Whilst much research has been conducted suggesting that those of us who were betrayed by parents/primary caregivers in our early life are more likely to mistrust others once we become adults, other research also shows that those of us who were betrayed in childhood are also more likely to be re-victimized as adults.
It has been pointed out that these two findings would appear to contradict one another. After all, wouldn’t distrusting others actually make it less easy for others to exploit and hurt us?
One school of thought suggests this apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that the research suggesting early betrayal lowers our ability to trust is methodologically flawed and that, actually, the opposite is the case: the experience of early life betrayal increases the likelihood that we will trust others once we become adults.
This seems utterly paradoxical and counterintuitive. Why should being betrayed as a child increase our trust in others?
The psychologist, Zurbriggen, suggested that the experience of being betrayed in early childhood results in damage of a cognitive mechanism which, in turn, reduces our ability to judge how trustworthy other people are, leading to an over-willingness to trust others thus leaving us vulnerable to re-victimization.
In essence, then, Zurbriggen (2006) and other researchers (e.g. Marx et al, 2002) are of the view that early trauma makes us less able to detect the untrustworthiness of others and the risk and threat they might pose.
Another researcher, Chu (1992), explains our increased likelihood of being revictimized as adults if we were betrayed in childhood by theorizing that we fail to learn from our original, childhood betrayal because our memory of it becomes fragmented and, as a defense mechanism, as adults, we dissociate from emotions that would otherwise suggest a person is a threat to us.
In summary, then, theorists such as those mentioned above believe that if we experienced a high level of betrayal in childhood, in our adulthood we will :
– have clouded judgment when it comes to trying to decide if others are likely to exploit, cheat or harm us due to damage done to our ability to cognitively process the relevant information
– be less able to detect an intimate partner’s infidelity
– be naively trusting of those who pose a threat to us
– be more likely to stay in a relationship in which we have been re-victimized/betrayed by our partner.
The ideas expressed above clearly contrast with the more mainstream view that, if we are betrayed during childhood, we will become deeply untrusting of others as adults.
Therefore, much further research is called for in this area.
Chu JA. The revictimization of adult women with histories of childhood abuse. J Psychother Pract Res. 1992 Summer;1(3):259-69. PMID: 22700102; PMCID: PMC3330300.
Zurbiggen. Evaluating the impact of betrayal for children exposed in photographs. Children And Society. First published: 10 March 2006. https://doi.org/10.1002/CHI.750
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).