Betrayal trauma is a trauma perpetrated by a person or institution on whom the victim must depend. It involves the violation of the trust within caregiving relationships. Examples include child abuse perpetrated by relatives, teachers, or religious leaders; intimate partner violence; abusive treatment in employment settings; and political oppression. Betrayal trauma has specific psychological and cognitive consequences. A common response is dissociation, a mental process in which individuals separate themselves from conscious awareness of their present situations. Dissociation is linked to memory impairment for trauma. Betrayal trauma theory accounts for the deficits in awareness and memory for mistreatment that psychologists have observed in victims of interpersonal trauma. The terms betrayal trauma and betrayal trauma theory were first introduced by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in 1991. Since that time, at least seven research studies have demonstrated that individuals who experience betrayal trauma are more likely to report a period of amnesia for their trauma, as compared to individuals who experienced other forms of trauma such as accidents. Other investigations have demonstrated variations in experiences of betrayal trauma according to gender and age, and the impact of betrayal trauma on various aspects of physical and mental health.
Betrayal trauma theory addresses how individuals may separate instances of violation from their memory and conscious awareness in order to preserve a necessary relationship. Individuals do not need to recognize their treatment as a betrayal to experience betrayal trauma. Betrayal blindness is the term used to describe the deficits in awareness or memory observed in survivors of betrayal. A large body of research demonstrates that some individuals who experience memory impairment for trauma experiences later recall the trauma they endured, and there does not appear to be a link between memory accuracy and memory persistence. Although initially adaptive, dissociation and memory impairment can lead to individuals’ being revictimized or becoming perpetrators themselves.
Research examining memory persistence for abuse demonstrates greater levels of memory impairment for trauma perpetrated by caregivers than for trauma perpetrated by other individuals or for no interpersonal trauma. In addition, laboratory experiments show that individuals with higher levels of dissociation exhibit deficits in selective attention tasks, but show increased skills on divided attention tasks, as compared with people with low levels of dissociation. In particular, individuals with high levels of dissociation are less likely to remember trauma-related words, which suggests that they may be particularly adept at disregarding threatening information. Individuals with high levels of dissociation are significantly more likely to report trauma experiences in general, and betrayal trauma instances in particular, than are people with low levels of dissociation.
Child Abuse And Betrayal Trauma
Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse during childhood represents a form of betrayal trauma that often has serious negative consequences. Child abuse occurs at the same time that children are developing physically and mentally, forming attachments to their parents, and learning how to manage their emotions and relate to others. Child abuse disrupts all of these processes, and these disturbances often endure well into adulthood. For instance, rates of depression in children, adolescents, and adults are considerably higher among those who have experienced childhood abuse than among individuals who have not experienced childhood abuse. This form of betrayal trauma also is likely to occur repeatedly and in an inescapable environment.
Children who are being abused face an impossible mental and emotional conflict: They must receive care from the very adults who are hurting them. Betrayal trauma theory explains that in order to survive in such circumstances, children attempt to disregard the abusive treatment they receive. Even after they leave their homes of origin, survivors of childhood abuse may still remain unaware of their abusive treatment in order to sustain necessary relationships or to preserve an image of a positive family experience.
Other Features Of Betrayal Trauma
There are several other issues related to the experience of betrayal trauma and its effects. Age of onset, severity, chronicity, and whether the perpetrator is a parent are all factors that predict levels of dissociation and delayed memories of abuse. Gender also plays a role in betrayal trauma. Women experience more betrayal traumas than men over the course of their lives, whereas men experience more nonbetrayal traumas. Female victims of child sexual abuse are more likely to experience abuse at younger ages, and to be abused by family members, than are male victims of child sexual abuse. Men are substantially more likely than women to be perpetrators of betrayal trauma. Finally, betrayal trauma is more strongly associated with physical health impairments than are other forms of trauma.
Because individuals unintentionally create dissociation and/or memory impairment in order to escape their realities, these processes may later be challenging to identify and change. Furthermore, larger dynamics in society can contribute to betrayal blindness and prevent victims from confronting the betrayals they have experienced and their lasting effects. For instance, perpetrators, their families, or larger cultures may insist that victims keep silent, or may not believe victims who disclose betrayal. In addition, individuals, institutions, and larger societies may deny the prevalence of trauma and the reality of its effects in order to protect themselves from this disturbing information. Victims are likely to benefit from psychological treatment from therapists or counselors who have training in treating survivors of trauma, and societies are likely to improve from increased research, prevention, intervention, and discourse regarding different forms of trauma and their effects.
- Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Freyd, J. J. (2005). What is a betrayal trauma? What is betrayal trauma theory? Retrieved August 12, 2006, from http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/defineBT.html
- Freyd, J. J., DePrince, A., & Zurbriggen, E. (2001). Selfreported memory for abuse depends on victim-perpetrator relationship. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 2, 5–16.
- Goldberg, L. R., & Freyd, J. J. (2006). Self-reports of potentially traumatic experiences in an adult community sample: Gender differences and test-retest stabilities of the items in a Brief Betrayal Trauma Survey. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 7, 39–63.
- Goldsmith, R. E., Barlow, M. R., & Freyd, J. J. (2004). Knowing and not knowing about trauma: Implications for psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41, 448–463.
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