Shifting the focus: Nonpathologizing approaches to healing from betrayal trauma through an emphasis on relational care

Jennifer M. Gómez, Jenn K. Lewis, Laura K. Noll, Alec M. Smidt, Pamela J. Birrell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


ABSTRACT: As the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders has become increasingly medicalized (Conrad & Slodden, 2013), consideration for the relational nature of trauma has been minimized in the healing process. As psychiatrist R. D. Laing (1971) outlined in his essays, the medical model is an approach to pathology that seeks to find medical treatments for symptoms and syndromes based on categorized diagnoses. We argue that such a model implicitly locates the pathology of trauma within the individual instead of within the person(s) who perpetrated the harm or the social and societal contexts in which it took place. In this article, we argue that this framework is pathologizing insofar as it both prioritizes symptom reduction as the goal of treatment and minimizes the significance of relational harm. After providing a brief overview of betrayal trauma (Freyd, 1996) and the importance of relational processes in healing, we describe standard treatments for betrayal trauma that are grounded in the medical model. In discussing the limitations of this framework, we offer an alternative to the medicalization of trauma-related distress: relational cultural therapy (e.g., Miller & Stiver, 1997). Within this nonpathologizing framework, we highlight the importance of attending to contextual, societal, and cultural influences of trauma as well as how these influences might impact the therapeutic relationship. We then detail extratherapeutic options as additional nonpathologizing avenues for healing, as freedom to choose among a variety of options may be particularly liberating for people who have experienced trauma. Finally, we discuss the complex process of truly healing from betrayal trauma.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)165-185
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Trauma and Dissociation
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 14 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Betrayal trauma
  • healing
  • interpersonal trauma
  • nonpathologizing treatment
  • relational cultural theory
  • relational trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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