If I were to identify one reason why I dissociated childhood memories of sexual abuse, it would be the feelings of betrayal I could not safely feel or express when I was young. More than overwhelming fear, recognizing that someone who should care for and protect me had instead used me for personal gratification was too much for my developing psyche to handle.
Sexual abuse by a caregiver or someone emotionally close — referred to as high betrayal traumas — has more severe mental health and physical consequences than when betrayal is either relatively low or absent (e.g., perpetrated by a stranger). This is true of children and adolescents sexually abused by caregivers.1 It is also true of women sexual abused within institutions like the military, universities, and places of worship that “elicit similar trust and dependency from their members as is found in interpersonal relationships.”2
The primacy of attachment bonds for human survival cause us to contort our personalities to accommodate conditions involving abuse if doing so keeps us connected to people we need or love. This includes forgetting the abuse, which betrayal trauma theory refers to as betrayal blindness. It is adaptive to remain unaware of ongoing abuse if doing so allows for interacting with, if not trusting, an abuser who is also a caregiver or someone emotionally close.3 For some, betrayal blindness eclipses nearly all memories of abuse. Others remember some of what happened. Still others remember everything yet were unable to address feelings of betrayal or understand them until later in life.4
Dissociation is also a likely response to sexual abuse when the abuser was someone close or depended on.5 As described by the model of structural dissociation, an Apparently Normal Part (ANP) of the personality (such as care taking others or working productively) can keep memories of abuse out of awareness, as well as be a mechanism for coping with ongoing abuse. By performing a role rather than authentically expressing feelings, the relationship with an abusing caregiver is maintained. As survivor Lillian Green described:
“we tried to minimize the abuse and earn the care taking we needed by complying with our parents’ demands, both spoken and nonverbal. To satisfy them, we assumed the characteristics which became our own roles. To avoid abuse and neglect, we suppressed or distinguished what didn’t fit these roles.”6
High betrayal traumas take advantage of the human tendency for feeling shame and creating negative self-appraisals in response to subjugation. Feelings of shame and low self-worth lessen the likelihood of confronting an abuser, which might cause harm or loss of an attachment. After the abuse, however, shame and negative self-appraisals tend to become habitual ways of devaluing oneself.
Difficulties with anger and increased suicidality are also consequences of high betrayal trauma.7 As discussed in last week’s post, inner aggression and suicidality often occur together. Feeling betrayed may lead to inner conflict when the Fight Emotional Part (EP) of the personality attempts to defend against the emotional pain. By directing aggression inward, the self is attacked rather than the abuser, which is a way to avoid conflict, if not maintain attachment to the abuser. Yet the psychological defense that helps survive abuse also threatens psychological well-being, if not survival.
Another consequence of high betrayal trauma is the increased likelihood of revictimization. Regardless of when the abuse occurred — childhood, adolescence, or adulthood — the likelihood of revictimization increases. Although those who experienced their first high betrayal trauma in childhood are over 5 times more likely to be revictimized in adulthood.
Some speculate revictimization results from the “inaccurate identification of specific intimate partner betrayals and the inability to engage in proper self-protection.”8 Dissociation may also cause splitting off anxiety that might otherwise signal the presence of danger.9 Research also suggests feelings of shame and accompanying low self-worth can override the natural impulse for self-protection.10
When sexual abuse is perpetrated during childhood or adolescence by a caregiver or someone close, the interpersonal dynamics of betrayal interfere with learning adaptive social functioning and knowing who and how to trust. One study showed “survivors of childhood sexual abuse had significantly more trouble detecting violations in social exchange rules than individuals who had not experienced childhood sexual abuse.”11 Many of us need to learn or be reminded what constitutes inappropriate behavior, including identifying when someone exhibits signs of unhealthy boundaries or acts harmfully. We may also need to learn how to communicate our needs as well as how to leave unhealthy relationships.12
The issue isn’t that survivors of high betrayal traumas are too trusting. On the contrary, research suggests we actually tend to have relatively low levels of social trust. Rather, a history of betrayal blindness seems to interfere with identifying instances of betrayal for what they are, or leads to the increased likelihood that we will dismiss instances of betrayal as unavoidable aspects of relationships.13
In response to high betrayal sexual abuse, especially when it occurred in childhood or adolescence, some skills training for relationship assertiveness may be beneficial. Furthermore, programs like Dialectical Behavior Therapy increase relationship awareness, which can help overcome the effects of betrayal blindness.
Yet a deeper consequence of betrayal trauma isn’t addressed by improving relationship skills. Feeling betrayed often leads to the desire for revenge, which causes bitterness and breeds cynicism about relationships, if not life in general. The desire for revenge, including revenge fantasies, also keeps us tied to the abuser and feeling like a victim.
Revenge is different from seeking justice and relying on a collective response that protects others from harm. Instead, fantasizing about ‘getting even’ or plotting revenge activates defenses that block the soft-hearted vulnerability necessary for intimacy and receptivity to life. To be fully alive requires releasing the burden of feeling betrayed and the hate it can cause.
According to research on recovery from betrayal trauma, “the manner in which trauma survivors evaluate the trauma experience, rather than cumulative trauma exposure or level of betrayal, most meaningfully predicts depression and dissociation.”14 Although we can’t ‘think’ our way out of posttraumatic stress, we do have the power to decide how we want to respond to our past, and to commit ourselves to values that reflect what we believe is the best way to live. For me, this realization has led to trusting the human capacity for transforming suffering into self-compassion and love for others. This is the focus of all great spiritual traditions, some of which I think of as the original ‘trauma therapies’.
By becoming mindful, and identifying when memories of betrayal come forth, there is an opportunity to respond with self-compassion rather than defend against feelings of betrayal through fantasies of revenge. Instead of creating more hurt and degrading one’s psyche with images of cruelty, self-compassion fosters self-respect and integrity.
By compassionately acknowledging emotional pain, we teach ourselves that we don’t have to defensively harden our hearts. When we habitually treat ourselves lovingly, we also become better at noticing when someone is being hurtful. We begin to create a new barometer for measuring the quality of relationships.
Questions to ponder: Does research on betrayal trauma reflect your experience with sexual abuse? If so, does “betrayal blindness” play a role in your current relationships? Do feelings of betrayal influence your attitudes towards relationships?
Please note: Even thinking about feelings of betrayal can be deeply disturbing. If you feel unsettled by this topic, it may help to speak with a professional. As I’ve mentioned, recovery from sexual abuse typically requires support. Please visit my Resources page for hotline numbers and resources for therapists should you feel overwhelmed, the impulse for self-harm, or are ready to find professional support. Don’t suffer alone.
1 Gobin, Robyn L., & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2009). Betrayal and Revictimization: Preliminary Findings. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 1(3), 242-257, p. 242.
2 Smith, Carly Parnitzke, & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2013). Dangerous safe havens: Institutional betrayal exacerbates sexual trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(February), 119-124, pp. 119-120.
3 Gobin & Freyd, 2009, p. 243.
4 Bernstein, Rosemary E., & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2014). Trauma at home: How betrayal trauma and attachment theories understand the human response to abuse by an attachment figure. Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 8(March 2014), 18-41, p. 20.
5 Platt, Melissa G., & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2015). Betray my trust, shame on me: Shame, dissociation, fear, and betrayal trauma. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7(4), 398-404. p. 398.
6 Quoted in Bernstein & Freyd, p. 26.
7 Gomez, Jennifer M., Kaehler, Laura A., & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2014). Are hallucinations related to betrayal trauma exposure? A three-study exploration. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(6), 675-682, p. 675.
8 Gobin & Fryed, 2009, p. 242.
9 Ibid., p. 251.
10 Kessler, Bonnie L., & Bieschke, Kathleen J. (1999). A Retrospective Analysis of Shame, Dissociation, and Adult Victimization in Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 46(3), 335-341.
11 Gobin & Freyd, 2009, p. 243.
12 Ibid, p. 242.
13 Ibid., 2009, p. 252.
14 Martin, C. G., Cromer, L. D., DePrince, A. P., & Freyd, J. J. (2011). The role of cumulative trauma, betrayal, and appraisals in understanding trauma symptomatology. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. doi: 10.1037/a0025686, p. 7.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).