NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Coping with a Close Friend's Betrayal

For many of us, our close friends are like a second family.  For some of us, who might have contentious relationships with our immediate family, we might rely even more on our close friendships for emotional sustenance and support.  We rely on and trust in our friendships, which makes it so painful when we find out that we've been betrayed by a close friend.

Coping With a Close Friend's Betrayal

When we think about coping with a betrayal, we usually associate it with the betrayal of a spouse or family member, not a betrayal by a close friend.  It's not a topic that is often written about in psychological literature, even though such betrayals often cause a great deal of emotional pain.  We expect close friends to be there for us emotionally, to be there for the good times as well as during rough patches in our lives.  Close friends are people we confide in and who confide in us.  We feel understood by our close friends, sometimes even more so than our spouses and immediate family.  We might even idealize our close friendships.  And we might have blind spots with certain friends.

There are many different types of betrayals that can occur in friendships.  The one that most often comes to mind and is portrayed in books and movies (as well as in "real life") is when a friend gets involved with one's spouse or romantic partner.  But there are other betrayals that can also hurt and be very difficult to come to terms with emotionally because of the trust that we usually place in close friendships.

Clinical Vignette:
The following fictionalized account, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed, is an example of a close friend's betrayal that is not discussed as often.

Mary and Alice:
Mary and Alice became best friends in high school and remained best friends in college.  They thought of themselves and described themselves to others as "sisters."  They were actually closer to each other emotionally than they were with their siblings.  They relied on each other for emotional support.  They confided in each other.  Over the years, after college, they helped each other through messy relationships and problems in their marriages.

When Mary found out that her husband, Tom, was cheating on her, the first person that she called was Alice.  Alice provided a shoulder for Mary to cry on, so to speak, and helped her to get through a difficult divorce.  Alice was Mary's emotional "rock," as Mary had been for Alice many times.

A year after her divorce, Mary ran into Tom and his girlfriend, Pat, the woman that he cheated with, in the grocery store.  If she had seen them first, Mary would have turned down a different aisle.  But she found herself in the awkward position of being almost face-to-face with them before she even realized it.  Mary knew Tom's girlfriend because they all went to high school together.  She also knew that Pat had always been interested in Tom and was jealous that Mary was with him.

Even though he cheated on her, Mary was still in love with Tom.  She never would have imagined in a million years that Tom would have an affair.  They were having problems communicating and their sex life had dwindled to almost nothing, but she couldn't believe, until he confessed to her about the affair, that he would ever cheat on her.  Tom wanted to try to work things out in their marriage, but Mary knew it was over.  She divorced him because she realized that she couldn't ever trust him again.

As she passed them in the food aisle and looked away, she felt herself close to tears.  Just as she was about to turn the corner to go in a different direction, she felt someone tapping her on her shoulder.  When she turned around, she was surprised to see Pat.  She was inclined to keep walking and ignore her, but Pat took her elbow and said, "I know you hate me because of what happened.  Everyone blames me for your divorce, but Alice needs to take some of the blame too.  If she hadn't told me about the problems that you and Tom were having, I never would have called him.  You know I was always in love with Tom, but the two of you were together and seemed so happy.  When Alice told me about the problems in your relationship with Tom, I saw a chance, and I thought he would be much happier with me, and I think he is." Without saying another word, Pat walked away.

Hearing these words, Mary felt numb with shock.  She managed to make it through the checkout and drive home in a stupor.  Later that night, when Alice came over, Mary told her about the incident in the grocery store.  She held her breath, hoping that Alice would say something, anything, to contradict what Pat had told her.  But, instead, Alice's face turned a bright red and she looked down at her feet without saying a word.  Then, Mary knew it was true--Alice had betrayed her by talking to Pat about things that Mary told Alice in the strictest of confidence.  Mary was stunned and all she could say was, "Why?  Why did you do this to me?"  Alice remained silent for a long time, and then she said, "I'm sorry I hurt you."  Then, she put her coat on and left.

Mary was left with no real explanation.  Over the next few days and weeks, she could barely think of anything else.  She felt betrayed by her ex-husband and now betrayed by her best friend.  She kept playing the situation over and over again in her mind trying to make sense of why Alice would have betrayed her in this way and with someone that Alice knew was interested in Tom.  How could she do this?

A month or so later, she received an email from Alice apologizing for the betrayal.  She said she never meant to hurt Mary, and she never thought it would contribute to the demise of Mary's marriage.  But she gave no explanation.  All she said was that she didn't know why she did it.  This was the first contact that they had for a while.  So, Mary was left to sort this out on her own.  She had other friends, but her sense of trust had taken a real blow, and she wondered if she could trust her other friends.

By the time Mary came to therapy, she was at a low point.  It took her a while to feel that she could trust her therapist.  Gradually, she established a rapport with her therapist and she began to sort out the double betrayal of her husband and her best friend.  She didn't completely blame Alice for Tom's affair because she realized that he was an adult and he made his own decisions about being unfaithful.  But she felt almost as violated by Alice's betrayal as by Tom's.

Over time in therapy, Mary began to realize that there had been signs all along that Alice could be indiscreet, but Mary chose to ignore them.  Alice would often tell Mary about very private things that other people had confided in Alice.  This made Mary feel uncomfortable, but she never thought Alice would betray her.  She realized that she didn't use good judgment in confiding in Alice.

It took a while for Mary to work through the double loss of her husband and her best friend, and to feel good about herself again.  She became closer with other friends over time.  She began dating a man that she really liked.  Eventually, she forgave Alice, but she didn't forget about the betrayal, and they were never really friends again.  Gradually, the pain of this double betrayal receded into the background and took its place as she moved on with her life.

Trust is Difficult After a Friend's Betrayal
The vignette above is just one example of many.  As this case illustrates, a close friend's betrayal can really knock our sense of trust in others as well as ourselves.  We question not just why we were betrayed by a close friend, but we question ourselves as to either we betrayed ourselves by trusting this friend in the first place.

This type of betrayal can be very difficult to overcome on your own because it often challenges us to the core of our beings.  Seeking professional help can provide the support you need to get through a traumatic betrayal.  If, unfortunately, you find yourself in a situation where you've been betrayed by a friend and you're unable to overcome this problem on your own, you owe it to yourself to seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples. 

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.