The Unique Injury Of Betrayal Trauma On Scam Victims

A Cornerstone of Relationship Scams & Essential to Scam Victim Recovery

Understanding Scam Victim Trauma – Recovery Psychology

•  Vianey Gonzalez B.Sc(Psych) – Psychologist, Certified Deception Professional, Psychology Advisory Panel & Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.
•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

About This Article

Betrayal trauma, often experienced in relationship scams like romance fraud, inflicts deep emotional wounds on victims. It involves a profound breach of trust by someone close, triggering intense emotional responses and brain alterations. Victims experience a rollercoaster of emotions—disbelief, anger, sadness, and shame.

The relational aspect sets it apart from other traumas, impacting trust and self-worth.

Betrayal trauma impairs various brain regions, including the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, mirror neuron system, insula, temporoparietal junction, and striatum.

Victims struggle with empathy, emotional regulation, and social perception. This trauma disrupts reward processing, leading to anhedonia and social disconnection.

Overcoming betrayal trauma requires self-compassion, support, and professional help to rebuild trust and heal. Understanding its neurobiological underpinnings is crucial for effective intervention and recovery. Victims are not alone; with time and support, they can reclaim their sense of self-worth and rebuild their lives.

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Understanding Betrayal Trauma: How Relationship Scams Hurt Scam Victims

What is Betrayal Trauma?

Betrayal trauma refers to the psychological distress and emotional upheaval experienced when someone we trust and depend on violates that trust in a significant way, such as in a romance scam or investment scam.

This type of trauma often occurs in close relationships, such as romantic partnerships, friendships, or within families. Relationship Trust-based scams are a perfect example of this.

Betrayal can take various forms, including infidelity, dishonesty, exploitation, or abandonment. The impact of betrayal trauma can be profound, leading to feelings of shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, and profound hurt. Victims will experience a loss of trust in others, difficulty forming new relationships, and challenges with self-esteem and self-worth.

Betrayal trauma can also manifest in physical symptoms such as stress, anxiety, and depression – because trauma is a whole-body injury. Healing from betrayal trauma often requires support from trusted individuals, professionally managed support groups such as from SCARS, trauma therapy, and time to process and come to terms with the betrayal.

It’s essential for survivors to prioritize self-care, set boundaries, and seek professional help to recover from the complexities of healing from betrayal trauma.

Why We Trust Anyone

Trust is a fundamental aspect of human relationships, critical for forming social bonds, cooperation, and mutual support. What makes trust unique is its profound influence on our sense of safety, security, and well-being.

Evolutionarily, trust served as an adaptive mechanism for survival, promoting group cohesion and collective resilience against external threats. Individuals who could trust and rely on others were more likely to receive help, protection, and resources, enhancing their chances of survival and reproduction.

The impact of betrayal trauma is deeply rooted in this evolutionary heritage of trust. When someone we trust violates that trust, it threatens our fundamental sense of safety and security. Betrayal undermines the social bonds and cooperation that are essential for our survival, triggering intense emotional responses and psychological distress. This heightened reaction to betrayal reflects the evolutionary importance of trust in maintaining social harmony and collective well-being.

From an evolutionary perspective, the impact of betrayal is magnified by its potential consequences for individual and group survival. In ancestral environments where resources were scarce and threats were omnipresent, betrayal could have dire consequences, leading to ostracism, deprivation, or even death. As a result, humans developed a heightened sensitivity to trust and betrayal, which persists to this day – other animals have it as well, such as wolves, lions, and others.

Betrayal trauma can disrupt the delicate balance of reciprocal altruism and cooperation that underpins social relationships. When trust is shattered, individuals may become more cautious, guarded, or even cynical in their interactions with others, impairing their ability to form meaningful connections and collaborate effectively. This breakdown in social trust can have far-reaching implications for individual well-being and societal cohesion, highlighting the profound impact of betrayal trauma on human evolution and social dynamics.

Keep in mind, that for scam victims who were married, betrayal does not just affect them, but it also affects their partners since they can victim the victim as having betrayed them.

From an Anthropological Perspective: Why Trust?

From an anthropological perspective, trust plays an essential or foundational role in human relationships as it facilitates cooperation, reciprocity, and group cohesion, all of which are essential for survival and thriving within social communities.

Here are some key aspects of the value of trust in human relationships from an anthropological standpoint:

  • Social Cohesion: Trust fosters a sense of unity and belonging within social groups by creating bonds of mutual reliance and support. In early human societies, trust enabled individuals to collaborate on tasks such as hunting, gathering, and child-rearing, pooling resources and skills for the benefit of the group as a whole.
  • Reciprocal Relationships: Trust forms the basis of reciprocal relationships, where individuals exchange goods, services, and support with the expectation of future benefits. This reciprocity enhances group resilience and adaptability, allowing for the distribution of resources and the sharing of knowledge and expertise. It is also easily exploited by criminals due to our reciprocity bias.
  • Conflict Resolution: Trust facilitates conflict resolution and reconciliation by promoting open communication, empathy, and forgiveness. In situations of disagreement or dispute, trust encourages individuals to engage in dialogue, seek common ground, and work towards mutually acceptable solutions, thereby reducing tensions and preserving social harmony. After a betrayal, this capability is substantially impaired and it makes it difficult to resolve minor issues because they quickly turn into major conflicts.
  • Risk Mitigation: Trust enables individuals to take calculated risks and make collective decisions with confidence, knowing that others will honor their commitments and act in good faith. This risk-sharing mechanism allows for the exploration of new opportunities, innovations, and ventures, driving social and economic progress. After a betrayal, risk-taking loses its balance and can result in the affected individual losing the ability to properly evaluate risks.
  • Identity and Belonging: Trust contributes to the construction of individual and group identities, shaping how people perceive themselves and their place within society. Shared values, norms, and traditions foster a sense of belonging and solidarity, reinforcing social bonds and promoting collective well-being. After a betrayal, victims feel a deep and prolonged sense of aloneness because of this.

Overall, trust serves as a cornerstone of human relationships, providing a framework for cooperation, reciprocity, and mutual respect. By building trust, individuals can build resilient and supportive communities that promote individual flourishing and collective prosperity.

What Betrayal Trauma Does

Betrayal trauma is like getting hit with a punch in the heart. It’s the feeling you get when someone you trust and love turns out to be not who you thought they were. It’s a deep injury, a kind of pain that can shake your whole world. And when it comes to relationship scams, betrayal trauma is often at the center of it all.

Imagine this: you meet someone online. They seem perfect, saying all the right things, making you feel like you’re on cloud nine. You start to trust them, to open up your heart to them. But then, out of nowhere, you find out it was all a lie. They were never who they said they were. They were just playing with your feelings, using you for their own financial gain. That’s betrayal trauma right there.

Relationship scams, like romance fraud, thrive on betrayal. They lure in victims with promises of love and companionship, or sometimes wealth too, only to break their hearts and leave them feeling lost and alone. Victims of these scams often experience a rollercoaster of emotions: disbelief, anger, sadness, and shame. They wonder how they could have been so blind, so foolish to fall for the lies. But of course, they were not blind, or foolist, or gullible, they were just human.

But the thing about betrayal trauma: is it’s not your fault. Scammers are experts at luring in their victims, grooming them, manipulating them, and preying on their vulnerabilities and emotions to get what they want – their money. They know exactly what to say and do to gain your trust, making it easy to become their victim. It’s not a reflection of the victim’s intelligence or worthiness; it’s a reflection of the deceitfulness and cruelty of the criminals who engage in these crimes.

Why Betrayal Trauma is Different?

Betrayal trauma stands out from other forms of psychological or emotional trauma because it involves a breach of trust by someone close to the victim.

Unlike random acts of violence or natural disasters, betrayal trauma occurs within the context of a relationship where there is a complete and deep expectation of trust and safety.

This betrayal often comes from someone the victim cares about deeply, such as a partner, family member, or close friend. As a result, the emotional impact of betrayal trauma can be particularly devastating, leading to feelings of profound hurt, disbelief, and betrayal. Victims may struggle to reconcile their positive feelings toward the perpetrator with the harm they’ve experienced, leading to a complex and often prolonged healing process (see cognitive dissonance.)

Additionally, betrayal trauma can erode the victim’s sense of self-worth and security, making it difficult to trust others in the future. Overall, the relational aspect of betrayal trauma sets it apart from other forms of trauma and requires unique therapeutic approaches to address its effects effectively.

Betrayal Trauma’s Impact on the Brain

Betrayal trauma can have a profound impact on the brain, affecting various cognitive and emotional processes.

When someone experiences betrayal from someone they trust, it triggers intense emotional responses and activates regions of the brain associated with fear, stress, and emotional regulation. The amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions, may become hyperactive, leading to heightened feelings of anxiety and hypervigilance. Additionally, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and executive function, struggles to regulate emotions effectively in the face of betrayal, leading to difficulties in problem-solving and impulse control.

Betrayal trauma disrupts the brain’s reward system (striatum,) altering the way it responds to positive stimuli and diminishing feelings of pleasure or satisfaction. This can contribute to symptoms of depression, apathy, and anhedonia, where individuals lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Chronic exposure to betrayal trauma may also lead to changes in brain structure and function over time, potentially increasing the risk of developing mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, or mood disorders.

Anhedonia is a term used in psychology to describe the inability to experience pleasure from activities that were once enjoyable or satisfying. It’s like losing interest or joy in things that used to make you happy, such as hobbies, socializing, or spending time with loved ones. Anhedonia is a common symptom of various mental health disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders. It can also occur in response to significant life stressors, trauma, or adverse experiences. People experiencing anhedonia may feel emotionally numb, disconnected from others, and may struggle to find motivation or enjoyment in daily life activities. Treatment for anhedonia often involves addressing underlying mental health issues through therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, and social support.

The relational aspect of betrayal trauma impacts the brain’s social processing systems, affecting how individuals perceive and interact with others. Trust, a crucial component of healthy relationships, may become compromised, leading to difficulties in forming new connections or maintaining existing ones. This can further exacerbate feelings of isolation, loneliness, and distrust, perpetuating a cycle of relational dysfunction and emotional distress.

Overall, betrayal trauma can have far-reaching effects on the brain, disrupting its normal functioning and altering the way individuals perceive themselves and others. Understanding these neurological changes is essential for developing effective therapeutic interventions and support strategies to help individuals heal from the impact of betrayal trauma and rebuild their sense of trust and security.

The Brain’s Social Processing Systems

The brain’s social processing systems are complex networks that allow us to navigate social interactions, understand others’ emotions, and form relationships.

These systems involve various brain regions and neural circuits that work together to process social cues, interpret social situations, and regulate social behavior. Following a betrayal trauma many become impaired.

Some key components of the brain’s social processing systems include:

  1. Amygdala: The amygdala plays a crucial role in processing emotions, particularly fear and threat detection. It helps us recognize and respond to emotional cues in others, facilitating social communication and behavior.
  2. Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex, especially the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) are involved in higher-order social cognition processes, such as empathy, theory of mind, and moral reasoning. These regions help us understand others’ perspectives, regulate our emotions, and make decisions in social contexts.
  3. Mirror Neuron System: Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that fire both when we perform an action and when we observe someone else performing the same action. This system, located in areas such as the premotor cortex and inferior parietal lobule, enables us to understand and imitate others’ actions, empathize with their experiences, and engage in social learning.
  4. Insula: The insula is involved in processing bodily sensations and internal states, including emotional and interoceptive signals. It helps us experience empathy, recognize social norms, and make decisions based on social feedback.
  5. Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ): The TPJ is implicated in various social cognitive functions, such as perspective-taking, mentalizing, and understanding social hierarchies. It integrates information from different sensory modalities to support social perception and understanding.
  6. Striatum: The striatum, particularly the ventral striatum, is associated with reward processing and reinforcement learning. It plays a role in social motivation, social bonding, and the anticipation of social rewards.

These brain regions and networks interact dynamically to facilitate social interactions, emotional regulation, and adaptive social behavior. Dysfunction in these systems can contribute to social deficits, emotional dysregulation, and social difficulties observed in various psychiatric and neurological disorders. Understanding the brain’s social processing systems can provide insights into the neural mechanisms underlying social behavior and inform interventions aimed at improving social functioning and well-being.

Betrayal Trauma’s Impact on the Brain’s Social Processing

Betrayal trauma can have profound effects on various parts of the brain’s social processing systems, leading to impairments in social cognition, emotional regulation, and interpersonal behavior.

Some key brain regions and networks that are typically be affected by betrayal trauma include:


The amygdala plays a central role in processing emotions, particularly fear and threat detection. Following betrayal trauma, the amygdala typically becomes hyperactive or hypersensitive to social cues associated with betrayal, leading to heightened emotional reactivity, hypervigilance, and increased susceptibility to stress and anxiety. But ironically, it also impairs empathy.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex, including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) are involved in higher-order social cognitive processes, such as empathy, trust, and moral reasoning. Betrayal trauma can disrupt the functioning of these regions, impairing the ability to understand others’ perspectives, regulate emotions, and make decisions in social contexts. Individuals may experience difficulties in trusting others, interpreting social cues accurately, and forming meaningful relationships.

Mirror Neuron System

The mirror neuron system, located in areas such as the premotor cortex and inferior parietal lobule, is responsible for understanding and imitating others’ actions, as well as empathizing with their experiences. Following betrayal trauma, this system may show alterations in activity or connectivity, leading to deficits in empathy, social learning, and imitation. Individuals may have difficulty connecting with others emotionally, understanding their intentions, and engaging in cooperative or prosocial behaviors.


The insula is involved in processing bodily sensations and internal states, including emotional and interoceptive signals. Betrayal trauma can disrupt insular functioning, leading to difficulties in experiencing empathy, recognizing social norms, and regulating emotional responses. Individuals may struggle to connect with their own emotions and physical sensations, as well as those of others, leading to a sense of emotional numbness or detachment.

Temporoparietal Junction (TPJ)

The temporoparietal junction (TPJ) is implicated in various social cognitive functions, such as perspective-taking, mentalizing, and understanding social hierarchies. Following betrayal trauma, TPJ functioning is typically altered, leading to deficits in theory of mind, social perception, and social decision-making. Individuals may have difficulty understanding others’ intentions, predicting their behavior, and navigating social interactions effectively.


The striatum, particularly the ventral striatum, is associated with reward processing and reinforcement learning. Betrayal trauma can disrupt striatal functioning, leading to alterations in social motivation, social bonding, and the anticipation of social rewards. Individuals may experience difficulties in deriving pleasure from social interactions, forming trusting relationships, and feeling connected to others.

Overall, betrayal trauma can have pervasive effects on the brain’s social processing systems, impairing various cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functions essential for navigating social interactions and relationships. Understanding these neurobiological mechanisms can inform interventions aimed at mitigating the impact of betrayal trauma and promoting recovery and resilience in affected scam victims.

What To Do

So, what can you do if you’ve fallen victim to a relationship scam and are struggling with betrayal trauma?

  • First and foremost, know that you’re not alone. There are many others out there who have been through similar experiences and understand what you’re going through. Reach out to friends, family, and support groups who can offer a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on.
  • Secondly, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s natural to feel embarrassed or ashamed after being deceived, but remember that you are not to blame. The scammer is the one who should feel ashamed, not you. Take the time to process your emotions and come to terms with what happened at your own pace. Read our articles here on, on, and on to understand why you are not to blame.
  • Lastly, seek professional help to cope with betrayal trauma. Therapy provides one-on-one support in a safe space to explore your feelings and develop healthy coping mechanisms for moving forward. A therapist can also help you rebuild your self-esteem and learn to trust again, both in yourself and in others.


Betrayal trauma is a painful reality for many victims of relationship scams. It’s a wound that cuts deep and takes time to heal. But with support, self-compassion, and a willingness to seek help, it is possible to overcome the pain and emerge stronger on the other side. Remember, you deserve love and respect, and no scammer can ever take that away from you.

However, make no mistake, this trauma, like all psychological trauma will need real professional support. If you do not learn to properly manage this (and your past traumas) it will stay with you for life.

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PLEASE NOTE: Psychology Clarification

The following specific modalities within the practice of psychology are restricted to psychologists appropriately trained in the use of such modalities:

  • Diagnosis: The diagnosis of mental, emotional, or brain disorders and related behaviors.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals to understand and resolve unconscious conflicts.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a state of trance in which individuals are more susceptible to suggestion. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that teaches individuals to control their bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including stress, anxiety, and pain.
  • Behavioral analysis: Behavioral analysis is a type of therapy that focuses on changing individuals’ behaviors. It is often used to treat conditions such as autism and ADHD.
    Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology is a type of psychology that focuses on the relationship between the brain and behavior. It is often used to assess and treat cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries or diseases.

SCARS and the members of the SCARS Team do not engage in any of the above modalities in relationship to scam victims. SCARS is not a mental healthcare provider and recognizes the importance of professionalism and separation between its work and that of the licensed practice of psychology.

SCARS is an educational provider of generalized self-help information that individuals can use for their own benefit to achieve their own goals related to emotional trauma. SCARS recommends that all scam victims see professional counselors or therapists to help them determine the suitability of any specific information or practices that may help them.

SCARS cannot diagnose or treat any individuals, nor can it state the effectiveness of any educational information that it may provide, regardless of its experience in interacting with traumatized scam victims over time. All information that SCARS provides is purely for general educational purposes to help scam victims become aware of and better understand the topics and to be able to dialog with their counselors or therapists.

It is important that all readers understand these distinctions and that they apply the information that SCARS may publish at their own risk, and should do so only after consulting a licensed psychologist or mental healthcare provider.


The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of the Society of Citizens Against Rleationship Scams Inc. The author is solely responsible for the content of their work. SCARS is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) section 230 from liability.







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