We seven kids
We almost died
Nearly put to death
By lightening strikes
Instead there was hot, pink
Flashes in the sky
We climbed the rocks, in snow and rain
In search of magic powers

                —Lemonade, “CocoRosie”

Freyd (1991; 2008) writes: Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being: Childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse perpetrated by a caregiver are examples of betrayal trauma. 

“Research shows that having betrayal as a part of childhood abuse is an independent factor predicting more negative adulthood outcomes. By identifying and working through betrayal components, we assist ourselves in present-day efforts to overcome adversity.”Grant

Abby’s mother was mostly absent from family life. In fact, her treatment of Abby would probably best be described as neglectful. She herself was the sad child of a broken home. Pregnant before she understood what was happening to her, she was nowhere near prepared to care for Abby when she was born. The level of need and expectation in an infant daughter was more than Abby’s mother could manage. She coped by disappearing into a haze of alcohol.

Coming to understand and deal with avoidance, especially avoidance of awareness of the threat of intimacy, requires understanding how betrayal in childhood leaves its mark on adult relationships. This is the root of irrelationship. Choosing awareness instead of avoidance requires facing the most challenging feelings most of us encounter: shame, pain, and, from an interpersonal perspective, betrayal by those whom we as children, depended on to make us feel safe.

Though he could see what was happening, Abby’s father didn’t have the wherewithal to confront it. This was partly because Abby’s mother wasn’t available or reachable; but also because he felt guilty about the pregnancy and about the pain he could see in both Abby and her mother. At times, his pain was so bad that he would drink with Abby’s mother — a classic combination of enabling and collusion. Having been in love with her, he couldn’t bring himself to deprive her of the one comfort and escape still available to her.

Though overt abuse isn’t difficult to spot from the outside, the perpetrator and victim may not easily understand what’s happening between them as abuse. Freud (1926) described the “protective shield,” a function safeguarding the child from excessive and unbearable stimuli, required for healthy development. Extending this idea, Masud Khan (1974) identified forms of abuse, deprivation and neglect that occur insidiously over a period of years which he called “cumulative trauma,” resulting from the failure of the maternal protective shield. Freyd (1996) introduced the concepts of “institutional betrayal” and “betrayal blindness”, spotlighting ways that we individually and collectively ignore abusive and negligent behaviors taking place all around us. 

“As much as Abby longed for someone who would really love her, her history taught her that the risk was too great to allow it.”Daniel

Many people with histories of abuse hesitate to reconsider their hazy, incompletely recalled memories, or to explore how their stories extend into the present and are likely to affect the future. But our memory gaps are often not empty: their content will exert its influence with or without our recollection and consent, subliminally affecting our perceptions of self and others, and the choices we make.

Abby’s father was culpable for poor choices and behavior, but these choices and behavior were not unintelligible. Needing to be “looked after” as much as anyone, he had little energy or inclination to resist when, from an early age, daughter Abby showed herself willing to assume the roles of caretaker and homemaker. At the end of his work day, she would greet him at the door, and would have dinner ready. She took care of housework and looked after her mother. All the while, she did well in school and was thought of by teachers and peers as “a good girl”.

She had little time for socializing or dating, because all her time and energy was absorbed by keeping her home from falling apart and by studying. She diverted her attention from her own unmet needs by telling herself dating was “too much trouble” and that her friends’ stories made dating sound like one heartache after another. Anyway, that would just have to come later. Other people in turn told themselves she was “serious,” and wondered if she were shy because she would pull away when people tried to get closer.  Rarely did anyone inquire if she had problems at home despite rumors in her school and neighborhood.

Families like Abby’s that suffer from accumulated trauma and ongoing apprehension that chaos is just outside the door cultivate the emotionally distancing defense of irrelationship to keep from blowing apart completely. The parents may have some awareness that putting a child in the role of rescuer may not be the best solution, but, immobilized by their own feelings and helplessness, they allow it out of necessity. 

“The long-term effects of parent-child role reversals — another name for irrelationship—are often extreme. But because they often result in compensatory actions that look like success—a successful career, for instance—we sometimes miss the pain that drives them.”Mark

Unfortunately, the intimate relationships that Abby began to put off as a teenager didn’t come later, so she never developed the skills required to achieve and sustain good personal relationships. She left home, went to graduate school and became a highly successful and respected professional. But the imprint left by her childhood made her profoundly apprehensive about duplicating her mother’s experience for herself and for children she may have. Though she longed for love, every man she met disappointed her in some way. Rather than risking a replay of her parents’ marriage, she reenacted her childhood loneliness and isolation by creating a conspicuously successful professional life while remaining unable to explore the possibility of intimacy with anyone.


Freud, S. (1926). “Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety,” in J. Strachey (Ed.) Standard Edition, Vol. 20. (77–174). London: Hogarth Press.

Freyd, J.J. (1991). 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.

Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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.

Khan, M. (1974). The Privacy of Self. London: Karnac.

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