Authors: Jennifer Freyd,Pamela Birrell
To JQ Johnson, 1951–2012
A husband whose wife is having an affair; a child sexually abused by his priest; a soldier ordered into an unsafe battle by his commanding officer; a single mother who is overworked and underpaid in her secretarial job; a group of people sharing the same ethnic heritage who are denied access to leadership roles—in each of these cases, there is mistreatment and injustice. Infidelity, abuse, treachery, workplace exploitation (in a society valuing fairness), discrimination (in a society valuing equality), and injustice (in a society valuing justice) are examples of betrayal. Betrayal can be mundane or a central threat to our well-being.
Betrayal violates us. It can destroy relationships and the very trust we need to be intimate in our relationships. It can and does damage the social fabric that creates the bonds for a healthy society. In the case of children, the effects can last a lifetime. Betrayed children may grow into adults who fail to trust the trustworthy or who too readily trust people who further betray them. Whether being too willing or too unwilling to trust, difficulty with trust not only interferes with relationships, but also eats away at a strong sense of self. Those who were betrayed as children often suffer severe self-esteem problems, as well as depression, anxiety, and even psychosis.
Yet even though betrayal is often in our very midst and of critical importance, we frequently don't acknowledge the mistreatment or notice the betrayal. We shield ourselves from the awareness of it. Whether the betrayal is in our closest relationships, in our workplaces, or in our society, we often have a powerful motivation to remain ignorant.
We remain blind to betrayal in order to protect ourselves. We fear risking the status quo, and thus our security, by actually
knowing too much.
At the same time, there are costs to our ignorance. This is a very real dilemma that we frequently face, yet rarely recognize fully. Too often, we deal with this dilemma by implicitly choosing to remain unaware, in order to avoid the risk of seeing treachery or injustice. The victim who sees the mistreatment is likely either to confront the betrayal or to withdraw from the situation and the relationship.
That confrontation or withdrawal may lead to a good outcome, or it may risk inciting a crisis that is very threatening for a disempowered or dependent person. In contrast, by remaining unaware of the mistreatment, the husband, the child, the soldier, the working mother, or the oppressed group may not be able to escape the injustice. The best way to keep a secret is not to know it in the first place; unawareness is a powerful survival technique when information is too dangerous to know.
Knowledge of betrayal is always destabilizing. Whether we are the betrayers, the observers, or the betrayed, to
about betrayal is likely to provoke actions that disturb the status quo and threaten our security. Consider the recent crisis in the Catholic Church: denial and cover-up of sexual abuse gave way to acknowledgment and investigation. All sorts of arrangements and power structures were threatened as a consequence of this crisis. Even when we are not the direct victims, a fear of disturbing the status quo and thus jeopardizing our own comfort, perhaps even our survival, motivates us to remain blind to betrayal.
Systematically not seeing important instances of treachery and injustice is an observable, ubiquitous psychological phenomenon that we call
. We have discovered in our work as a research psychologist (Jennifer J. Freyd) and a clinical psychologist (Pamela J. Birrell) that this
is all around us, ultimately resulting in negative consequences, both in our personal lives and in our society.
addresses five primary questions about betrayal blindness: (1) What is it? (2) Why do we do it? (3) How do we do it? (4) What does it do to us? (5) How do we break free of it?
In chapter 1, we examine the story of Julie Stone, a bright professional woman who was completely blind to the infidelity of her husband. Julie is not alone. Her case illustrates aspects of betrayal that we all can recognize and learn from. In chapter 2, we investigate betrayal in childhood through the stories of Rebecca and Kevin, each of whom suffered many betrayals during their childhood. Both Rebecca and Kevin had to remain blind to their betrayal, although the types of betrayal they experienced were different in detail. (In this book, we use real-life stories to explain and illustrate the research and the theory. We have, however, changed the names and identifying details of the people whose stories we used, to preserve their privacy.) Chapter 3 continues to explore the scope of betrayal and betrayal blindness by considering the stories of a sixteen-year-old girl molested on a plane by her coach, and a sixteen-year-old boy captured and imprisoned in a Russian work camp. Their reactions illustrate both the effects of betrayal and being blind to it.
Chapter 4 introduces the concept of institutional betrayal. It is not only people we trust who can hurt us, but trusted institutions as well. For instance, we can remain blind to betrayal by employers, churches, educational institutions, and governments when we depend on them.
What motivates victims of betrayal, perpetrators of betrayal, and those who witness betrayal to remain ignorant of something so significant in their lives? Chapter 5 explores these questions through the story of Hendrik. Concepts such as betrayal trauma, social contracts, cheater detectors, and fight-flight-and-freeze are introduced and explained.
How do we keep information about betrayal from our awareness? How do we know and not know at the same time? Chapter 6 begins to answer this question through the story of Samantha. We first learn about Samantha's blindness regarding infidelity and then, in chapter 7, we examine her blindness to abuse and domestic violence. We learn that blindness to relational betrayal often includes blindness to abuse and other forms of violence. Chapter 8 reviews research on underlying psychological mechanisms that blind us and keep us blind. We explore concepts such as meta-cognition, directed forgetting, and alexithymia in our explanation of underlying psychological processes.
What impact is betrayal blindness having on us? Chapter 9 describes the toxic effects of betrayal and its blindness on individuals, relationships, and institutions. Toxicity includes dissociation, borderline personality, intergenerational abuse, revictimization, and a host of other problems. Cathy's story illustrates many of these effects. In chapter 10, we begin to address the question of how to stop being blind by considering the impact of telling and knowing about betrayal. Telling and knowing can be risky, as we illustrate with a very close and personal story that affected us.
Telling and knowing can also be healing, as Sean Bruyea's story in chapter 11 attests. How would the world be different if we were more aware of what is really happening in our lives? Chapter 12 further examines how healing from betrayal and its blindness can blossom into hope and justice. In this chapter, Cathy shares her healing story and Beth tells her experience of betrayal in therapy and her return to wholeness.
In chapter 13, we continue with our own story and describe coming full circle from betrayal to intimacy to hope. Chapter 14 offers suggestions to prevent betrayal and betrayal blindness and provides approaches to healing. It is meant for those who have been betrayed, their friends and supporters, and the institutions that may have betrayed them. Paradoxically, the very blindness we may rely on for survival in the short run can lead us astray in the long run. Fortunately, if we so choose, we can learn to become less blinded by the treacheries and injustices that are there for the seeing. We need only learn how to transform blindness into insight.
K. Kendall-Tackett, “The Health Effects of Childhood Abuse: Four Pathways by Which Abuse Can Influence Health,”
Child Abuse & Neglect
(2002): 715–729; J. Read, J. van Os, A. P. Morrison, and C. A. Ross, “Childhood Trauma, Psychosis and Schizophrenia: A Literature Review with Theoretical and Clinical Implications,”
Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 112
J. J. Freyd, B. Klest, and A. P. DePrince, “Avoiding Awareness of Betrayal: Comment on Lindblom and Gray (2009),”
Applied Cognitive Psychology 24
We are so grateful for all the support we have received in writing this book.
First of all, we are indebted to the people who gave us their stories. How can we thank you enough? We have protected the identity of those who requested such protection. We have named them Samantha Spencer, Julie Stone, Beth McDonald, Rebecca Brewerman, and Cathy Turner. Their painful and real-life experiences with betrayal are both illuminating and instructional. We cannot express our appreciation enough for their courage, honesty, and compelling witness to the power of betrayal, betrayal blindness, and healing.
There are those whose stories are more public—Jacques Sandulescu, Sean Bruyea, and Lana Lawrence. They show us the power of both surviving betrayal and standing up to the institutional powers who would betray our very survival. Theirs are stories of courage and resolution in the face of almost impossible odds.
Next we owe so very much to our extraordinary literary agent, Edite Kroll, who believed in this book and patiently supported our efforts through years of gestation. Edite's magic touch is everywhere. Edite helped us find our wonderful Wiley editors and staff: Stephen Power, Thomas Miller, Jorge Amaral, and John Simko, as well as free-lance copyeditor Patricia Waldygo.
And where would we be without a wonderful support network of students, colleagues, friends, and family? Students—both undergraduate and graduate—kindle our interest, help us refine our thinking with their questions, challenge our ideas, and generally keep us learning and growing. We would like especially to thank those graduate students who took our Trauma and Attachment seminar in 2012, suffering through an early version of this book. Rosemary Bernstein, Audrey Medina, Melissa Platt, and Carly Smith provided feedback and ideas that added to the quality of this final draft. Specific and crucial help was also provided by Rachel Goldsmith, Sarah Harsey, Kevin Wiles, Ann Yee, Eileen Zurbriggen, and all the other current and former students in the Dynamics Lab. Thank you for your contributions!
Colleagues provide personal support as well as intellectual challenge for our ideas. Holly Arrow, Laura Brown, Deb Casey, Ross Cheit, Sara Hodges, Kat Quina, and Marjorie Taylor have been enormously supportive through difficult and joyful times, adding to our personal and professional web of connections so important for all of us.
Our families have suffered through much as we struggled to write, revise, and polish this book. JQ Johnson, Theo Johnson-Freyd, Brian Gillis, Philip Johnson-Freyd, Sasha Johnson-Freyd, and Bruce Birrell form the basis for our personal lives. Without their support and love, we could not have embarked on nor completed this journey.
Blind to Betrayal
Betrayal blindness means not seeing what is there to be seen. Julie Stone is now a respected lawyer in her forties who told us about her experience with betrayal blindness. Her story gives us many insights into the phenomenon of blindness—both how it happens and why.
Julie told us about a time when she was a young wife, sitting in a bar and waiting for her husband, who had been traveling all week. She knew his ritual on returning to town: having a beer or two at this bar with the guys. Usually, she waited at home with their infant son, but this time she made an exception. A friend—the wife of her husband's work partner—had talked her into a rare evening out. Initially reluctant, Julie was now eager to surprise her husband. She knew it would be a special evening for them both.
Julie explained to us that she didn't get to town very often, spending almost all of her time minding their young son and caring for their home and farm: canning fruits, working in the garden, tending the animals. With her thick curly hair and winsome eyes, she was lovely. Perhaps because she was so busy as a mother, a homemaker, and a farmer, she did not appreciate her own beauty, and she was even less aware of her powerful intelligence. That evening, she was excited because their son was home with a babysitter, and she would be free to spend the evening with her husband.
She watched the door closely, and when he finally walked into the bar, she broke into a joyful, loving smile. Yet her husband never saw the smile, because almost immediately another woman—a stranger to Julie—jumped from her seat and ran into his arms. They kissed.
“When they stopped kissing, he looked up, and our eyes met. And I'm kind of watching this, and he walked over to me and said, ‘I don't know who that was.' And I believed him.”
As Julie said these words to us, we sat in her living room on comfortable contemporary furniture, under a vaulted ceiling, facing a picture window that revealed the forest surrounding the house. A tape recorder sat between us, preserving Julie's story. Outside, the August sun filtered through the tall Douglas firs. Bits of sunlight speckled the ceramic art Julie had created in her “spare time.”
How does she manage all this?
we wondered. The room felt warm and light and airy. We felt good, privileged to be there. Julie exuded an air of competence and self-confidence. She seemed to like herself and to enjoy her life, and she could laugh at herself, too. It would be nearly impossible not to like and admire this woman. Yet as we sat there liking and admiring her, Julie told us about a series of betrayals that she managed—in her words—to “whoosh” away from her own awareness.
How did she remain so blind to what was so obvious?
The bar incident wasn't the first time Julie had reason to doubt her husband's fidelity.
“My ex-husband was a good-looking guy. Women definitely were attracted to him. In fact, I know that they approached him. I had this friend who kept telling me, sort of kidding, that she was always lusting after my husband. It was sort of a joke between us. One time we were sitting around with a bunch of women. I brought this up somehow, and I laughingly asked her if she still had a thing for my husband. There was a hush in the group. I thought it was funny, but much later I realized that everybody there except me knew that she was sleeping with him. I didn't find out until her boyfriend approached me and said that since my husband and his girlfriend were having an affair, he thought we should get together. That was just shocking to me. I was so surprised. He was really stunned that I didn't know.”
Then Julie became aware that her husband was sleeping with yet another woman. Amazingly, the bar incident happened the following year—
she had learned of two prior infidelities. So now the mystery was even greater: how could she have “whooshed” away the fact of that kiss between her husband and the other woman? She explained that between finding out about the first two cases of infidelity and the bar incident, the simple passage of time had worked its magic.
“My husband and I had a big fight over it and kind of made up, and time goes by. I was still with him, and it didn't occur to me . . . I thought it was finished.”
She went on, telling us in her own words about the bar incident.
“I was kind of a stay-at-home person, and my son was under two years old. One of the standing fights I had with my husband was that he never came straight home after being away at work all week. He always went to a bar first and drank with his buddies. That really bothered me because he had a little boy and a wife, and he didn't want to come home right away to see us? I could never understand that. He said, ‘Look, I work hard all the time, and I deserve to have a good time with my buddies.' . . . So anyway, this Friday, the wife of a man he worked with said to me, ‘Come on, we're going to surprise them.' She had gotten a babysitter. We were going out—and I never went out, never.
“I decided to go, and we got all dressed up. We got to the bar in this small town before my husband and his coworker arrived. It had a local band, and the place was filled with people. We were kind of excited, waiting to surprise our husbands. They walked through the door and as my husband came inside, a woman jumped up and went over to him, and they kissed. When they stopped kissing, he looked up, and our eyes met. I'm kind of watching this, and he walked over and said, ‘I don't know who that was.' I believed him. I seriously believed him. I thought, ‘That was weird' and . . . whoosh! That was it. I spent the rest of the evening with him, dancing. . . . I never questioned him again about that woman.”
What exactly is this mental process
? we wondered, while replaying the audiotape of our interview with Julie. We are psychologists—we should know. We do in fact investigate the ways people can forget and remain unaware of important events. You could even say we study “whoosh” in the laboratory and observe it in the consulting room. Although we must admit that it remains something of a mystery to us, there is much we do understand. We have come to call this “whooshing” away of important betrayals “betrayal blindness.”
Betrayal blindness means you do not or cannot see what is there in front of you. The information that her husband was unfaithful was there the whole time. When Julie later replayed the bar incident in her own mind, she finally saw what she couldn't see at the time.
“It wasn't until much later, after we were divorced, I was working as a gardener, and when you work as a gardener, you have a lot of time . . . to just mull things over in your mind, and I remembered that night, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he must have been having an affair with her.'”
How could Julie be blind to her husband's infidelity when she already knew of at least two of his previous affairs? Her husband kisses a strange woman and she accepts his claim: “I don't know who that was”?
What would it take for Julie to acknowledge the betrayal? Julie provided the answer: “Did I have to see it right in front of me? Yes, I did, because the final event that happened, when I could no longer deny it, was when a mutual friend of ours came to spend the night, a woman. I can't remember exactly the series of events leading up to this, but I was downstairs, and they were upstairs, and all of a sudden I thought, ‘What is going on?' I tip-toed upstairs, and they were making love in our bed. I saw them. And I couldn't exactly . . . There it was. So I just went back downstairs again.”
Some months after finding her husband in flagrante delicto with another woman, Julie did manage to leave him. Yet her reasons for doing so were as much about his marked cruelty toward her as they were about his infidelity. Her husband had become scary: alcoholic, emotionally abusive, and threatening violence. By that point, his infidelity was less significant than his reign of terror, and maybe that is why Julie let herself creep up the stairs and get the hard evidence for what was probably so obvious already. Staying with her husband was becoming a risk to her safety and her son's well-being.
The human mind is marvelously convoluted. Julie almost surely knew about her husband's betrayals in some sense of the word
, even as she didn't let herself know in another sense. Betrayal blindness requires this convolution, so that one can be in the dual state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing something important.
Why would Julie not know something that's there for the knowing? The answer likely resided in her need to survive. During the initial period of her marriage, Julie had a powerful—although unconscious—motivation for remaining blind to her husband's betrayal: she was utterly dependent on her husband. Knowing about the betrayal would have required some action, yet she could not afford to rock the boat. Sometimes ignorance can preserve the relative bliss of the status quo when knowledge would inevitably lead to chaos. Ignorance
bliss when it allows you to survive.
“You know, people always look at other people's marriages and their bad relations and say, ‘Why does she stay?' There are so many reasons to stay, and it's so hard to leave, because everybody says no relationship is perfect, and you have to go through the bad times, and you have a child with someone, and also you have no resources. I had no resources at all. . . . I spent all of my money, $250, on a car, and I drove it away, and it threw a rod and died completely, and there I was in the middle of nowhere with a two-year-old in the backseat. I thought, ‘Okay, this sucks,' and then I went back, and he had moved back into the house. . . . So you wonder . . .”
We asked Julie how her financial situation had affected her ability to leave him.
She explained, “I had no money of my own. I wasn't working. I was isolated. I was completely dependent on him. Once I got out of that relationship, I knew I could never again be financially dependent on a person like that, to not have any kind of options.”
With Julie's financial dependence, how did she manage to leave her husband? Partly it was her willingness to call on other relationships.
“I had to get help to leave him. A girlfriend said she would send me the money to get out. I was dependent on him to take me to the airport. I didn't have a vehicle. We lived in the country. The airport was really far away, so I had to lie to him. I had to pretend I was just visiting my mother, so I couldn't take my stuff. I had a lot of really nice things I had to leave because he would have known, and he wouldn't have driven me to the airport.”
“It sounds like an escape,” we said.
Julie agreed. “It was an escape. I had to escape.”
So Julie did escape, and over time she re-created herself into the successful professional she is today. She is very happily remarried. We asked Julie to think back to her friends: “You said other people knew at the time. Do you know how they knew?”
“That one friend wasn't the only one in the group who was sleeping with him, as it turned out, so some of them knew through firsthand experience, and some knew from gossip. They talked. It's amazing that nobody told me.”
Why didn't her friends tell her?
Julie saw part of the answer: “I think we tend not to tell others because we don't want to set the ball in motion that might break up a marriage. It feels like none of our business.”
We were getting a sense of Julie's first marriage, the betrayals, the blindness, the collusion of those around her. Yet the psychological mystery persisted: Where did the information in front of her eyes go?
Julie tried to help us understand. “If we take the event where I actually saw a woman kiss him, it didn't even seem like a special event. I didn't even think about it again, until I began to think about my marriage when I was gardening. I was remembering that night, the excitement of getting together and going out because I never went anywhere. I had a really good time, actually. And then I remembered that kiss, and I stood up, and my jaw kind of dropped. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what an idiot I am! What do I have to do to . . . ?' See? I had to see him actually having sex before I could really accept it. So, yeah, where does the information go? It feels like it just completely didn't register. And he walks over and says to me, ‘I don't know who that was.' He'd just kissed her, for God's sake!
“Because I'm not a stupid person, right?”
No, Julie is not a stupid person at all. She's quite brilliant. So imagine our surprise when she told us about being blind again after she left her first husband.
“Later I had another relationship where the guy had an affair, and this was
my marriage. It was actually the next really important relationship, which was a few years later. I was vigilant. At that point, I had become obsessed with the possibility that somebody could be having an affair. I looked for all signs of this activity, and I never felt like that was happening with this guy. . . . But when we were leaving to go on a long trip—we had some dogs—all of a sudden, he had rented the house to this woman who was going to look after the dogs. It struck me as weird that I had never met this woman before. He had just made this arrangement, and she had come over one night to see the house and look at the dogs. I was very friendly to her, and she was strangely reserved around me. I thought, ‘Who is this woman?' She was a very attractive young woman, and I thought, ‘Wow.' Then, years later, I found out that he had been having an affair with her!”