Healing from Betrayal
Betrayal is one of the most painful things that can happen in relationship. It can leave you feeling disoriented, hurt, scared, and angry. Often after betrayal you struggle with the impulse to withdraw or lash out. But both hanging out alone while stewing in judgment and lashing out through public slander are toxic and will only extend suffering. While in some relationships you simply cut that person out of your life, in others you eventually want repair. Repair will include at least three steps: empathy for yourself, self-trust, and empathy and agreements with the other person.
Repair after betrayal might not start with the other person. You may need support in meeting your own inner critic who is saying things like, "How could you be such an idiot?!" "You should have known better!" "You can't tell who is trustworthy and who is not, how can you be in any relationship?!" Critical voices like this are expressing feelings of fear, anger, and grief and are attempting to lobby for needs like safety, predictability, care, and trust. Offer empathy to these inner critic voices and take steps to nourish the needs to which they point.
After the inner critic voices have subsided and you are anchored in groundedness and compassion for yourself, repairing self-trust may be the next step in healing. Reflecting on your choices in the relationship with compassion, you might ask yourself the following questions to help get clarity about what happened:
What needs was I attempting to meet in this relationship?
Was there any desperation or sense of urgency about meeting those needs with this person? If so, where did that come from? Attachment issues? Fear of something in particular? Old conditioning? Some standard or ideal?
Did I project something onto that person? If so, what needs was I hoping to meet with that projection?
What were the specific conditions that triggered urgency, desperation, fear, attachment issues, or projection? What were the signs and symptoms that any of these were coming up for me in my thinking, words, behavior, body language, impulses, and fantasies?
What yellow flags can I name now in the other person's previous behavior that I didn't notice or unconsciously ignored at the time?
With betrayal there is often so much hurt that the mind continuously returns to thoughts of how awful and wrong the other person is. This makes it difficult to focus on your own experience. If your mind is stuck here, it's a sign that you need more empathy before beginning a reflection process.
By reflecting, asking and answering these questions with warmth and kindness for yourself, you can use your new understanding to make requests of yourself to do something different in future similar situations. Ideally, this would involve some very small actions that you try out immediately. For example, if you recognized that emotional attachment is part of what got in your way of discerning clearly, you might ask yourself to relax and take an emotional and energetic step back the next time you feel emotionally drawn to someone. Taking a step back interrupts the trance of the attachment system and makes space for wise discernment.
Little by little, taking new actions and seeing that you can follow through on requests to yourself will allow you to regain a sense of self-trust.
When you have a sense of healing,confidence, and adequate support, you may be ready to approach the other person to create repair in that relationship. Or, your process may reveal that you are ready to let this particular relationship go
If you choose repair, it will include many layers of empathy on both sides which likely won’t be completed in one session. It will also likely include both of you owning your respective parts in contributing to a dynamic in which betrayal occurred. Being able to take responsibility without shaming yourself or the other person can be challenging and often requires the support of a skilled counselor. The hurt of betrayal, which is rarely only perceived on one side, triggers the impulse to defend and attack in a tragic attempt to maintain emotional safety. The ability to take responsibility for your part in any relationship event allows you to find agency rather getting stuck in a sense of powerlessness. It's important to remember here that something you do or don't do is not the cause of someone's behavior. Rather, you are discerning the part you played in creating a dynamic that created fertile conditions for particular behaviors to arise.
Effective repair doesn't mean a sense of trust returns immediately. It simply means that it becomes possible to rebuild trust. Trust is rebuilt slowly and almost always requires that both of you engage a new understanding and new set of skills. Through repeated experiences of a new way of relating that is characterized by self-responsible honesty, respect, and consistency, trust is earned. As you both engage consistently in this way over many interactions, healing completes and the sting of betrayal is replaced by warmth and trust.
Take a moment now to reflect upon a situation in your life in which you perceived betrayal. Identify which of the actions that create healing and rebuild trust are most relevant to you:
Receive empathy about what happened to help with the initial shock, hurt, and disorientation.
With support of an empathic listener, engage in empathy for any inner critic voices that are present.
From a grounded and compassionate place in yourself use the reflection questions above to gain understanding about what happened and open the way to agency and empowerment going forward.
Take new actions based on what you have learned to regain confidence and self-trust.
Initiate repair with the other person or set a boundary to end interaction with that person.
Learn new skills so that your participation in this and other relationships will be different going forward.
Observe the other person's behavior with curiosity about what new understanding and new skills they will bring.