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Betrayal Trauma’s Divisive Narrative

Research shows disclosing and writing can return victims to a holistic self.

Key points

  • Being abused by someone who has power over you creates a double bind for the victim.
  • The victim's dependence on the perpetrator makes confrontation very risky, if not impossible.
  • Victims betrayed by someone who should be a caretaker frequently bury their trauma.
  • Those who have been blind to their trauma can recover their memory through disclosure, the safe space of therapy, and writing.

When an individual is assaulted and harmed by a stranger, it does not cause what's known as betrayal trauma. There is no need to turn a blind eye to the harm done. The victim does not feel pulled in two conflicting directions. There isn’t a sense of free fall, as if the rug has been pulled out from under the self. There is no powerful motivation to remain ignorant about the assault and the harm.

In contrast, when the one who assaults and harms you is connected to you, has power over you, and/or is someone you depend on, then you are entering into the realm of betrayal. While suffering the assault and the harm, you are also suffering the breach of trust.

Even more concerning, the assault and harm do not remove your ties to the perpetrator. You may well continue to be connected, lack power, and have dependence on the one who is hurting you.

Betrayal Adds a Toxic Layer to Trauma

Betrayal trauma occurs when there is a social contract in place such as employer to employee, army to soldier, teacher to student, coach to athlete, doctor to patient, or parent to child. Betrayal occurs when there is a power imbalance and the victim depends on the perpetrator.

Betrayal trauma may cause a victim to dissociate into two selves: one who knows about the abuse and one who does not see it, remember it, or speak of it. This division that occurs is an adaptation to an impossible situation. Expose the betrayal and risk survival—whether that’s physical in the case of a child dependent on a parent, financial in the case of an employee dependent on an employer, or perhaps spiritual and social in the case of a parishioner dependent on a priest—or refuse to “see” the abuse and betrayal.

When Betrayed, Victims Put on Blinders in Order to Survive

Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell explain, “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.” In their study of betrayal trauma, Freyd and Birrell discuss it both on a microcosmic level, with a parent who abuses a child, and on the macrocosmic level with an institution abusing a disempowered or dependent group.

In both cases, the victim is in a double bind. On the one hand, she depends on and must maintain the relationship; on the other, she needs to respond to abuse and betrayal with protective action.

Victims choose, consciously or unconsciously, blindness to their betrayal as an adaptive strategy to cope with an impossible crisis. Not surprisingly this divisive response often leads to “symptoms of depression, anxiety, dissociation, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality characteristics, and increased physical health problems, as well as an even greater risk of further victimization.”

Betrayal Trauma is Damaging to Victims

When a survival strategy has been unknowing, forgetting, and internalizing, it makes sense that recovery involves knowing, remembering, and articulating. Individuals seeking to repair the harm done by betrayal trauma have found success in harnessing the power to name the experience, tell the story of its unfolding, and claim a holistic identity separate from the divisive past. Freyd and Birrell’s research reveals that victims of betrayal trauma respond effectively to working with an informed and empathic mental health counsellor.

Being blind to betrayal is a way to protect oneself when at risk.
Source: Luisella_Planeta/Pixabay

In the safe container created through therapy, victims learn to step away from the self-protective position of shame and look fully and clearly at the harm they endured at the hands of someone who should have been a caretaker. Victims stop the cycle of self-blame by understanding that behaviours such as substance abuse and suicide attempts were paradoxically part of a survival strategy. Self-induced blindness to betrayal was a strategy to avoid the pain of awareness.

The Importance of Awareness, Disclosure, and Social Support

The victims Freyd and Birrell focus on in their research recover from betrayal trauma by replacing the convoluted false narrative with the truth of what they suffered and the way bonds of trust were severed. Their disclosure in therapy, in private writing, or in anonymous contributions to research assists them in reclaiming their holistic self as they no longer have to be blind to what happened to them. Their act of putting the inexpressible into words empowers them to see that they were victimized and not at fault. Along with our story-telling selves, the body can be an ally in helping us heal.

Work with the body to recover from betrayal blindness.
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

Freyd and Birrell advise that those who fear they may have suffered betrayal trauma, but survived by being blind to it, need to work with their body to return to holistic health that creates the conditions of strength and wellness to confront breaches of trust. Betrayal trauma divides the self and can lead to dissociation and numbness. By actively caring for the self through healthy sleep, diet, and exercise, trust in the body’s natural responses to betrayal—referred to by evolutionary psychologists as “cheater detectors”—can be reawakened.

Although stepping out of the dark world of blindness into the light of knowing can be healing and liberating, Freyd and Birrell remind us that the blindness kept us safe at times when there was no safety.


Freyd, J. & Birrell, P. (2013). Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being

Fooled. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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