences of interpersonal trauma.”[ii] So complex betrayal trauma is both relational and repeated. It contains an element of betrayal by a trusted person, and it happens more than once. Often, it is ongoing, a chronic situation that lasts for months or even years.
Complex betrayal trauma is most often associated with children who experience this type of violation during key developmental moments. It also applies to ongoing adversity and/or repression experienced by cultures, groups, and communities. Moreover, it applies to adults who’ve experienced chronic relational trauma (for instance, ongoing sexual and emotional betrayal) that betrays the foundational trust in their primary relationship. In such cases, complex betrayal trauma is the only term that truly summarizes the level of stress, distress, and emotional fragmentation that betrayed partners experience.
Using Dr. Courtois’ description as a foundation, I define complex betrayal trauma as follows:
Complex betrayal trauma is the overlapping of three types of traumatic impact experienced by betrayed partners that occur simultaneously and influence and exacerbate each other. These three types of trauma—attachment trauma, emotional and psychological trauma, and sexual trauma—weave together, creating an overlapping, intertwined kaleidoscope of betrayal that often touches the nerve center of all three experiences concurrently.
Below is an info-graphic showing the way in which these three types of trauma come together to form complex betrayal trauma. See if this diagram resonates with your experience.
Over the next few weeks we are going to take a deeper look at the elements that comprise complex betrayal trauma. In next week’s post we will start by looking at attachment trauma.
[i] Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (2012). Treatment of complex trauma: A sequenced, relationship-based approach. Guilford Press.
[ii] Courtois, C.A. (2014). It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You: Complex Trauma and Treatment. Telemachus Press.