Betrayal trauma theory (BTT) is defined as a trauma perpetrated by someone with whom the victim is close to and reliant upon for support and survival, and specifically addresses situations in which people or institutions that a person relies upon for protection, resources, and survival violate the trust or well-being of that person (Freyd, 2008).
What is Betrayal Trauma Theory?
Betrayal trauma theory (BTT) was first introduced by Jennifer Freyd in 1994. BTT is a concept I share early on when working with clients suffering from family scapegoating abuse (FSA). BTT is relevant to discussions of FSA in that it is rooted in the recognition of the dissociation a child might experience in response to living in an unsafe, unpredictable, and hostile environment. Meaning, the child ‘forgets’ the abuse, i.e. they do not consciously remember it. It should be noted that dissociation is also closely associated with the ‘freeze state’ which instinctively occurs in response to traumatic events / environments (the other states being fight/flight/fawn).
BTT asserts that betrayal acts as the precursor to dissociation, meaning, the dissociation occurs as a means of preserving the relationship with the primary caregiver or other important family figures the child feels dependent upon for their very survival. Because a child must rely on their caregiver for support and survival, they are more likely to dissociate (‘split off’) traumatic experiences from conscious awareness when experiencing betrayals of trust.
Child abuse inherently includes betrayal trauma because those that the child most depended on to care for and protect them (e.g., parents, teachers, relatives, etc) instead actively harmed them and broke their trust. It is also important to note that the child does not need to be consciously aware of the caregiver’s betrayal to experience BTT. According to DePrince and Freyd (2002a)
“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” (page 74-75).
The Lasting Negative Effects of Betrayal Trauma
Although betrayal trauma does not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, it seems clinically appropriate to consider it as contributing to the development of complex trauma (C-PTSD), as both are in response to abusive acts or environments.
When the family environment feels unsafe and threatening, even hostile, and there is no means of escape due to age or various types of dependency, the child / adult child is vulnerable to developing signs and symptoms of complex trauma, which will often intensify when they are adults (read my article on family scapegoating abuse and C-PTSD to learn more).
For the scapegoated child in a dysfunctional family, the intrapsychic dilemma is particularly acute: Instead of feeling loved, supported, accepted, valued, and cared about, they are often actively and openly rejected, shamed, blamed, and betrayed by their parent(s) or other primary caregiver, and are aggressively and overtly attacked by those they most rely on to survive.
The scapegoated child is also likely to experience overwhelming levels of ‘toxic shame’, resulting in their experiencing themselves as fundamentally “bad”, “wrong”, “less than”, and “defective” at a subconscious level. The resulting psycho-emotional distress can be acute and follow them life-long, negatively impacting their relationships with others as adults. [Note: It can also be the case that as the child develops and grows they will consciously reject the family narrative that portrays them as ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘defective’, or at fault, and will experience significant mental and emotional distress as a direct consequence of being portrayed by one or more family members in this way].
They may struggle to form deep, intimate relationships due to an ability to form healthy, secure attachments and past experiences of having their trust betrayed. Alternatively, they may find themselves in abusive relationships as an adult, unconsciously recreating their childhood experiences of interpersonal harm and betrayal.
Recovering From the Trauma of Betrayal and Family Scapegoating Abuse
There is no ‘one path’ to recovery. Each adult survivor of family scapegoating abuse will find that their journey of healing is unique, although they may share much in common with others. Ideally you will find a professional ‘trauma-informed’ therapist or coach to work with, one who understands the unique challenges that adults who grew up in dysfunctional, shaming, and abusive homes face.
It can be very helpful to open up to someone about your experiences of betrayal and harm at the hands of your own family – Be sure to choose someone who feels safe. Hearing from other survivor’s of child psycho-emotional abuse is also helpful. There are forums for survivors of C-PTSD where you can share privately about traumatizing, abusive childhood events, such as Out of the Storm’s C-PTSD forum. Writing down your story and your experiences in a journal, without editing, has also been proven to be very helpful and healing to abuse survivors as well.
Releasing the ‘scapegoat story’ created by your parent(s) or other family members is also a necessary component of recovering from the betrayal trauma associated with family scapegoating abuse. Remember, this is just their story about you – their distorted version of reality – and their portrayal of you likely has little to do with who you actually are. The fact that a family member would make you out to be “bad” and “defective” is a reflection of them and not you. Nobody has the right to malign and define you, including and especially your own family.
Recovering from any form of child abuse is not easy – but it is possible. With determination and support, you really can heal from the pain and betrayal trauma associated with family scapegoating abuse. Finding others who are on a similar healing journey and asking to hear their stories of hope and healing can be extraordinarily beneficial as well.
If there are more beginning recovery steps you’d like shared with this blog’s readers, feel free to comment here.
DePrince, A. P. & Freyd, J. J. (2002a). The harm of trauma: Pathological fear, shattered
assumptions or betrayal? J. Kauffman (Ed.) Loss of the Assumptive World (pp. 71-82).
Freyd, J.J. (2008) Betrayal trauma. In G. Reyes, J.D. Elhai, & J.D.Ford (Eds) Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma. (p. 76). New York: John Wiley & Sons.