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. Our 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 parents. 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.
The 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. Betrayal 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
James Hillman (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:
- Revenge. People 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 growth. 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-scrutiny.
- 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. Rather than 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.