Is romantic partner betrayal a form of traumatic experience? A qualitative study

Stress Health. 2021 Feb;37(1):19-31. doi: 10.1002/smi.2968. Epub 2020 Jul 15.


According to a growing body of research, betrayal by a romantic partner is increasingly considered as a form of interpersonal trauma. Between 30% and 60% of betrayed individuals experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety to clinically meaningful levels. From a clinical perspective, this constellation of symptoms can be conceptualized as a stressor-related adjustment disorder. Yet, no qualitative research has examined the association between romantic betrayal and traumatic stress from the perspective of betrayed individuals. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews were conducted with 13 participants who had completed a clinical trial for a new treatment for adjustment disorder stemming from betrayal. Data were analysed using thematic content analysis. Although betrayal was experienced as a shocking and destabilizing event, and participants used trauma or 'feeling traumatized' as a metaphor to describe their experience, few had constructed their reaction as traumatic stress. In fact, participants reported experiencing difficulties understanding the intensity of their experience. However, when exposed to external sources (e.g., books and interviews by psychologists and researchers) that used a trauma and PTSD framework to explain the effects of betrayal, participants reported feeling clarity, validation and relief. Findings are discussed in the light of theoretical and clinical implications.

Keywords: abandonment; adjustment disorder; attachment injury; infidelity; meaning and experience; qualitative interview.

MeSH terms

  • Betrayal* / psychology
  • Humans
  • Psychological Trauma* / psychology
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sexual Partners* / psychology