In our recent book, Conflict Resolution: The Partnership Way,
( 2009, pp. 161-172), we discuss one of the most
universal human experiences: betrayal trauma. Betrayal experiences
create a special kind of developmental trauma and stress.
They often begin in early
childhood when you placed all your trust in your parents and other caregiving adults,
anticipating that they would be perfect caregivers, see your essence, honor
your innocence, appreciate your uniqueness, and meet your needs in a timely
manner. When your parents were unable to do so, you felt betrayed.
experience indicates that all people have betrayals of some kind during their
lives. Our first childhood betrayals often begin in early infancy. We perceived our parents
and others as divine and trusted them to treat us with respect. However, your
mother or father may have looked at you, perhaps while feeding you, failed to
see your divine nature, and saw instead their own unfulfilled wishes and
dreams. In this situation, they may have used you as a tool for meeting their
own unmet needs This is how the process
of invalidating our divine nature begins.
We eventually discover that our parents are not divine
beings but mortal humans with faults and problems. This realization can trigger
feelings of betrayal and damage if not break primal trust in the
relationship. In our adult
relationships we attempt to recreate this experience of primal trust and use it
as a criterion for determining the relationship’s worth, so we get betrayed
again and learn that our partners are just ordinary human beings like our
In the middle of conflicts they say and do things that activate
memories of unhealed betrayal trauma. We feel profoundly disappointed, lost,
and hopeless that we will ever find someone who can mirror our divine self so
we can recover it.
research on human potential indicates that most people use only a small percent
of their inherent capacities. They are so richly over-endowed that very few
even begin to understand how much unused potential they really have at their
disposal. In fact, Einstein, who was considered the epitome of mental giants,
reportedly wept just before his death when he contemplated the fact that he had
used so little of his own potential.
trauma, as a form of developmental trauma or stress, plays a major role in the
loss of human potential, particularly the loss of innocence in early childhood.
Each time parents or other adults fail to see, accept, and understand a child,
they chip away at the child’s sense of Self. It is helpful to look at when, how, where, and by whom you
might have been betrayed as a child in order to recover your split-off parts, restore your full connection to your essence, and reclaim the vision of your true potential.
Typical Responses To Betrayal
(1975), in a very penetrating article about betrayal, writes about the choices
people typically make when they feel betrayed. He believes that most people make
what he calls “sterile choices” that prevent them from learning from their betrayals.
Here are Hillman’s descriptions of each of these choices:
often feel a very strong desire to get even with the persons who betray them.
When someone says or does something hurtful, the immediate impulse may be to
get revenge. Hillman says that this choice is the most common response and the
one that creates the least amount of growth in consciousness. Seeking revenge
and getting even mean placing the focus on what other people did or didn’t do
or say; this response allows you to avoid looking at yourself in order to
expand your awareness.
Splitting. People in intimate relationships who are unable
to maintain their internal object constancy or sense of self often resort to
splitting against themselves or others. Triggered by post-traumatic stimuli
from the past, they may feel regressed, and then make either himself or herself
or the other person the “bad guy.” This kind of split immediately
activates automatic flight/fight/freeze behavioral responses. Splitting
responses to a betrayal may indicate a need for trauma reduction therapies
and/or individual counseling that focuses on developmental trauma during the
first three years of life.
Denial. A third choice in a betrayal situation is to deny
the value of the other person. This choice may also involve splitting, or
making a person once perceived as “all good” into someone now
perceived as “all bad.” It’s surprising how quickly this defense
mechanism can be activated, often with little awareness. By placing all the
blame on the betrayer you may miss important learning about the real source of
the betrayal as a reenactment experience of some earlier betrayal trauma.
Cynicism. This easy choice may be the disease of
contemporary times. It is easy for people to get cynical because of their
inabilities to stop reenacting their betrayal traumas and the subsequent lack
of understanding of the patterns inherent in them. Cynicism is often called
broken idealism and if only seen this way, that perspective prevents any
serious look at how any previous betrayals may have led up to the current one.
Cynicism, again, doesn’t lead to much growth or awareness.
Paranoia. Paranoia, or a lack of trust of the betrayer, is
another common response to betrayal. Someone who was betrayed and hurt in a
loving, trusting relationship may require that people pass a lot of tests
before they are allowed to get close again. Paranoia also leads to very little
It requires a lot of time to constantly monitor the other person’s
behavior to determine if he or she is passing some trustworthiness tests.
Rather than focusing on the source of the betrayal or the patterns being
reenacted in the relationship, paranoia is another way of avoiding
Self-Betrayal. The final sterile choice, according to
Hillman, involves the betrayal of one’s own self. The inner response to a
betrayal might be, “How could I have been so stupid!” Such responses
often include a self-judgment about the risks that were taken.
seeing the risk-taking as a potential for learning, it becomes classified as a
mistake that is used for self-judgment and disempowerment. In another post is a
skill practice exercise designed to help you identify your patterns of betrayal
that could have caused you to have unhealed developmental trauma or stress.