Sexual abuse is a betrayal, a form of treachery. The responsibility of adults is to protect children from abuse and violation. To betray that trust and abuse a child is to destroy the child's ability to trust in the future. Betrayal is:
  • A violation of trust
  • Deception and lies
  • The act of convincing someone to believe that something is not true
  • The violation of a social contract, an understood way of relating

You can no longer have confidence in a person who has betrayed you. In a trusting relationship  people rely on one another - they have faith in one another. Once someone betrays you, you can no longer rely on that person to act with integrity towards you. They have not been honest. They must prove they are trustworthy if you are to trust them again. 

Sexual abuse is betrayal trauma due to the dependency relationship children have with adults. Children are unable to care for themselves and trust adults to tell them what they need to know and do in order to grow and develop normally. Betrayal trauma occurs when the people you depend on for survival violate your trust. Children have dependency relationships with adults, particularly parents and family members. When one of these sexually abuses the child, a betrayal bond is created. This occurs when the victim attaches to the abuser and is loyal, supportive, and helpful to him.

Betrayal bonds and trauma bonds are important to understand in the dynamics of child sexual abuse. Children maintain loyalty to the abuser and may consistently lie for years and cover up the abuse. (Also see Stockholm Syndrome.) The mother of the victim also needs to understand the dynamics of betrayal as it relates to her relationship with the abuser. Mothers may struggle with feelings of betrayal if the sexual abuse was perpetrated by a family member. She will experience feelings of violation and abandonment. This will increase her griefhurt and pain, and anger following disclosure. She will also experience increased ambivalence  and confusion. 

The mother may herself have a betrayal bond with the abuser:

  • If she has a dependency relationship with him
  • If she has experienced prior betrayal or trauma in her relationship with him
  • If she has experienced domestic violence in her relationship with him

Betrayal trauma theory helps in understanding a mother’s experience of her child’s sexual abuse by a family member. Betrayal traumas are social traumas that violate a trust agreement between individuals. Dissociation is a central mechanism in betrayal trauma theory because dissociation allows victims to be unaware of information that threatens the relationship with a trusted person. This assures continued attachment to the perpetrator. Numbing and restricted memory are involved in this process.

Studies have shown that betrayal is associated with physical illness, dissociation, anxiety, and depression. (Freyd, Klest, & Allard, 2004). High betrayal predicts increased victimization in adults who are survivors of earlier abuse. In a study by Gobin and Freyd (2009) high-betrayal survivors (abuse perpetrated by closer family members), were more likely to be revictimized, had higher rates of dissociation, were less able to detect untrustworthy persons, were less aware of current betrayal, and had a tendency to remain in destructive relationships. Relative risk rations were remarkable. Survivors of high-betrayal childhood abuse were 4.31 time more likely to be revictimized during adolescence and 5.44 times more likely to be revictimized during adulthood. Betrayal trauma theory explains the need and the mechanism for a victim to maintain attachment to the person who betrayed them. It has been applied to domestic violence victims who cannot leave the destructive relationship.

If a mother has a betrayal bond with the perpetrator, based on prior betrayals or domestic violence, her participation in ongoing therapy is highly recommended. In order to provide protection and safety to her child and to make objective, clear decisions about the future, the mother will need to maintain awareness of betrayal bonds with the abuser and, if possible, dissolve those bonds.   


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