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  • Writer's pictureDr. Shira Olsen

Why Does Betrayal Trauma Hurt So Badly?

Betrayal Trauma Therapy in Seattle and Bellevue, WA

A partner affected by betrayal trauma experiences a level of pain that is indescribable. The hurt is so profound and complex, partners often wonder if it will ever get better. The betrayed partner's experience of devastation is valid.

Imagine that you finally let someone into your personal world completely, someone you trust with your heart and your secrets. You build a life together, a safe space where you can be vulnerable and loved for who you are. Then, the unthinkable happens. That trust is shattered, replaced by a gaping hole of confusion, anger, and a deep, sickening pain. That's what betrayal trauma feels like. It's like the rug has been ripped out from under you, leaving you feeling exposed and disoriented. The person you trusted most, the one who was supposed to have your back, became the source of your deepest hurt.

Betrayal has been shown to impact individuals in a uniquely painful way. It is understood that individuals betrayed by a loved one experience symptoms similar to going through a traumatic event. But there is a much deeper level of pain to betrayal that can have lasting effects beyond just posttraumatic stress symptoms. If you have experienced betrayal, you may be struggling to understand why this pain feels so intense and difficult to grapple with.

It's more than just the initial pain. Betrayal throws everything you thought you knew about trust and safety into question. It's like being kicked in the gut, not just physically, but emotionally. It's important to understand this pain. It's not weakness, it's a natural response to a traumatic event.  Knowing why it hurts so badly can be the first step towards healing. Here's why it cuts so deep:

Betrayal Violates Our Safety

We all have a fundamental need for safety and security, especially from those closest to us. When someone we trust betrays us, it feels like the very foundation of our world has crumbled. You trusted this person completely, and they went and broke that trust in a way that feels personal and deliberate. It makes you question your own judgment and wonder who you can trust ever again.

Betrayal Leads to Feelings of Shame and Self-Blame

Sometimes, the betrayal can trigger feelings of shame or even self-blame. You might wonder, "What did I do wrong?" This is especially true if the betrayal involved gaslighting or manipulation. The emotional roller coaster if betrayal can trigger a whirlwind of emotions – anger, sadness, confusion, even self-loathing. It's like being on a never-ending emotional rollercoaster, with no way to get off.

Betrayal is a violation, a tearing apart of the fabric of trust. But on top of the initial pain and anger, it can also usher in some unwelcome guests: shame and self-blame. Here's why:

The Gaslighting Effect

Some betrayals involve manipulation and gaslighting, where the perpetrator twists reality and makes the victim question their own perceptions and judgment. This can lead to a devastating sense of self-doubt. "Was it really that bad? Maybe I'm overreacting." These insidious questions can plant seeds of shame, making you feel responsible for the betrayal somehow.

The Erosion of Self-Esteem

Betrayal can chip away at your sense of self-worth. You might wonder, "Why didn't I see this coming?" "Am I not good enough to be loved and respected?" These internal dialogues can fuel feelings of inadequacy and shame, making you feel like you deserved it in some way.

The Need for Control (That Isn't There)

Humans have a natural desire for control over our lives. When something as significant as a betrayal happens, it can feel like you've lost control entirely. This lack of control can morph into self-blame. You might start to search for ways you could have prevented the betrayal, even if the reality is that your partner's actions were outside your control.

The "What-If" Game

The mind can be a cruel place after betrayal. You might get stuck in a loop of "what-ifs," replaying the situation and wondering if you could have done something differently to prevent it. This internal blame game fuels feelings of inadequacy and shame, leaving you feeling responsible for the actions of another person.

The Erosion of Self-Worth

Betrayal can chip away at your sense of self-worth. You might start questioning your judgment, your ability to pick good partners, and even your lovability. "Why would someone I trusted hurt me like this?" This internal dialogue can be incredibly damaging, leading to self-blame and a deep sense of shame.

Betrayal Creates Intense Grief and Anger

The loss of trust and the shattered dreams can feel like a death. Now, that future feels stolen, replaced by a gaping hole of uncertainty. This loss triggers a deep and intense grief. You mourn the person you thought they were, the relationship you cherished, and the future you envisioned together. It's a raw and painful process, filled with tears, anger, and a deep sense of longing.  

Alongside the grief, there's anger. You may feel anger at the person who betrayed you for violating your trust and causing you so much pain. Anger at yourself, perhaps, for trusting too much, for missing the signs, or for not being strong enough to prevent it. This anger can be overwhelming, but it's a natural part of the healing process. It's the body's way of saying, "This isn't okay! This needs to change!"

Betrayal is Relational

The closer you are to someone, the more devastating it feels when they betray you. You would not, for instance, feel the same level of devastation if an acquaintance lied to you versus your spouse. When someone you love and trust hurts you, it’s difficult not to generalize this experience and fear that other people in your life could easily hurt you as well. This belief is unsettling and can impact your ability to be open and vulnerable with others.

Betrayal is inherently relational because the pain it inflicts is directly tied to the depth of the bond. Here's why:

The Investment Factor

The closer the relationship, the more we invest ourselves emotionally. We share our secrets, vulnerabilities, and dreams with those we trust most. When that trust is betrayed, it feels like the entire foundation of the relationship crumbles. It's not just the act itself, but the violation of the sacred space you built together.

The Expectation Equation

With close relationships comes a natural expectation of loyalty, honesty, and support. These expectations are especially strong in romantic partnerships, where we rely on our significant other as a safe harbor in life's storms. When betrayal occurs, it shatters these expectations, leaving us feeling confused, disillusioned, and questioning the very nature of love and trust.

The Generalization Trap

The emotional pain of betrayal can be so intense that it triggers a fear of future vulnerability. You might start to believe that everyone is capable of hurting you, leading to a fear of intimacy and a reluctance to open up to new relationships. This "generalization trap" can be isolating and prevent you from forming healthy, trusting connections in the future.

Betrayal Threatens Our Natural Instincts

Humans are social creatures. We're wired for connection, and a big part of that is the ability to trust and bond with others. This deepens our sense of belonging, safety, and well-being. When we choose a partner to share our lives with, we activate this natural trust instinct. We believe, on some level, that this person will be a safe haven, someone we can rely on and be vulnerable with. We long for this belonging and connection. After we select a partner and emotionally attach to them, we naturally believe that they will never hurt us.

Betrayal throws a wrench into this fundamental human need. When we are betrayed, our judgement and intuition about this person is now called into question. No longer believing that you can trust your gut feels scary. You might question your judgment, your worthiness of love, and your ability to navigate relationships in the future. This confusion and loss of self can leave you feeling unsure of who you are anymore.

Betrayal is Traumatic

We enter relationships, especially romantic ones, with the expectation of trust and support. They become our sanctuaries, places where we can let down our guard and be vulnerable. Betrayal shatters that sanctuary. It's like a safe haven turning into a minefield – you never know when the ground beneath you might give way.

The experience of betrayal can trigger a trauma response. We may experience flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and emotional dysregulation. Our nervous system goes into overdrive, constantly scanning for threats and struggling to return to a state of calm.

In any relationship, we build a foundation of beliefs about the other person and ourselves. With betrayal, these core beliefs – "they love me," "they have my back," "I can trust them completely" – crumble to dust. This can lead to a crisis of identity, leaving you unsure of who to trust and what to believe anymore.

No one plans on being betrayed. You are in a relationship because you believe that your significant other is safe, trustworthy, and will not hurt you. When betrayal occurs, these beliefs are shattered in an instant making you question your views about yourself, your world, and the people in it.

Betrayal Creates Confusion and Self-Doubt

The trauma of betrayal throws everything into question. Suddenly, you wonder if anything you thought you knew about the relationship or about yourself was real. When intimate betrayal is not something you would ever do and thus outside of your values, it can be difficult to comprehend how someone could do such a thing.

We enter relationships with certain expectations. We trust our partners to be honest, reliable, and have our best interests at heart. When betrayal occurs, it shatters this reality. You might question everything you thought you knew about your partner, the relationship, and even yourself. "Did I miss the signs?" "Was the whole relationship a lie?" These questions can be relentless, leaving you feeling disoriented and fille with self-doubt.

Here are some additional ways the trauma of betrayal fuels confusion and self-doubt:

Loss of Trust in Intuition

We all have an internal compass, an intuition that guides us and helps us make decisions. After a betrayal, that inner voice can become unreliable. You might question your judgment, wondering, "Why didn't I listen to my gut feeling?" This can be especially damaging if the betrayal involved manipulation or gaslighting. Suddenly, your ability to discern truth from deception feels compromised, leaving you unsure who to trust and how to navigate future relationships.

Identity Crisis

Betrayal can trigger a crisis of self-worth. You might start questioning your ability to pick good partners, your attractiveness as a romantic partner, or even your very sense of self. "What did I do wrong?" "Am I not good enough?" These thoughts can erode your self-esteem and make it difficult to believe you deserve a healthy, trusting relationship.

The Blame Game

Sometimes, the confusion caused by betrayal leads to internalized blame. You might replay the events in your mind, searching for ways you could have prevented the betrayal. This self-blame can be a way of regaining a sense of control in a situation that feels chaotic.

Trying to make sense of someone’s betrayal is exhausting and can lead you to believe it is somehow your fault. Our mind wants a simple explanation, and unfortunately the quickest solution leads us to blame or doubt ourselves, even when it’s not our fault.

Betrayal Leaves You Feeling Completely Alone

The aftermath of betrayal can leave you feeling isolated and alone. You might feel like you can't confide in anyone for fear they may hurt you too. The pain of betrayal can be so deep that sharing it feels like inviting further hurt. You might worry about being judged for trusting the person who betrayed you, or for not seeing the signs. This fear can keep you from reaching out to friends, family, or even a therapist for support. You might feel adrift, unsure of who to turn to or how to pick up the pieces.

The fear of future betrayal can lead to a vicious cycle of isolation. You pull away from potentially close relationships, shutting yourself off from the very connections that could bring love and joy back into your life. This isolation can worsen the initial pain of betrayal, creating a sense of loneliness and disconnection.

Betrayal Feels Deeply Personal

When you are betrayed, it’s personal. When it's someone else, we find every excuse to not make it about them. Although irrational, this personal bias exists for a reason. When faced with extreme pain our mind tries to quickly make sense of it in order to regain safety — the logic is, if I can figure this out, I will no longer feel as hurt. With no good explanation on hand, we resort to the simplest solution, which is, it must be something about me.

Betrayal trauma can feel isolating, like no one can truly understand the depth of your hurt. But you're not alone. Many people experience this kind of pain, and there is hope for healing. With time, healing, and support, you can rebuild trust, rediscover your strength, and find healthy ways to connect with others again.

Healing From Betrayal Trauma and Creating a Path Forward

It's crucial to remember that intimate betrayal is not your fault. Your partner made a conscious choice to violate your trust, and you are not to blame for their actions. Shame and self-blame are natural reactions to a traumatic experience, but they don't serve you. Healing from betrayal involves self-compassion. Acknowledge your pain, but don't let your internal critic hold you hostage. Focus on what you can control – your thoughts, your actions, and your path forward.

If you have been betrayed, seeking professional help from a betrayal trauma therapist can be an invaluable experience and ease your suffering. Working through your thoughts and feelings will allow you to break free from the grips of betrayal. If you would like to learn more please contact us at our Bellevue, WA practice to see if working with a therapist could be beneficial.

About The Author

Dr. Shira Olsen is a Clinical Psychologist in Bellevue, WA. She is a Certified Sex Therapist and Certified Clinical Partner specialist who developed the Posttraumatic Growth Treatment Model for Intimate Betrayal (PTG-IB). The model serves as an integrative approach for addressing posttrauma symptoms after infidelity and healing one’s sexuality. You can learn more about Dr. Olsen and her work from her clinical bio.



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