Posted by: faithful | November 11, 2011

betrayal trauma

What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory?

Jennifer J. Freyd, University of Oregon

Short Definitions   | History of Terminology | Theory   and Research | Some FAQs | References

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). E.g. This definition is on the   web: “Most mental health professionals have expanded the definition of   trauma to include betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or   institutions we depend on for survival violate us in some way. An example of   betrayal trauma is childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.” from

Betrayal Trauma Theory: The phrase “Betrayal Trauma theory” is generally used to refer to   the prediction/theory about the cause of unawareness and amnesia as in: “Betrayal   Trauma Theory: 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.” This definition is from: Sivers,   H., Schooler, J. , Freyd, J. J. (2002) Recovered   memories. In V.S. Ramachandran (Ed.) Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, Volume   4.(pp 169-184). San Diego, California and London: Academic Press.

Also see:

History of Terminology

Jennifer Freyd introduced the terms “betrayal trauma” and “betrayal   trauma theory” in 1991 at a presentation at Langley Porter Psychiatric   Institute:

Freyd, J.J. Memory repression, dissociative states, and other cognitive control   processes involved in adult sequelae of childhood trauma. Invited paper given   at the Second Annual Conference on A Psychodynamics – Cognitive Science Interface,   Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, University of California, San Francisco,   August 21-22, 1991.

From that talk: “I propose that the core issue is betrayal — a betrayal   of trust that produces conflict between external reality and a necessary system   of social dependence. Of course, a particular event may be simultaneously a   betrayal trauma and life threatening. Rape is such an event. Perhaps most childhood   traumas are such events.” Betrayal trauma theory was introduced: “The   psychic pain involved in detecting betrayal, as in detecting a cheater, is an   evolved, adaptive, motivator for changing social alliances. In general it is   not to our survival or reproductive advantage to go back for further interaction   to those who have betrayed us. However, if the person who has betrayed us is   someone we need to continue interacting with despite the betrayal, then it is   not to our advantage to respond to the betrayal in the normal way. Instead we   essentially need to ignore the betrayal….If the betrayed person is a child   and the betrayer is a parent, it is especially essential the child does not   stop behaving in such a way that will inspire attachment. For the child to withdraw   from a caregiver he is dependent on would further threaten his life, both physically   and mentally. Thus the trauma of child abuse by the very nature of it requires   that information about the abuse be blocked from mental mechanisms that control   attachment and attachment behavior. One does not need to posit any particular   avoidance of psychic pain per se here — instead what is of functional significance   is the control of social behavior. ”

These ideas were further developed in talks presented in the early 1990s and   then in an article published in 1994. A more   definitive statement was presented in Freyd’s   1996 book. A more recent update on the theory and research was presented by  Freyd, DePrince,   and Gleaves(2007). [See refs at end of this web page.]

Betrayal Trauma Theory and Research

Betrayal trauma theory posits that there is a social utility in remaining unaware   of abuse when the perpetrator is a caregiver (Freyd, 1994, 1996). The theory   draws on studies of social contracts (e.g., Cosmides, 1989) to explain why and   how humans are excellent at detecting betrayals; however, Freyd argues that   under some circumstances detecting betrayals may be counter-productive to survival.   Specifically, in cases where a victim is dependent on a caregiver, survival   may require that she/he remain unaware of the betrayal. In the case of childhood   sexual abuse, a child who is aware that her/his parent is being abusive may   withdraw from the relationship (e.g., emotionally or in terms of proximity).   For a child who depends on a caregiver for basic survival, withdrawing may actually   be at odds with ultimate survival goals, particularly when the caregiver responds   to withdrawal by further reducing caregiving or increasing violence. In such   cases, the child’s survival would be better ensured by being blind to the betrayal   and isolating the knowledge of the event, thus remaining engaged with the caregiver.

The traditional assumption in trauma research has been that fear is at the   core of responses to trauma. Freyd (2001) notes that traumatic events differ   orthogonally in degree of fear and betrayal, depending on the context and characteristics   of the event. (see Figure 1). Research suggests   that the distinction between fear and betrayal may be important to posttraumatic   outcomes. For example, DePrince (2001) found   that self-reported betrayal predicted PTSD and dissociative symptoms above and   beyond self-reported fear in a community sample of individuals who reported   a history of childhood sexual abuse.

Figure 1: Freyd’s Two-Dimensional Model for Traumatic Events

Research on Betrayal, Dissociation, and Cognitive Mechanisms

Betrayal trauma theory predicts that dissociating information from awareness   is mediated by the threat that the information poses to the individual’s system   of attachment (Freyd, 1994, 1996). Consistent with this, Chu and Dill (1990)   reported that childhood abuse by family members (both physical and sexual) was   significantly related to increased DES scores in psychiatric inpatients, and   abuse by nonfamily members was not. Similarly, Plattner et al (2003) report   that they found significant correlations between symptoms of pathological dissociation   and intrafamilial (but not extrafamilial) trauma in a sample of delinquent juveniles   and Leahy, Pretty, and Tenebaum (2004) found that victims abused by a perpetrator   in a position of trust, guardianship, or authority, had higher dissociation   scores than did other victims. DePrince (2005) found that the presence of betrayal   trauma before the age of 18 was associated with pathological dissociation and   with revictimization after age 18. She also found that individuals who report   being revictimized in young adulthood following an interpersonal assault in   childhood perform worse on reasoning problems that involve interpersonal relationships   and safety information compared to individuals who have not been revictimized.

Basic cognitive processes involved in attention and memory most likely play   an important role in dissociating explicit awareness of betrayal traumas. Across   several studies, we have found empirical support for the relationship between   dissociation and knowledge isolation in laboratory tasks. Using the classic   Stroop task, Freyd and colleagues (Freyd, Martorello,   Alvarado, Hayes, & Christman, 1998) found that participants who scored   high on the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES) showed greater Stroop interference   than individuals with low DES scores, suggesting that they had more difficulty   with the selective attention task than low dissociators. The results from Freyd   et al. (1998) suggested a basic relationship between selective attention and   dissociative tendencies. In a follow-up study, we tested high and low DES groups   using a Stroop paradigm with both selective and divided attention conditions;   participants saw stimuli that included color terms (e.g., “red” in   red ink), baseline strings of x’s, neutral words, and trauma-related words such   as “incest” and “rape.” A significant DES by attention task   interaction revealed that high DES participants’ reaction time was worse (slower)   in the selective attention task than the divided attention task when compared   to low dissociators’ performance (replication and extension of Freyd et al.,   1998). A significant interaction of dissociation by word category revealed that   high DES participants recalled more neutral and fewer trauma-related words than   did low DES participants. Consistent with betrayal trauma theory, the free recall   finding supported the argument that dissociation may help to keep threatening   information from awareness.

In two follow-up studies we used a directed forgetting paradigm (a laboratory   task in which participants are presented with items and told after each item   or a list of items whether to remember or forget the material). In both studies   we found an interaction such that high DES participants recalled fewer charged   and more neutral words compared with low DES participants who showed the opposite   pattern for items they were instructed to remember when divided attention was   required (item method: DePrince & Freyd,   2001, list method: DePrince & Freyd, 2004).   The high dissociators reported significantly more trauma history (Freyd   & DePrince, 2001) and significantly more betrayal trauma (DePrince   & Freyd, 2004). A similar interaction has been found with children using   pictures instead of words as stimuli. Children who had trauma histories and   who were highly dissociative recognized fewer charged pictures and more neutral   relative to non-traumatized children under divided attention conditions; no   group differences were found under selective attention conditions (Becker-Blease,   Freyd, & Pears, 2004). Some authors have recently questioned the replicability   of these memory findings. For discussion see: DePrince,   Freyd, and Malle (2007) and Freyd, DePrince,   and Gleaves(2007).

Research on Betrayal, Forgetting, and Recovered Memories

Betrayal trauma theory predicts that unawareness and forgetting of abuse will   be higher when the relationship between perpetrator and victim involves closeness,   trust, and/or caregiving. It is in these cases that the potential for a conflict   between need to stay in the relationship and awareness of betrayal is greatest,   and thus where we should see the greatest amount of forgetting or memory impairment.   Freyd (1996) reported finding from re-analyses of a number of relevant data   sets that incestuous abuse was more likely to be forgotten than non-incestuous   abuse. These data sets included the prospective sample assessed by Williams   (1994, 1995), and retrospective samples assessed by Cameron (1993) and Feldman-Summers   and Pope (1994). Using new data collected from a sample of undergraduate students,   Freyd, DePrince and Zurbriggen (2001) found that   physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by a caregiver was related to higher levels   of self-reported memory impairment for the events compared to non-caregiver   abuse. Research by Schultz, Passmore, and Yoder (2003) and a doctoral dissertation   by Stoler (2000) has revealed similar results. For instance the abstract to   Schultz et al (2003) indicate: “Participants reporting memory disturbances   also reported significantly higher numbers of perpetrators, chemical abuse in   their families, and closer relationships with the perpetrator(s) than participants   reporting no memory disturbances.” Sheiman (1999) reported that, in a sample   of 174 students, those participants who reported memory loss for child sexual   abuse were more likely to experience abuse by people who were well-known to   them, compared to those who did not have memory loss. Similarly Stoler (2001)   notes in her dissertation abstract: “Quantitative comparisons revealed   that women with delayed memories were younger at the time of their abuse and   more closely related to their abusers” (p. 5582). Interestingly, Edwards   et al (2001) reported that general autobiographical memory loss measured in   a large epidemiologic study was strongly associated with a history of childhood   abuse, and that one of the specific factors associated with this increased memory   loss was sexual abuse by a relative.

Some researchers have presumably failed to find a statistically significant   relationship between betrayal trauma and memory impairment. It is hard to know   how many times a possible relationship was examined and yet not found at the   statistically significant level because of the bias to publish only significant   results. When a relationship is not found, the question then is whether it does   not exist or simply cannot be detected due to measurement or power limitations.   For instance, Goodman et al (2003) reported that that “relationship betrayal”   was not a statistically significant predictor for forgetting in their unusual   sample of adults who had been involved in child abuse prosecution cases during   childhood. It is not clear whether the relationship truly does not exist in   this sample (which is possible given how unusual a sample it is) or whether   there was simply insufficient statistical power to detect the relationship (see   commentaries by Freyd, 2003 and Zurbriggen   & Becker-Blease, 2003). Future research will be needed to clarify these   issues. At this point we know that betrayal effects on memorability of abuse   have been found in at least seven data sets (see paragraph above).

Research on Betrayal, Distress, and Health

In the section above research relating betrayal to forgetting was reviewed.   What about the relationship between betrayal and distress? DePrince (2001) discovered   that trauma survivors reporting traumatic events high in betrayal were particularly   distressed. Freyd, Klest, & Allard (2005) found that a history of betrayal   trauma was strongly associated with physical and mental health symptoms in a   sample of ill individuals. Goldsmith, DePrince, & Freyd (2004) reported   similar results in a sample of college students.

Atlas and Ingram (1998) “Investigated the association of histories of   physical and sexual abuse with symptoms of posttraumatic stress. 34 hospitalized   adolescents (aged 14-17.10 yrs) with histories of abuse were given the Trauma   Symptom Checklist for Children. Sexual distress was associated with histories   of abuse by familymembers as compared to nonabuse or abuse by other, while posttraumatic   stress was not.” Turell and Armsworth (2003) compared sexual abuse survivors   who self-mutilate from those who do not. They report that self-mutilators were   more likely to have been abused in their family of origin.

In addition, as mentioned above, Chu and Dill (1990) reported that childhood   abuse by family members (both physical and sexual) was significantly related   to increased DES scores in psychiatric inpatients, and abuse by nonfamily members   was not. Plattner et al (2003) report that they found significant correlations   between symptoms of pathological dissociation and intrafamilial (but not extrafamilial)   trauma in a sample of delinquent juveniles.

In contrast to these other findings, Lucenko, Gold, & Cott (2000) report:   “subjects whose perpetrators were not caretakers experienced higher levels   of posttraumatic symptomatology (PTS) in adulthood than those abused by caretakers.”   Future research is necessary to determine why this one study resulted in such   a different pattern than the others reviewed in this section.

Implications of the Research

Taken together, these investigations support the underlying betrayal trauma   model. Specifically, betrayal appears to be related to avoidance and dissociative   responses that help the individual to keep threatening information from awareness   under conditions where the individual’s survival depends upon the perpetrator.   Furthermore betrayal trauma appears to be associated with numerous other physical   and mental health symptoms.

Some FAQs

Is it necessary for the victim to be conscious of the betrayal in order to   call it “betrayal trauma”?

The short answer is “no.” The following text is from DePrince   and Freyd (2002a), page 74-75:

“The role of betrayal in betrayal trauma theory was initially considered   an implicit but central aspect of some situations. If a child is being mistreated   by a caregiver he or she is dependent upon, this is by definition betrayal,   whether the child recognizes the betrayal explicitly or not. Indeed, the memory   impairment and gaps in awareness that betrayal trauma theory predicted were   assumed to serve in part to ward off conscious awareness of mistreatment in   order to promote the dependent child’s survival goals……While conscious appraisals   of betrayal may be inhibited at the time of trauma and for as long as the trauma   victim is dependent upon the perpetrator, eventually the trauma survivor may   become conscious of strong feelings of betrayal.”

An important issue for future research is investigating the role the emotional   perception of betrayal has in distress and recovery (see Brown & Freyd, 2008).

Is gender a factor?

It appears that men experience more non-betrayal traumas than do women, while   women experience more betrayal traumas than do men. These effects may be substantial   (Goldberg & Freyd, 2006; Freyd   & Goldberg, 2004) and of significant impact on the lives of men and   women (DePrince & Freyd, 2002b).   To the extent that betrayal traumas are potent for some sorts of psychological   impact and non-betrayals potent for other impacts (e.g. Freyd,   1999), these gender difference would imply some very non-subtle socialization   factors operating as a function of gender. A 2009 summary of BT gender findings can be found here.

Is betrayal trauma related to Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome (named for a 1973 bank hostage  situation in Sweden) refers to what seems at first a paradoxical reaction to  being held hostage. This reaction involves positive feelings toward the  captors. Stockholm syndrome is a term applied to the special case of those  feelings developing after a hostage take-over, as when an individual or group  is kidnapped and held for a ransom. From a theoretical perspective the  Stockholm Syndrome reaction may possibly be understood as a special kind of  betrayal trauma. The unusual aspect of Stockholm syndrome compared with most  betrayal trauma situations is that the strong emotional attachment occurs after  the abduction and without the pre-existing context of an enduring caretaker or  trusting relationship. It is usually considered that for Stockholm Syndrome to  occur the captors must show a certain amount of kindness (or at  least lack of cruelty) toward the hostages. From a betrayal trauma perspective  the most important elements of predicting Stockholm syndrome would not be kindness per se, but rather   caretaking behavior on the part of the captors and an implicit or explicit  belief on the part of the victims that survival depends upon the captors. Thus the victims would have to  experience the captors as a source of caretaking and as necessary for survival  in order to develop the emotional attachment necessary to create a betrayal  trauma. Once the captors are experienced as necessary caretakers, a process  much like that in infancy could occur, such that the victims have a good reason  for attaching to the captors and thus eliciting caretaking behaviors. At that  point a certain amount of reality distortion might be beneficial to the victims  such that seeing the captors in a positive light might support an adaptive  response to their predicament. This theoretical possibility leads to an  empirical prediction that remains to be tested. Anecdotal support for the  premise that features of dependence and survival are at the heart of the  development of Stockholm Syndrome can be found in an FBI on-line article about  Stockholm Syndrome:

“In cases where Stockholm syndrome has occurred, the captive is   in a situation where the captor has stripped nearly all forms of   independence and gained control of the victim’s life, as well as basic   needs for survival. Some experts say that the hostage regresses to,   perhaps, a state of infancy; the captive must cry for food, remain   silent, and exist in an extreme state of dependence. In contrast, the   perpetrator serves as a mother figure protecting her child from a   threatening outside world, including law enforcement’s deadly weapons.   The victim then begins a struggle for survival, both relying on and   identifying with the captor.” (Fabrique, Romano, Vecchi, & Van Hasselt, 2007)

It is important to note that Stockholm syndrome is  rare, whereas betrayal trauma events and reactions  are, unfortunately, fairly common. Nonetheless, Stockholm syndrome might prove to be a useful extreme boundary condition for investigation of betrayal trauma theory, while at the same time betrayal trauma theory might provide useful insight into behavior of hostages that is otherwise considered paradoxical.

What is betrayal blindness? What is institutional betrayal?

Betrayal blindness is the unawareness, not-knowing, and forgetting exhibited   by people towards betrayal (Freyd, 1996, 1999).   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. (Also, see this page about betrayal blindness and institutional betrayal and Eileen Zurbriggen’s essay on Betrayal   Trauma in the 2004 Election.)

Are demands for silence a factor in not-knowing about betrayal?

In addition to implicit motivations for not-knowing that the betrayed person   may have in order to maintain a relationship, the victim may have other reasons   for not-knowing and silence. At least one such reason is demands for silence   from the perpetrator and others (family, society). Demands for silence (see   Veldhuis & Freyd, 1999 cited at What is DARVO?)   may lead to a complete failure to even discuss an experience. Experiences that   have never been shared with anyone else may a different internal structure than   shared experiences (see What is Shareability?).

How do I cite this page?

Freyd, J.J. (2009). What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is   Betrayal Trauma Theory? Retrieved [today’s date] from

What are some local pages related to this one?

What do I do if I need support for myself or a loved one?

I am not a therapist myself and I am not able to answer most of the email I   get, so writing to me is not likely to help. I am sorry about that. What I do   recommend is that you visit David Baldwin’s    Trauma Information Pages, and select the “Supportive Information”   section there. The web sites listed earlier on this page are also full of useful   links that may help you find the support you are looking for. There are also   very useful resources and links provided at the sites of Stop   It Now, the Sidran Institute and The   Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.



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