Comments on the Origins of Betrayal
I want to share some thoughts about how betrayal in relationship arises. In thinking about betrayal in my own life and in the lives of my clients, I have realized that the act or event that we identify as betrayal is usually the culmination of a long process of disengagement that begins with betrayal of ourselves. It begins when I am unable to tell myself the truth about what I am really experiencing – what I am feeling, thinking, perceiving; what I want and don't want; what I am comfortable with and uncomfortable with. When I am unable to tell myself the truth about these things, I am unable to communicate it to my partner, and I am certainly unable to act on it. I fall into a trance of disengagement that I am not aware of. And I enter into an unspoken contract of disengagement with my partner.
I believe that this disengagement grows slowly and gradually over time. As I become more and more emotionally distant from myself and from my partner, I will tend to drift into engagement with other things – my work, my interests, my addictions – and other people. (In a new relationship, I can FEEL more engaged than I have come to feel with my partner and that can be very compelling. And I will have no awareness that, over time, the same process of disengagement will probably happen again, because it originates in me.) So in this climate of disengagement that is below the level of awareness, eventually, something dramatic happens that makes this disengagement visible. We call this dramatic event or act "betrayal." And it usually comes as a shock, because we have been in a trance. And we have no awareness of the role our self-betrayal has been playing.
I have thought a lot about my own life, and what made me vulnerable to self-betrayal. I have thought about growing up in a small town in the deep south. I was not raised to know what I was experiencing or to express/communicate this to other people. I was raised to craft myself to match certain images and to manage other people's perceptions of me. I was raised to be a deceiver – of myself first, and of others second. I was raised to form relationships of disengagement. I was raised in a culture in which I was surrounded by relationships of disengagement and betrayal.
I think that those of us who experienced trauma as children are even more vulnerable. We respond to trauma by developing lifestyles of vigilance, safety strategies, and dissociation. We learn to actively distance ourselves from our own experience and from other people. We become wired up to form relationships of disengagement. And so trauma puts us at an even higher risk for experiences of betrayal.
It has been my experience that the shock of betrayal can serve as an awakening. It can wake us up from the trance we have fallen into. If we allow it to, if we don't get distracted by trying to assign blame and shame and we focus on ourselves, the experience of betrayal can become the catalyst for a deep and profound re-engagement with our own experience – not just with our experience of the immediate situation, but with what we have actually experienced for our whole lives. If we make this choice, it can become a liberation. It can free us from old patterns that are not life-giving. It can lead to real transformation because it can change how we relate to ourselves and to other people for the rest of our lives.