A New Term I Learnt: Betrayal Trauma


In 2008, Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD (Professor Emerit of Psychology, University of Oregon) coined the term Betrayal Trauma, defining it as a kind of trauma independent of the reaction to the trauma.  Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being.  Originally it referred only to institutions (cops, courts, hospitals, doctors, social workers, etc.) which failed to do their jobs, abdicated their responsibilities and abandoned the victims of physical, mental, and emotional abuse, whether general violence or sexual violence.  But Betrayal Trauma can easily be perpetrated by family, parents, friends, partners, employers, coworkers and others (e.g. children who report sexual abuse and are dismissed as “lying”).

Betrayal Trauma is such an accurate descriptor for what it means (and how often it happens) that you have to wonder why it’s not in the common vernacular.

What is Betrayal Trauma Theory?

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD

Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon

Faculty Affiliate of the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University

Short Definitions

Betrayal Trauma: The phrase “betrayal trauma” can be used to refer to a kind of trauma independent of the reaction to the trauma. From Freyd (2008): Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’ s trust or well-being: Childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse perpetrated by a caregiver are examples of betrayal trauma.

Betrayal Trauma Theory: From Sivers, Schooler, & Freyd (2002): A theory that predicts that the degree to which a negative event represents a betrayal by a trusted needed other will influence the way in which that events is processed and remembered.

Betrayal Blindness and Institutional Betrayal: Betrayal blindness is the unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting exhibited by people towards betrayal. The term “betrayal blindness” was introduced by Freyd (1996), and expanded in Freyd (1999) and Freyd and Birrell (2013) in the context of Betrayal Trauma Theory. This blindness may extend to betrayals that are not traditionally considered “traumas,” such as adultery, inequities in the workplace and society, etc. Victims, perpetrators, and witnesses may display betrayal blindness in order to preserve relationships, institutions, and social systems upon which they depend.

In other words, related to the last paragraph, individual people may knowingly turn their backs on victims in order to preserve their own personal relationships.  They would rather protect their selfish social interests than do what they know is morally right.  I’ve met people in my life who have said they would cover up for someone’s crime because “they’re my family/friend!”.  I personally know performative feminists who would rather maintain their friendships with sexual predators than make them come forward and admit guilt in order to protect their social lives, who say things like “Believe women” and “Hold your friends accountable” but fail to live up to them.

Be glad David Kaczynski never took that attitude.

More below the fold.

Institutional Betrayal and Institutional Courage

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD

The term institutional betrayal refers to wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals (e.g. sexual assault) committed within the context of the institution. The term “Institutional Betrayal” as connected with betrayal trauma theory was introduced in presentations by Freyd in early 2008 and is discussed in more detail in various publications, including in a section starting on page 201 of Platt, Barton, & Freyd (2009) and in a 2013 research report (Smith & Freyd, 2013). Institutional betrayal is a core focus of the book Blind to Betrayal, by Freyd and Birrell, 2013. Currently the most definitive exploration of institutional betrayal is presented in the American Psychologist (Smith & Freyd, 2014). Also see Freyd, 2018 and Smidt & Freyd, 2018.

Institutional betrayal harms in at least two distinct ways: pragmatic and psychological. For instance, damage to citizens from avoidable government failure in managing covid19 is both pragmatic (illness, deaths, increased inequality, economic ruin) and psychological (leading to emotional and physical distress and thus more pragmatic harm).

Institutional DARVO occurs when DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim & Offender) is committed by an institution (or with institutional complicity) as when police charge rape victims with lying. Institutional DARVO is a particularly aggressive form of institutional betrayal. Also see Fitzgerald & Freyd, 2017.

[…]

Betrayal Blindness

Betrayal blindness is the unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting exhibited by people towards betrayal. The term “betrayal blindness” was introduced by Freyd (1996), and expanded in Freyd (1999) and Freyd and Birrell (2013) in the context of Betrayal Trauma Theory. This blindness may extend to betrayals that are not traditionally considered “traumas,” such as adultery, and also to institutional betrayal. Victims, perpetrators, and witnesses may display betrayal blindness in order to preserve relationships, institutions, and social systems upon which they depend. (Also, see Eileen Zurbriggen’s essay on Betrayal Trauma in the 2004 Election.)

DARVO

Institutional denial plays a crucial role in institutional betrayal. One particularly pernicious form of denial is DARVO — Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender (see p119 of Blind to Betrayal; also see this web page about DARVO). Institutional retaliation toward whistle blowers often follows a DARVO pattern. (Although retaliation is a significant problem, victims should know that there are many laws that are designed to protect employees from retaliation.)

I am not inclined to believe that institutions and indivduals simply “forget”.  They know what was reported to them.  But they choose to ignore, cover up, and even protect crimes and the criminal for their own interests.  It’s easier to do nothing, easier to slough off the victims and pretend nothing happened than admit to their own complicity.  But as happened with Joe Paterno at Penn State covering up for Jerry Sandusky and Michigan State covering up for Larry Nassar, their “loyalty” to the abuser cost them far more and was more damaging to themselves than if they had done the right thing.

 


 

Black Lives Matter, Indigenous people and many others have been subjected to Betrayal Trauma by entire societies for enturies.  Slavery; mass murder by armies and cops; genocides; land theft; intentional, legislated and systematic poverty.  Tens of thousands of crimes by “legal authorities” and racists systems have gone on for centuries with no justice, no means of redress.  And any attempt by them to seek justice by their own means is met with only more violence (e.g. what happened to Canada’s Metis people).

[I do NOT mean to minimize systematic racism by only writing the above paragraph.  I will add more and add examples within a day.  I want to publish and then go to bed.]

And then there’s the issue of rape and sexual assault.

Ciara Charteris is a South African actress best know for the TV series “Close To The Enemy” and “Poldark”.  Charteris revealed in 2020 that she had been raped by a former friend in 2016.  But what hurt her as much was to learn that a woman (now an ex-friend) who knew about the rape continued to be friends with the rapist, despite promising to break contact with him.  Charteris’s sense of Betrayal was legitimate and well founded.

Brittany Higgins is the woman who was raped by a member of the Australian government, inside a government building, and the rightwing Australian government tried to cover up the crime.  Higgins has been admitted to hospital due to stress caused by the government making her a target of harassment instead of holding the guilty accountable and impeding investigations (e.g. demanding resignations and confessions).

Chanel Miller is the woman attacked by the rapist Brock Turner.  The courts betrayed her by worrying about “his future” instead of hers or all the other women he might rape in the future.  She courageously spoke out in her 2019 book “Know My Name”.

These are but a few well known cases.  There are a myriad of women who have been harassed, intimidated and threatened into silence by police into “recanting”, abandoned by prosecutors unwilling to do their jobs and charge rapists, ignored by forensics labs that fail to process evidence (many times allowing rapists to repeat their crimes), by judges who say “keep your legs closed” and allow inappropriate questions and demand rape survivors be the “perfect victim”.

And who knows how many tens of thousands were sexually abused as children (residential schools and orphanages in Canada, stolen generations in Australia, orphans and single mothers in Ireland) among other countless atrocities worldwide, all covered up by corrupt governments and perverted religion?

Comments

  1. says

    I was about to ask if this applies to parents, but then you said it did, and now I have words for what my parents did every time my little brother physically harmed me, stole from me, or destroyed my property, and they’d say things like, “just let it go”, or “you shouldn’t have left XYZ where he could find it”, or otherwise making it about my reaction instead of his actions.

    Thank you!

  2. Allison says

    Me too, WMDKitty.

    I suffered a fair amount of emotional abuse from my family (actually, from all of the adults whose “care” I was in), but it was the way that my parents always sided with the people who were making my life Hell that has had probably the deepest and most intractable damage. For most of my childhood and early adult years, my biggest long-term goal was to make sure I wouldn’t be dependent upon anyone, least of all my parents.

    Even now, a half-century after I got out of the family home and the city I grew up in, I still cannot trust anyone. (That’s even a little true of myself.) In my heart of hearts, I’m convinced that if I ever really, really need someone, nobody will be there, except maybe to watch the show. I feel like I’ve lived my entire life on a circus high-wire with no net.

    I often say, “I learned distrust at my mother’s knee.”

    Betrayal Trauma. A good term. I’ll have to run it by my therapist.

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