The Damaging Role Silent Partners Play in Child Sex Abuse
Betrayal, trauma, and the consequences
Psychologists understand that in family homes where there is child abuse, there are usually three important figures: the abuser, the victim, and the silent partner.
The term silent partner is most often used in the case of childhood sexual abuse, but it can be used to refer to any situation relating to the abuse of another person. A silent partner is any relative or close family friend who takes the abuser’s side against the victim rather than confronting the abuser or attempting to rescue the victim from the abuser. In essence, a silent partner, most often the wife or husband of the abuser, joins the abuser in a conspiracy of silence by not only refusing to confront the abuser but by keeping the abuse silent.
In many cases, silent partners abdicate their responsibility to protect their children, either because they are afraid to draw the abuser’s wrath, or they sacrifice the child in order to make their life easier.
Not only do they not protect the child, but some silent partners outright deny the abusive behavior and claim it never happened, even though they actually witnessed it themselves. They often “gaslight” victims, telling them they are imagining things—that it didn’t really happen. They will undermine the victim’s self-confidence and try to make them doubt their perceptions. They will minimize the abuse, telling victims that it is not so bad or that they are “making too much of a fuss over nothing.”
There can also be silent partners when it comes to the emotional and physical abuse of children. In these situations, silent partners will often justify or rationalize the abuser’s behavior with comments like, “That’s just the way he is,” or “He doesn’t really mean it.”
A silent partner is, as the name implies, often considered to be an actual partner in the abuse. She or he is partners with the abuser and, ultimately, wants to maintain that partnership at all costs. Without his or her active cooperation, the abuse would not be allowed to continue.
Saying that someone is complicit in the situation is another way of describing the role of the silent partner. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines complicit as: “Helping to commit a crime or do wrong.” The term complicity refers to the act of helping someone else behave inappropriately or illegally—being an accomplice.
Victims come to realize that not only did the silent partner not protect them, but he or she chose the abuser over them. Victims are absolutely devastated to realize that someone who was supposed to care about them could turn his or her back on them in this way. This realization causes severe emotional damage to the victim, pain and suffering that will require psychological treatment in itself, separate from recovering from the abuse.
Many victims end up feeling as much or more hurt and anger toward the silent partner who didn’t protect them than they do toward the abuser himself. And in the case of incest, most victims feel just as betrayed by a parent or other family member as they do by the family member who sexually abused them. Some experts even go as far as to say that a silent partner is actually an abuser and is every bit as guilty as the abuser himself. His abuse is obvious and blatant, while the silent partner’s abuse is more insidious. She has the ability to abuse and appear pathetic at the same time.
“What can I do?” she asks, while all along knowing exactly what she is supposed to do to protect the victim. Others, including psychotherapists who work with former victims of childhood sexual abuse, warn that this focus on viewing the silent partner as equally responsible can be unhealthy. Most silent partners are not as scary as the actual perpetrator, and so some former victims find it easier to be angry at a silent partner than they do the perpetrator himself.
When this occurs, former victims often sidestep working on their anger at the perpetrator and don’t get the chance to release their righteous anger concerning the actual abuse. In addition, blaming the silent partner for his or her part ignores the strong possibility that he or she was actually a victim of child sexual abuse. One particular case stands out to me when I think about this phenomenon.
One of my clients wanted to bring her mother, a silent partner, into her therapy session. Her mother was pressuring her to reconcile with her since they hadn’t talked in a number of years. My client wanted to confront her mother once and for all about what she perceived as her mother standing by while her father molested. She was certain her mother knew what was happening because her father often molested her at night in the family room while the two of them were under a blanket on the couch. Her mother was actually in the same room watching TV with them.
When my client confronted her mother about this, she broke down and sobbed, saying that she didn’t know it was happening even though it was right in front of her eyes. I actually believed the mother, since I had experienced the phenomena of former sexual abuse victims “blocking out” things that were right in front of them. This ability to block out reality is a form of dissociation that is so common among survivors of child sexual abuse.
Experiencing a sense of betrayal is by far the primary damage former victims feel due to the actions or rather the inaction on the part of silent partners. The closer a victim was to a silent partner, the more intense is the feeling of betrayal.
Although there has been little direct research into the damage silent partners have on victims, there is ample anecdotal evidence that this form of betrayal has a negative effect on a victim’s life moving forward.
“There is no doubt that the fact that my father sexually abused me from the age of 5 to 8 has had an extremely damaging effect on almost every aspect of my life. I’ve been in therapy for three years recovering from his abuse. But recently, I have discovered that my mother’s betrayal of me by standing silently by while my father abused me has been almost as damaging. I have trouble trusting men because of the sexual abuse, but I also don’t trust women. In fact, I have as much or more anger toward them. I don’t believe that any woman can actually care about me, and I see every female friend as a potential betrayer.”
Although not specific to the issue of silent partners, there is research in the exploration of the extent to which the level of betrayal inherent in a given childhood traumatic experience affects the likelihood of experiencing similar re-victimization in adolescence and adulthood. One study, by Gobin and Freyd, assessed re-victimization within a betrayal trauma framework among a sample of 271 college students. As predicted, individuals who reported experiencing high-betrayal trauma were more likely to report experiences of trauma high in betrayal during adolescence and adulthood (those who experienced trauma high in betrayal were 4.31 times more likely to be victimized in adolescence and 5.44 times more likely to be victimized in adulthood).
Betrayal Trauma Theory and Re-Victimization
Betrayal trauma theory shows the effect betrayal by someone who is supposed to love and protect you has on a victim’s life. Just as it is with sexual abuse itself, when children are abused (or neglected, as in the case of silent partners) by adults who are supposed to protect them from harm, their ability to trust and rely on adults may be shattered.
Freyd’s (2003) betrayal trauma theory predicts that the experience of high betrayal results in damaged trust mechanisms. Findings support the prediction by indicating a decreased ability to detect certain betrayals within the context of an intimate partnership. Specifically, survivors of high-level trauma reported lower levels of awareness of betrayal by an intimate partner. This inability to decipher potentially emotionally unhealthy situations limits one’s ability to engage in proper self-defense actions, as well as the ability to end an emotionally, physically, or sexually damaging relationship.
A violation perpetuated by someone significant is characterized as a trauma high in betrayal (Freyd, DePrince, & Zurbriggen, 2001).
Betrayal trauma theory predicts that experiencing traumas high in betrayal (such as incest) may result in damaged trust mechanisms. Such damage may lead a survivor to be overly trusting, insufficiently trusting, or unable to accurately identify betrayal and respond in a self-protective manner.
Zurbriggen and Freyd (2004) contend that traumas high in betrayal damage cognitive mechanisms that would normally help an individual to make healthy relationship and sexual decisions. One such cognitive mechanism is referred to as the “cheater detector” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992), that is, the ability to detect trustworthiness in others. Because of their inability to label someone as untrustworthy and a damaged “cheater detector,” sexual abuse victims are often more susceptible to exploitation later in romantic partnerships.
Abuse-related social deficits may develop. Other investigators have found deficits in risk detection among survivors of childhood sexual abuse (e.g., Soler-Baillo, Marx & Sloan, 2005). DePrince (2005) found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse had significantly more trouble detecting violations in social exchange rules than individuals who had not experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Similarly, Cloitre, Scarvalone, and Difede (1997) found that childhood sexual abuse survivors reported an inability to label threat triggers appropriately. As a result of these findings, Cloitre suggested that revictimized individuals may have distorted mental representations and fail to perceive interpersonal violence in the context of a romantic partnership as a violation. Therefore, victims who are violated in the context of an intimate partnership may be less likely to protect themselves (Cloitre).
This was the case with my client, Rebecca:
“I was not only betrayed by my perpetrator but by my mother and older brother. Both knew that my father was molesting me. Because of the betrayal by both of them, I grew up being overly naïve. You’d think I would have felt leery of ever trusting anyone again, but the opposite was true for me. Time after time, I became attracted to men who were untrustworthy—men who lied to me, cheated on me, emotionally and physically abused me.”
In a 2009 study, “Betrayal and Revictimization: Preliminary Findings” by Gobin and Freyd (Psychological Trauma, Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy), the aim was to examine the impact of the experience of high-betrayal traumas on the propensity to trust and ability to detect betrayal. The study assessed the following exploratory hypotheses:
1. High-betrayal trauma survivors will be either overly trusting or extremely unwilling to trust when compared with participants without an abuse history.
2. High-betrayal trauma survivors will display less awareness for interpersonal betrayal than participants without a high-betrayal trauma history.
3. High-betrayal trauma survivors will be more likely to report continuing a relationship (rather than ending a relationship) following an interpersonal betrayal.
The study concluded that survivors of high-betrayal trauma reported a higher frequency of everyday betrayals and differed from participants who did not report a high-betrayal trauma history in their willingness to trust, awareness for interpersonal betrayals, and reaction to betrayals. In addition to offering a new framework for conceptualizing re-victimization, the study highlighted the importance of trust and betrayal in trauma.
Further, the study found that survivors of high-betrayal trauma reported higher levels of dissociation and traumatic symptoms. Consistent with this, many researchers have found maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as dissociation, to be linked to a decreased capacity to feel the anticipatory anxiety that usually accompanies dangerous situations (Hall, 2003)
Even though the research cited here is not directly related to the damage done by silent partners, the fact that former victims feel the level of betrayal they experience is an indication that clinicians and researchers alike need to explore and study the phenomena of betrayal by silent partners.
Gobin, Robyn, & Freyd, Jennifer. (2009) Psychological Trauma Theory, Research, and Policy: American Psychological Association, Vol 1 . No 3 242-257