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Betrayed by Your Best Friend? 6 Ways to Heal Your Heart

Psychology can help you explain and manage the pain of a friend's betrayal.

Lightwavemedia/Shutterstock
Source: Lightwavemedia/Shutterstock

Daphne was almost 40 when she came home to find her best friend, Jennifer, in bed with Daphne’s husband, Mike.* “I think it was the worst thing that had happened in my life,” she said. “I guess it was the double betrayal. Mike and Jennifer: Two people I completely trusted.”

Not every deception by a friend is as life-shattering as Daphne’s double whammy, but even the smallest can sting. Daphne is one of the women I spoke with as I gathered the information for my book I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives. Others told me of a number of different ways that friends had betrayed them — sharing something they had told them in confidence, talking about them behind their backs, and lying to them were just a few examples.

Madeleine*, a recent college grad, said that she felt betrayed by a friend who had started dating and suddenly wasn’t available to chat or spend time with her. “I know that’s not fair,” Madeleine said. “She’s involved in a new relationship, and it’s normal not to have as much time as she used to. But it’s happened a few times, and the problem is, when the relationship is over, she sort of thinks I should be available to spend the same amount of time we used to spend. It doesn’t matter if I’m dating, or if I’ve got plans with other friends. I’m supposed to be at her beck and call.”

The psychologist Jeanne Safer describes a friend who betrayed her by becoming more and more self-centered, unable or unwilling to even ask questions about Safer’s life or experience. She writes, “Lost friends are as haunting as lost lovers, and just as hard to replace.” Some of the women I spoke with would have changed her comment to “even harder to replace.” Numerous women described experiences similar to Safer’s, with friends who could not tolerate or support them through an illness, or a divorce, or the loss of a spouse or child.

But in some cases, what feels like a betrayal is really more a change in life situation. Like Madeleine, you may have experienced a sense of betrayal when a friend married, began to have children, and/or became intensely involved in her work. Interestingly, many of the women also told me they felt bad that they had become less available for their friends, but said that their closest friends understood. “We’re all in the same boat, more or less,” said one woman in her early 30s. “We get together when we can, we talk on the phone, but it’s a lot less than it used to be.”

Another woman told me that she felt she had been a bad friend because she was so involved with her family and her career: “I felt like I left my friends behind. And I hurt some of them.”

Change and loss can feel like a betrayal, but it is not always meant that way. As we move through different life stages, it is not unusual that some of our friendships receive less attention. Further, being disillusioned by a friend is a normal and even expected part of a healthy developmental process.

Yet studies have found that we feel these changes are personal — that is, that they are specifically directed at us, which is what makes them sting so much. [ii] [iii] [iv] Julie Fitness, a psychologist who has studied and written about the impact of betrayal, puts it this way: “When those on whom we depend for love and support betray our trust, the feeling is like a stab at the heart that leaves us feeling unsafe, diminished, and alone.”

And this loss makes us more vulnerable physically as well as emotionally.

There are books galore about handling infidelity in a marriage. But what about when a friend is disloyal or unfaithful? What do you do when your best friend — or any friend — betrays you?

Here are some suggestions gleaned from the women I interviewed and from psychotherapists who write about these experiences:

1. Clarify the situation. Whether you are the betrayer or the betrayed, the damage can sometimes be temporary, with the disruptions folded into the fabric of a relationship without doing too much destruction. Sometimes, however, the fallout can be permanent and life-changing. In either case, how we interpret the rupture can add to or alleviate our pain.

What does that mean? Sometimes it means making sure that your interpretation is the same as your friend’s. For instance, Alice* felt abandoned by Deirdre*, her closest friend from childhood, who had stopped returning her phone calls. “I texted, emailed, and did everything I could short of going to her house and pounding on her door,” Alice said. “Eventually, I just decided that our friendship must be over. I was so hurt and angry and really kind of horrified.” But she felt worse when she discovered that Deirdre was in the throes of severe depression. “I finally did go over to her house and knocked until she let me in. She looked terrible. She wasn’t eating and hadn’t been out of the house for days,” Alice said. “I bundled her up and took her to the hospital. It wasn’t a betrayal. It was an illness.”

2. Accept and process your feelings. Once you have faced the painful truth of a betrayal and your own feelings about it, you can start to process the emotions — the good, the bad, and the ugly. After a betrayal, you will very likely have to manage a number of different emotions. Your feelings about what happened are not going to be static. Hurt may turn into anger or vice versa. Each phase will require different emotional and maybe even physical responses on your part. The key is to stay as honest with yourself as you can. And, when possible, to explain your thinking to the people who are important to you, although not necessarily to the person who hurt you.

3. Consider whether or not to process the feelings with the person who hurt you (or the person you hurt). Sometimes the person who betrayed you is around to help you process those feelings. In that case, it can be healing to talk about what happened. But sometimes she cannot join you in that work, or you may not want to open yourself up to the possibility of further injury, and that is okay too. The same is true when you have done the betraying. If your genuine apologies are not accepted, you may feel hurt and frustrated. In either case, you can still express your feelings, but maybe not to the friend. It is also perfectly okay if you want to act like things are fine, and you want your friend to do the same, although of course, this solution works best when it works best for both of you. Like Lillian on the show Bridesmaids , you might just want to say, “Why can't you be happy for me, and then go home and talk about me behind my back like a normal person?”

4. Decide whether or not you can forgive your friend. Daphne felt that she could not forgive her friend Jennifer: “It wasn’t just her, of course. Mike was part of it. And so was I. I mean, I had known for a while that something wasn’t right with our marriage, but I was afraid to address it. But that doesn’t mean that it was my fault. And I’m just not ready to put it all behind me and be kissy-face with either of them.” Safer says that sometimes not forgiving can be both freeing and allow you to move on. It can also help you remember the things that you did love about your friend.

But sometimes forgiving is also freeing. Madeleine found that she missed her friend and decided to accept her for who she was: “We have a great time together. And I’m really fond of her. So, I just have to know that she’s going to put whatever boyfriend she’s with first; that’s just who she is.”

5. Recognize that there is no single right way to handle a betrayal. What is crucial, however, is to recognize and acknowledge, at least to yourself, what you are feeling. Once you have done that, it is easier to find ways to cope with the experience that works best for you. If you do not have a clear sense of what you want to do, you might try talking or even acting out a possible conversation with someone you trust. Take the conversation as far as you can, and then let yourself sit with your feelings about that scenario. Then imagine the opposite. What would happen if you said nothing? How would that look and feel to you? After you have imagined several different scenarios, you will probably have an idea of what you feel most comfortable doing — or not doing — about the situation.

6. Remember that it may not be what it seems. This can mean trying not to take the hurtful actions personally, even when it seems that you are the intended victim. Daphne finally came to realize that the double betrayal by her husband and her best friend was not her fault. Sure, there were things she could have done differently, and ways that she could have been both a better wife and a better friend. But as another friend pointed out to her, their behavior had much more to do with their inner demons than with her. It might seem to you that a friend intentionally hurt you when she was thinking about her own problems, not you. Of course, her lack of consideration of your needs could be hurtful in and of itself, and you do have to deal with that. But stepping back and looking at the bigger picture can help. And turning to other friends can also be an invaluable way to help the injury heal and help you move on.

“It was an awful time,” Daphne said. “I wanted to withdraw from the world.” Because she felt that her children needed extra attention from her during the separation and divorce, she focused all of her attention on them. As a working mother, that meant she had little time to spare for herself, and even less for her friends. “But my friends wouldn’t let me bury myself in my work or my kids,” she said. "They arranged activities!” They would organize a movie day for all of the kids and the moms and insist I come. And then afterward, a couple of them would take the kids for pizza, and the others would take me back to someone’s home for a glass of wine. They knew I wouldn’t come if they just asked me that, but it’s really exactly what I need. I’m so lucky to have friends like this!”

*Names and personal information changed to protect privacy

Copyright @ fdbarth, 2018.

References

F. Diane Barth, I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women's Lives. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 6, 2018

Jeanne Safer, “Broken Bridge,” Psychology Today, March/April 2016, p.43.

Warren H. Jones, Danny S. Moore, Arianne Schratter, & Laura A. Negel, “Interpersonal Transgressions and Betrayals,” Behaving badly: Aversive behaviors in interpersonal relationships, Robin M. Kowalski, (Ed.). (Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, 2001): 233-256.

Julie Fitness, “Betrayal, Rejection, Revenge, and Forgiveness: An Interpersonal Script Approach. Interpersonal Rejection , M. Leary (Ed.). (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001):73-103 .

Mark R. Leary, Carrie Springer, Laura Negel, Emily Ansell, Kelly Evans, “The Causes, Phenomenology, and Consequences of Hurt Feelings,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (1998): 1225-1237. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.74.5.1225

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