Betrayal Trauma

Betrayal of any type is unacceptable, especially that experienced during or upon discovering one has been traumatized as a child by someone you love. This trauma is the basis for the formation of dissociative identity disorder.


This article will focus on betrayal trauma, what it is, how it connects to DID, and what one can do to mitigate the damage it causes.


What is Betrayal Trauma?



Betrayal trauma is when a person we depend on for support, food, shelter, emotional needs, and safety violates our most basic boundaries. If our basic needs are not met in childhood, we experience harm, especially if we are forced to maintain the relationship with our abusers.


Betrayal trauma can also be when someone who knows about our plight as children says nothing but chooses to remain silent and not act on our behalf.


To clarify, one can experience betrayal trauma for other reasons other than childhood abuse. For instance, your spouse may cheat on you, or you feel there is a miscarriage of justice. Both are forms of betrayal trauma.


If the victim is a child who must remain with the offending person, the impacts of betrayal trauma are compounded because the child cannot react normally but must suppress and ignore what happens to them to survive.


Suppression of our emotions and “forgetting” what happened helps us get our needs met, and thus we push down deep inside the emotions and feelings that accompany our memories of what happened to us.


It isn’t hard to see how betrayal trauma and DID go hand-in-hand.


What is Dissociation?



Everyone often dissociates during their lifetime. You may feel disconnected from what is going on around you, such as watching a movie in a theater. You sit down with your drink and popcorn and get enthralled with the film. Soon after the movie ends, you find yourself having eaten your popcorn, drank your soda, and that the theater had become fuller while you were entertained.

That awakening feeling you feel mixed with a touch of confusion is you coming back from being dissociated.


Dissociation is a healthy and normal human response to tedious or traumatic events. Dissociation is your mind dealing with too much stress or fear. Experiences of abnormal dissociation brought on by trauma can last for hours or months, depending on the event and the make-up of the person who has dissociated.


Suppose you dissociate for a long time as a child. In that case, you may develop a dissociative disorder such as DID, where dissociation becomes something that is experienced far more often than is typical. After a while, dissociation becomes your go-to defense mechanism when you experience stress, trauma, or remember, either.


Attachment Theory and Dissociative Identity Disorder



First postulated by John Bowlby, attachment theory is a deep and enduring bond between a caregiver and a child where each seeks closeness and feels more secure. Adults exhibit attachment behavior towards children by responding sensitively and appropriately to a child’s primary and expanded needs.


Attachment theory explains how the parent-child relationship comes to be and how it influences a child’s development. Attachment is characterized by specific behaviors in children toward their adults when they are searching for soothing or being in the proximity of the adult during an upset or threatening situation.


Unlike children who have securely attached to their caregivers, children who experience extreme trauma do not have a stable environment to grow up in. This deficit of caring sets these children up for the perfect storm in that their development is changed from the normal course forever.


Developing a unified sense of self, also called associating the self, depends hugely on attaching securely to caregivers before the age of five. Severe and repeated trauma inhibits this connection, so the child misses this important developmental milestone, and the sense of self remains dissociated.


Because these children’s development has been arrested, their ego state formation becomes frozen in time. As each traumatic event occurs, the ego state formed during the trauma to handle the situation cannot interact with the total sense of self and thus becomes a splintered off time capsule of memory.

This means that as the child goes through their life when they encounter new experiences, they do not simply recall how they handled this situation before. Instead, the ego state that was formed previously is activated, and the child “becomes” who the child was in the previous event.


Betrayal Trauma’s Connection to Dissociative Identity Disorder



According to the betrayal trauma theory first introduced by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in 1991, as children, to survive, one learns to compartmentalize their traumatic experiences from their conscious awareness by dividing attention. Dissociative identity disorder is caused by betrayal trauma that takes the shape of abuse of all types.


The betrayal trauma theory states that many signs signal that you have experienced childhood trauma that might form dissociative identity disorder. These include:


  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Trouble managing emotions
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble recognizing emotions
  • Physical problems such as stomach distress
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Panic attacks
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Attachment issues


Children who go through experiences of betrayal also dissociate or detach from reality to avoid remembering the abuse. It is important to note that children who encounter betrayal trauma may also dissociate from the memories of abuse to protect their caregiver.


Betrayal trauma and the formation of dissociative identity disorder go hand-in-hand.


Five Steps to Healing Betrayal Trauma





Betrayal trauma requires some much-needed action by the person who lived through it. These actions include:


  • Opening up to a safe person
  • Committing to self-care
  • Stopping trying to understand why the trauma occurred
  • Setting firm boundaries
  • Seeking out therapy


Opening up to a safe person. As children, when we experienced betrayal trauma, we had no one to help us make sense of what happened. Now that we have become aware of the abuse we suffered, we need a safe and reliable person to open our hearts to and tell us what happened. Secrecy is a hallmark of betrayal trauma, with children feeling or being made to feel they cannot tell what occurred. Telling someone you trust, such as a family member, friend, pastor, or therapist, helps alleviate the stress and ends the secrecy.


Committing to self-care. People who have grown up in a dysfunctional home where betrayal was common often do not take the best care of themselves. Those who experienced betrayal trauma in childhood often have co-occurring substance abuse problems and eating disorders and generally are not good at self-care. You must decide to carry out self-care and be good to yourself.


Stopping trying to understand why the trauma occurred. Try as you might, you will never understand why your parents or other caregivers did not treat you the way you deserved to be treated. Children are precious and deserve love, dignity, and respect, all of which you were not given. Stopping trying to understand why the trauma happened to you will help you feel better. You cannot change the past; you can only move forward.


Setting firm boundaries. As children, we were either denied the ability to set firm boundaries, or those boundaries we did manage to build were overrun repeatedly. Setting firm boundaries and maintaining them with the people you know is critical to the feeling you have your life under control. You have the right to keep your boundaries up, especially when dealing with those who harmed you in childhood.


Seeking out therapy. Seeking out a trauma-informed therapist is crucial to overcoming betrayal trauma and dissociative identity disorder. In therapy, you will discover who you are beyond the abuse you lived through and find new ways to express suppressed emotions.


Ending Our Time Together


Betrayal trauma, as stated above, go hand-in-hand as it is defined by being formed when a child lacks the support for their basic needs from their caregiver. Betrayal trauma harms children, especially when they are forced to stay in a relationship with their abusers.


Freyd’s theory states that as children, to survive, they learn to compartmentalize their traumatic experiences by dividing their minds, a definition of dissociative identity disorder.


DID is a treatable disorder that requires the hard work and dedication of both the client and the therapist. The disorder, when left untreated, causes great harm to the life of anyone who experiences it.


There is definitely hope for those who suffered betrayal trauma and now have dissociative identity disorder. It may take time, but healing does occur, and when it does, a new life of peace will open up for you.


“Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.” – Tori Amos


“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller









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