Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled (9 page)

BOOK: Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled
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What should you do when the person perpetrating a betrayal is also a person you are dependent on? This is the core bind of a betrayal trauma victim. The standard response to betrayal—confrontation or withdrawal—might only make the situation worse for the person who depends on the perpetrator, because confrontation and withdrawal are generally not good for inspiring attachment and care giving. In this case, the victim might be better off remaining unaware of the betrayal in order to protect the relationship. Indeed, this is what leads to betrayal blindness.


Analogy to Fight, Flight, and Freeze


You have probably heard about
reactions to threats. When an animal—or a person—is under threat, the first response is to fight back or to flee the situation, if that is possible. If neither fight nor flight is possible, the animal then has only one option left: to freeze. This freeze reaction is sometimes called “tonic immobility” when observed in prey animals under attack from a predator. Fight, flight, and freeze responses in predator-prey situations are highly evolved defenses that involve distinct physiology. Some researchers have observed humans display exactly this same set of responses and physiological changes.


An interesting analogy between fight, flight, and freeze can be seen in our response to betrayal. If we are strong enough and in a good enough situation, we confront (fight) the betrayal to correct the situation. If we cannot do that, we withdraw from the person or the situation (flight) to avoid future harm. If that option is too dangerous—for instance, because we are dependent on the betrayer—our next best defense is to block out awareness of the betrayal; in other words, a kind of mental freeze (betrayal blindness) is our next best option.


Betrayal Trauma Theory and Research


Since its inception in the early 1990s, we have been further developing betrayal trauma theory. We have also been conducting research to test our theory and to better understand the psychology of betrayal traumas. Betrayal trauma theory explains why betrayal traumas—abuses perpetrated by someone the victim trusts and depends on—pose unique challenges to the victim, creating a conflict between the need to maintain a relationship and the need to respond to betrayal with protective action. As we have just explained, the core idea is this: although a protective response to betrayal might usually involve confronting or withdrawing from the perpetrator, the requirements of maintaining a necessary relationship may make such a response dangerous. In other words, often the need to preserve the relationship trumps the need to take protective action against betrayal. Protective action in response to betrayal—such as confrontation or withdrawal—may risk a crucial relationship by alienating the perpetrator, who is also the caregiver. This means that the victim—the person being abused or betrayed by someone close to him or her—may need to remain blind to the betrayal in order to protect the relationship with the caregiver.


Betrayal trauma theory has caused us to reevaluate the very idea of psychological trauma. Traditionally, psychological trauma was understood to be the result of terrorizing, life-threatening events that cause extreme fear.
These events can be very traumatizing, that is true. Yet what we and our colleagues have come to understand is that an equally traumatizing aspect of the events is social betrayal. In the above graph, we illustrate these concepts. The point is to show that events can be high in two very different kinds of traumatizing features—they can be terrifying or they can be highly betraying.


Two-Dimensional Model for Traumatic Events


If we look at Judy, whom we describe in chapter 1, in the way that we usually look at trauma (the horizontal dimension in the graph), we see that difficult things happened to her, but nothing that would have caused her to be terrified, as might have happened if she were raped by a stranger. Judy, however, was terribly betrayed (the vertical dimension in the graph). It is important that we begin to see such events as traumatic, for in research we have discovered that the effects of betrayal are often even more psychologically problematic than what we usually mean when we think of trauma—car accidents or natural disasters.
Those occurrences can cause lasting psychological trouble, but betrayal traumas are especially likely to cause distress and serious problems in adjustment.


Betrayal Traumas Are Toxic


After twenty years of research on betrayal trauma, we now have compelling evidence that betrayal traumas can be powerfully toxic to the victim.
Betrayal trauma theory explains that the double bind a victim faces (on the one hand, a need to protect against betrayal, but on the other hand, a need to remain attached to a caregiver) leads to a host of reactions, including blindness about the betrayal, memory impairment about the betrayal, and eventually even an increased risk for developing mental and physical distress.
Our research has confirmed that exposure to traumas that are high in betrayal (such as an assault by someone who is close to the victim) is linked to poorer mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, dissociation, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality characteristics, and increased physical health problems, as well as an even a greater risk of further victimization.
Later in the book, we explore in detail how betrayal trauma is toxic to the victim.


An interesting aspect of our development of betrayal trauma theory has been the particular issue of recovered memories. In the early 1990s, we first became curious about the issue of delayed recall of trauma, and this led to our initial conception of betrayal trauma theory—and to the false memory syndrome foundation that we discuss later in the book. According to betrayal trauma theory, forgetting abuse is a way to preserve the attachment relationship when the abuser is someone the victim is dependent on. Although there are various ways to remain blind to betrayal, perhaps the most effective way is to forget the event entirely.


Betrayal Traumas Are Frequent, Particularly for Girls and Women


We also know from two decades of research on betrayal trauma that people, particularly women, report alarmingly high rates of exposure to traumas that are high in betrayal.
A close interpersonal relationship to the perpetrator is a distinguishing characteristic of traumas commonly suffered by girls and women. For example, Lewis Goldberg and Jennifer Freyd discovered a startling relationship between gender and trauma exposure in a large adult community sample in the Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, area.
Men reported more traumas with a lower degree of betrayal (such as assault by someone who was not close to them) and women reported more trauma with a higher degree of betrayal (for example, assault by someone close to them).


In order to find out whether people have had experience with betrayal trauma events, Lewis Goldberg and Jennifer Freyd created a measurement tool called the Brief Betrayal Trauma Survey (BBTS). This tool has been used in many studies now and translated into four languages (German, Swedish, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese). The BBTS is short and easy for people to complete. There are a number of versions available. One version that has been used many times, including by Goldberg and Freyd, has fourteen items. For each item, participants report on exposure both “before age 18” and “age 18 or older.” In some other versions of the BBTS, three different age categories are used: “before age 13” and “13 to before age 18” and “age 18 or older.” Response choices are: “never,” “1 or 2 times,” or “more than that.” Participants who complete the BBTS are first asked: “Have each of the following events happened to you, and if so, how often?” You might try asking yourself what your answer would be to some of these items.

You were in a major earthquake, fire, flood, hurricane, or tornado that resulted in significant loss of personal property, serious injury to yourself or a significant other, the death of a significant other, or the fear of your own death.
You were in a major automobile, boat, motorcycle, plane, train, or industrial accident that resulted in similar consequences.
You witnessed someone with whom you were very close (such as a parent, a brother or a sister, a caretaker, or an intimate partner) committing suicide, being killed, or being injured by another person so severely as to result in marks, bruises, burns, blood, or broken bones. This might include a close friend in combat.
You witnessed someone with whom you were not so close undergoing a similar kind of traumatic event.
You witnessed someone with whom you were very close deliberately attack another family member so severely as to result in marks, bruises, blood, broken bones, or broken teeth.
You witnessed someone with whom you were not so close deliberately attack a family member that severely.
You were deliberately attacked that severely by someone with whom you were very close.
You were deliberately attacked that severely by someone with whom you were not close.
You were made to have some form of sexual contact, such as touching or penetration, by someone with whom you were very close (such as a parent or a lover).
You were made to have such sexual contact by someone with whom you were not close.
You were emotionally or psychologically mistreated during a significant period of time by someone with whom you were very close (such as a parent or a lover).
You were emotionally or psychologically mistreated during a significant period of time by someone with whom you were not close.
You experienced the death of one of your own children.
You experienced a seriously traumatic event not already covered in any of these questions.

How did you do? Clearly, some items involve great betrayal, while others are asking about traumas that can occur without the betrayal component. Was it easy for you to see which questions described betrayal traumas? If these were things that you experienced, did you always recognize the betrayal in the event?


This survey was designed to allow researchers to quickly measure a person's exposure to traumas with lots of betrayal and traumas with less betrayal. If you look at the previous list, you'll see that the traumas on the list that have the highest betrayal are items 7, 9, and 11. These items pertain to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by someone very close to the participant, such as a parent or a lover. The other events are also traumas but not the sort of very-high-betrayal trauma that occurs when the victim is being abused by someone very close to him or her. In some studies, we have further divided the remaining events into medium and low betrayal. Medium-betrayal events involve interpersonal abuse by someone not so close to the victim. Low-betrayal events involve non-interpersonal traumas, such as natural disasters and accidents. It is important to realize that any trauma can involve betrayal, even a natural disaster (as occurred to some people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), but these events are categorized based on the certainty of high betrayal. Any time a parent or a lover abuses someone, high betrayal is certainly a result.


Using these questions, Goldberg and Freyd looked at the rates of women and men who reported at least one event that was high in betrayal or lower in betrayal. The answers were somewhat surprising. Although there were very high rates of betrayal trauma, there was also a big difference between the experiences of men and women. Men and women did not differ very much in their overall rates of trauma exposure; however, they differed greatly in the types of events to which they were exposed. Women were much more likely to be betrayed than men.

BOOK: Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled
3.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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