When a loved one has deeply hurt us healing from betrayal trauma, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that forgiveness can take place. Hurts within intimate family relationships can take many forms – such as relapsing in an addiction after promising recovery, having an emotional or physical affair outside the relationship, lying about substantive issues, stealing or using money without consent, emotionally neglecting a partner in a moment of critical need, and many more. Almost always, these events are accompanied by a deep sense of betrayal or abandonment for the Hurt partner. Something feels irrevocably lost and the Hurt partner cannot imagine returning to the ways things were before. Anger, hurt, and sadness are typical reactions and often these feelings continuously reoccur and alternate, creating a very chaotic internal experience. Many Hurt partners develop physical symptoms such as aches and pains. Research shows that when we are deeply hurt by someone we had allowed into our “inner circle,” we usually respond with physical agony. Mental health symptoms of anxiety and depression and in some cases a sense of disconnect from the world or from reality may occur. Sometimes the Hurt partner feels shame or humiliation and questions him- or herself. Naturally, he or she becomes less trusting and may develop a suspicious and mistrustful attitude. Hurt partners often complain of preoccupation with the injury and with the partner’s actions that is continuous and intrusive. Almost always, the Hurt partner experiences a mourning of many losses – the loss of trust of the partner, the loss of the “partner they knew,” the loss of an uncomplicated future, and the loss of their own trusting, optimistic self.
Most often, the Injuring partner is also hurting, and may have experienced damage in his or her early life relationships that has contributed to current behavior. The Injuring partner may not fully understand how much his or her action has affected the partner and may interpret the natural reactions of the partner as being unreasonable or excessive. Often the injury occurs in the complex context of the relationship in which the Injuring partner may also have felt disconnected or harmed. Usually, the efforts of the Injuring partner to attempt to repair the relationship feel difficult, frustrating and unsuccessful.
Betrayal events usually lead to a “turning point” in the relationship. The Hurt partner loses trust and begins to protect him or herself from the Injuring partner. This could take the form of angry attacks or emotional withdrawal or both. Usually the relationship is altered in a substantial and irrevocable way. In the wake of the injury, I often tell my clients that they may not be able to rebuild the former relationship if too much was lost. Instead, they have the option to understand and mourn what was lost and decide whether to rebuild a new relationship with one another. Sometimes, especially when there is a long history of harmful interactions, the decision is not to repair the relationship, but rather to heal each individual and allow each partner to learn from the injury and the recovery from betrayal trauma healing can begin .
What are the key components in the interpersonal process that lead to repair of the wounds and healing of the relationship? When both parties take place in the process, a first step is understanding the nature of the harm that has been done and the effect it has had on each person. It’s often difficult for people to speak about these harms, as such intense and painful emotions are associated with them. Often therapy is needed to facilitate a process in which the Hurt individual is able to talk in ways that allow the family member to understand the pain and really listen. Similarly, therapy can assist the Injuring partner to listen in ways that encourage the Hurt person to be open and vulnerable. As a full understanding is created, both parties may come to understanding betrayal trauma and all of the factors that contributed to the injury and to take responsibility for their own actions. In the context of this sharing and understanding, a full and detailed apology and subsequent amends are possible. Even without the partner’s participation and understanding, healing one’s self is possible using similar steps. In these cases, the healing process for the Injured person may lead to “letting go” of the injury and allowing self to move on emotionally, regardless of whether there is forgiveness. The process of achieving healing is a long and complex one, however, for those who wish to repair themselves or their relationship or overcoming betrayal trauma , there is a path.
For further reading, How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To by Janis Abrahms Spring, is a good resource.
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