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What to Do When a Friend Betrays You

Recently two friends broke trust with me. One offered to do something that was vital to me, didn’t and didn’t tell me. Another shared private information about me with a stranger who then told several people who work with me.

I don’t know which betrayal felt worse. I do know they can be seen as an opportunity to re-learn lessons on how to move from anger to equanimity, steps that you may find helpful.

Remember when you felt betrayed? One major crack in trust is more potent than one big positive action of that friend. Probably any reliable relationship requires the same 5:1 ratio of good to bad experiences that a romantic relationship requires for stability.

“Trust is the glue that holds relationships together.” ~ Price Pritchett

Recall that hot flush of recognition when you first realized that someone you knew would act one way and didn’t? How can you avoid becoming wary or even bitter?

Funny how one betrayal is closely followed by another wrenching experience — or so it seems. Even if one’s life is on a fairly even keel, one trust-breaker situation makes the second one hit harder- if we let it.

“Sometimes you cannot believe what you see; you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them, too -even when you’re in the dark. Even when you are falling.”~ Morrie Schwartz, quoted in Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom.

My first reaction was to re-run the wrenching situation in my mind, over and over, digging a deeper rut in my memory. Dumb – right?  Those scenes dominated my thoughts more than the recent, joyful times. Consequently I viewed others through a cautious, constricted-heart lens. That begets a self-fulfilling prophecy. People feel put off.

“No idea will work if people don’t trust your intentions toward them.” ~ Marcus Buckingham, Now, Discover Your Strengths.

We’ve all faced mind-grabbing breaks of trust, and will again. Conversely, we have betrayed another’s trust and dodged the situation rather than sought to rectify it.  

“You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you don’t trust enough.” ~ Frank H. Crane

For more than a decade, I’ve studied, taught, and written about focusing attention on the positive parts of every interaction. Yet, like breathing, it isn’t a one-time practice.

“Character is what you really are. Reputation is what people say you are. A person of character is trustworthy. The other kind looks for an easy way out.” ~ John Wooden

Getting back to equilibrium means letting go of a better past. Remember, every negative action comes from the root feeling of fear.

“Trust is the heartbeat of every significant relationship” ~ Cynthia L. Wall and Sue Patton Thoel

That does not mean we have to step into the street again and let another car hit us again.

The next time you lose trust, try taking these steps forward towards equanimity for yourself:

1. Let the full emotional effect of the betrayal sink in, then do not re-run the scene more than three times.

2. Step into the other person’s shoes to see the interaction their way. Is this a pattern in his behavior towards you or is it an anomaly?

3. Look to the part of that person’s potentially positive intent, especially when he appeared to have none in that situation. You will see the whole picture more clearly and calmly.

4. Praise the part of that person’s behavior you want to reinforce and to flourish. (Ironically, this is one of your most self-protective tools in such moments.)

5. Ask her for a time to talk. Then, in factual, non-blaming language, describe the specific behavior that bothered you. Next describe your feelings. Then wait for a response.

6. Listen closely and with an open heart and mind to the answer. If your picture of her actions was accurate, and if she is solely defensive -without offering a change in behavior, then you have learned a lot.

7. If someone breaks trust with you twice it is highly likely there’ll be a third time. Why place yourself in that position again? You’ll be inclined to blame that person for his unchanged behavior rather than asking yourself why you did not change yours. Repeatedly asking someone to change a behavior towards you usually engenders their irritation with you. It is more likely that the person will be defensive and rationalize her behavior.  and/or avoid contact until she needs you.  Unfortunately, the relative power in the situation (who needs whom the most) will probably determine when and how you two communicate in the future.

But it doesn’t have to determine the safe distance you choose to have with that person. My friend, Paul Geffner says we gather many friends and acquaintances over our lifetime. The key to living well with them is to recognize the right distance in which to hold them. Those you enjoy and trust you bring closer.

8. Choose your distance, following Geffner’s approach. After all, you always have three choices in any situation:

1.Change now you act towards that person.

2. Accept her behavior.

3. Leave

The lesson: Sooner, rather than later, take these steps. The sooner you act the more options you have and the more likely it is that you can restore the friendship – or find out that you can’t.

Choose what you can do positively for yourself rather than against another.

The more quickly you’ll climb out of that negative “re-run” rut of thoughts and toward the positive part of that person, the more likely you’ll return to an even keel – and the more likely you’ll be able to preserve a properly distanced relationship.


Categories: behavior, Book, Caring, Choice, Friendship and tagged .
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  1. Michael Yanakiev
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Kare, – What can I say? This is such a great article that I read and re-read it several times to absorb every word you say and quote. I have suffered myself from betrayal from close friends and sometimes it felt like ‘a little death’ for me. You have put some fantastic ideas of how to cope with the phenomena in a nutshell.However it is not that easy to learn to cope emotionally when female friends are concerned. I understand that there is a lot of fear and personal weakness involved, sometimes we set too high standards that the other side is not prepared to meet or demands too much in return to feel sheltered. You are speaking oftenly
    about interconnections.Can you ever imagine what strong emotions can surprisingly build up maybe on a compensatory level. It is almost impossible to ask her out for a time to talk things over(5). I know excellently that in a relationship,that the one who loves less, is under control.’ But these are very delicate matters when emotions get involved. The blow and ‘betrayal’ nearly killed my hungry for love and understanding lonely heart – a true ‘lonely hunter.’ Now that I think over all what you are advising I feel much better,but I wasn’t lucky enough to read you ‘Just in time’ and payed severely for my blind ignorance.
    She was even kind enough to synthesize her autobiography. It goes like this:
    1)I am walking down the street. On my way a see an enormous hole.I fall in it, I feel helpless …without any hope. It is nit my fault. I need ages, to find a solution and an emotional outlet;
    2) I am walking on the same street. There is that enormous hole ahead of me. I pretend that I don’t notice it.
    I fall again. I can’t believe that I am at the same place for a second time.Again it is not my fault. Yet I need quite a period of time to get out;
    3)I am walking the same street again. The big hole is still there. I see it clearly. And I am in the hole again. I have developed a habit to fall in.My eyes are wide open and I know exactly where I am. I get out immediately;
    4) I am walking the same street again. The hole is there, but I walk surrounding it;
    5)I am walking on another street.
    P.C. -‘Forgive Me!’ – For the words I am unable to say; For the feelings I can’t show although I want to desperately; For my inability to love or even truly care,when you need some warmth;For the silence,instead of saying these words we all are starving for; Forgive me my pride that freezes my gentle feelings; I really desire to be somebody else; But I need to be sure in you love; Your love is my only shelter;
    Find Me!; You are the only one who can transform my my great weakness into a miraculous strength.

  2. Michael Yanakiev
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Kare, – P.C. – I was discussing a’ virtual betrayal’.I did not have a contact in the real world except a few telephone calls. But the intensity of emotions and trust were enormous!

  3. Posted March 12, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Rather than to re-run painful past experiences, some trauma experts believe one either exposes oneself repeatedly to the feeling by discussing it over and over (as some therapists did to those in or near the buildings at 8/11) and thus make the scenes so familiar one can move on.
    Other experts suggest supplanting that emotion with another pattern that leads to a positive emotion. That is akin to the finding that one can smile oneself into a better way of feeling better than one can think oneself into a happier mood.

    Personally I have found that a bit of the Buddhist approach works best. Step away from the scene and look back at it, with some detachment. What actually happened? What was my role? I cannot fully know what the other person thought yet I can choose to look with loving kindness at us both, seek to understand how I might walk down a new street (to quote that familiar “same street” parable she shared with you) and see if I can experience a more positive outcome in the future.

    Repeatedly re-living a situation makes it more likely i will think that scene is happening in other situations when it may not be and, if it is, I am more likely to repeat the past behavior that did not serve me (and perhaps the other person). i wish you well Michael on your own healing path forward.

  4. Posted March 12, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Hi Kare:

    You make the important point of giving yourself time to step back, to regain composure, and to find out whether the betrayal actually took place or was simply a misunderstanding. Relationships are seldom perfect and communication is so important in making them work.

    Thanks for focusing on this important topic.


  5. Michael Yanakiev
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Kare: Thanks for your wonderful piece of advise. I value every word you said! However I never suspected that such a war could occur in a ‘virtual’ world in which I started gaining expertise the tough way. I remember a terrific interview with the fabulous Harriet Rubin, that was more than revealing. My personal observation is that the ‘weaker male kind’ can seriously suffer ,when facing a lady with a particularly strong ego, although not fully justified. I committed a awesome mistake,not taking into account the zodiac and astrological incompatibilities , the numerological specifics of the numbers 11 versus 13,etc. You should know that a few know the Buddhist approach and the Chinese thinkers like Lao Tzu, better. So essentially what I was trying was to beat ‘Fate’,which I believe is not predetermined. The lady of my’ unclear desire’ even informed me
    that she was told by the ‘Worldly Hierarchy’ that she had no ‘Karma’ standing in her path. Anyway,I realize that I was not at my best in communicating my feelings and totally misjudged the time schedules putting unnecessary time pressure. But please try to understand me. I never had such a happening in my life time since I have always been lacking a similar soul in the intellectual and spiritual sense of the word. Once I want to thank you and Doctor Irene Levine for sharing your wisdom with me. I also want to apologize for not greeting you heartily on the international ‘Women s Day’ . It seems that we get our minds straight only after.

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