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Dr. Trappler`s Tripartite Theory of Trauma

January 1, 2015



The notion of a three-dimensional theory of soul originates in ancient Greek Philosophy with Plato`s Tripartite theology.

Following this, Sigmund Freud the “Father of Modern Psychiatry”, described a triple-layered topography to the anatomy of the psyche, in which he conceptualizes the Id, ego, and super-ego.

The Tripartite Theory of Trauma of trauma is an object-relations theory of trauma-psychology, which proposes that there are always three components – a triad – involved in the psychology of abuse.

The theory proposes that the dynamics in which trauma plays out should be broadened from that of victim and predator, to include a curiosity regarding dereliction of caretaker-functioning; which completes the triad.

The importance of this triad-dynamic becomes evident when a victim is traumatized as a result of dereliction by his or her designated caretaker (as an individual or agency) or when the failure to protect results in injury or loss of life.

When attempting to understand the psychological trauma experienced by more vulnerable populations such as children, spouses, or minority-groups, it is extremely important to focus on the roles played by those individuals or agencies assigned to their protection.

To convey the importance of trauma-dynamics, disrupting this safe balance creates the recipe for a pathological outcome.

I extend the concept of “caretaker” to include parents, spouses, and even civilian or governmental agencies.

When a parent or other caretaker (including a government) fails to protect, or even colludes in some way with a predator, there is some profound dynamic that has gone terribly astray.

When attempting to understand the social underpinnings of psychological trauma among high-risk groups such as children and spouses, it is important to consider that the statistical majority of cases involves betrayal by the victims’ designated caretakers.

“Caretakers” can include an individual (e.g., a parent), civilian organization (e.g., “Child Protective Services”), or other governmental agency.

Parental Caretaking in the Tripartite Model

  1.  John Bowlby, the forefather of “Attachment Behavior”, focused on attachment as an intrinsic biologically-based behavior system, whereby the consistency of caregivers became essential in fostering subsequent secure and mature social functioning (“Attachment and Psychopathology” Edited by Leslie Atkins and Kenneth Zucker, Guilford Press, 1997, pages 23-28, ISBN 1-57230-191-0).


  1. We now know that healthy bonding between mother and child is an ongoing process characterized by distress signals and empathic responses that begin early in life. Secure attachment increases the probability of integrated personality development (Belsky, J., & Isabella, R.A. Ibid; pg. 4-5).


  1. Studies of bonding among primates that tested different feeding patterns (foraging) between mother-infant bonnet-macaques monkeys showed that puppies who received insufficient or erratic unpredictable foraging showed elevated stress hormones and then later, as parents bonded less favorably with their own kin, (Jeremy Coplan et al, C.N.S. Spectrums, July, 2005).


  1. 4. For Franz Kohut, (the founder of the School of “of Self-Psychology”), a good mother is one whose emotions, voice-tone, and tactile responses show a total congruence with the needs of her infant. He referred to this function as “empathy”, translated as “being with.” This trait requires a certain dedication or “generosity of spirit” towards the other (Franz Kohut Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, Volume 5Issue 3, 1995).


  1. A mother generally exhibits a variety of bonding behaviors that impact her child’s sense of self (which ranges from being more or less cohesive), emotional regulation (self-soothing function), and attentional capacities (mindfulness).

Throughout development a child learns to manage external threats by identifying with and modeling the responses of good caretakers.

Early in life, caretakers will function as an external regulator of the child`s stress responses. Individuals are at an advantage if their caretakers identified their stress signals and responded supportively. Over time, children internalize their parents’ coping skills.

Having received healthy early-attachment, survivors can overcome trauma when they believe that things will turn out all right and therefore confront problems, plan solutions, and seek-out the support they need.

In contrast, victims with fragile or inconsistent patterns of early-attachment tend to be pessimistic, avoid problems rather than plan solutions, and reject support when needed.

This plays out in domestic settings, when a parent abuses his or her child, and evidence emerges that the Caretaker colluded with the predator, was mysteriously absent, or (from the victims perspective), “should have known”.

The same notion of interpersonal trauma was described by Judith Herman as being a result of the “violation of human connection”. Dr. Herman described traumatic events as ‘the shattering of connection between the individual and community” (“Trauma and Recovery- The aftermath of violence- from domestic abuse to political terror”, Judith Herman, M.D. Basic BOOKS, 1992, ISBN- 9780465-087303).

“Parenting”, at a governmental level requires that its citizens feel safe, free of persecution, freedom of information, travel, and religious and political expression, as well as protection from external threat.

Such citizens should feel secure in their daily affairs and free to safely engage in work and pleasure with minimal governmental interference.

It therefore becomes contingent on government to provide a variety of protective functions. These would include access to medical care, law-enforcement, and a fair judicial system.

At the level of government, when caretaker functioning becomes abusive, (as demonstrated by tyrannical regimes), it has deformed its caretaking role into a fear-dominated, restrictive, or punitive dynamic. This form of tyrannical leadership not only replaces an entire society’s sense of well-being with that of fear and intimidation, but can demoralize the hopes and aspirations of entire nations.

When the role of governmental caretaker functioning becomes deformed, (as demonstrated by tyrannical regimes), caretaking resembles a parenting dynamic that is punitive, fear-dominated, or restrictive. This form of tyrannical leadership not only replaces an entire society’s sense of well-being with that of fear and intimidation, which can demoralize an entire population.

When governments perpetrate or collude in unlawful intimidation, isolation, deprivation, or punishment of their own (or neighboring) citizens, this is analogous¾on a collective level¾to the punitive patterns shown by child abusers.

In such instances, the caretaker has abolished a protective role, replacing it with a pervasive sense of threat.

The ensuing vacuum created by such abuse of privilege, is characteristic of a role-reversal in which the caretaker becomes the predator, leaves the citizens in the role of victims.

Democracies have therefore placed checks and balances on the powers of the Administrative Branch of Government, where citizens (in democracies), still feel protected by courts and congressional representation unimpeded by governmental interference.

Stalin’s doctrine of population – control by intimidation, restrictions, and purges beginning in the 1930`s are an example of caretaker perversion and abuse carried out on a grand scale.

After the fall of Communism, the Free World rejoiced when countries such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary were finally able to reclaim their own national identity. Such epic moments that celebrate freedom over suppression occur whenever a victim is rescued.

Once a benevolent style of caretaking was re-introduced, healing (also known as trauma-recovery), could begin.

Irwin Cotler, a Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law at McGill University, has addressed the failure of caretaking at an international level as “the crime of indifference and inaction,” and notes that, in spite of a lot of rhetoric on Darfur, 450,000 people died. He adds, “The killing fields have not abated.” Our generation has witnessed ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and the genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, and Syria.

According to the Tripartite Theory of Caretaking all of these social catastrophes could have been prevented by effective global caretaking.



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