Steven Dietz, an American playwright, said that betrayal is the willful slaughter of hope. The natural reaction is to pull back and never trust again. As a divorce mediator, I have seen people remain bitter for many years choosing to live only half a life. But whether or not you choose to rebuild trust with that person, betrayal can be a blessing.
Dr. Ivan Misner wrote an article titled “Who’s in Your Room?” He said, What if you had to live your life in one room? Whoever you want to interact with in life is in that room. There is only one door. It is a one-way door. Whoever is in your room stays in there forever.
He continued to ask what would that room would look like? Chaotic, angry, meditative, crowded, conflicted, joyful, or lonely? His point was that the quality of our life is a direct reflection of the people we let into our room.
The one who has betrayed us has left our room. Even after we choose to forgive, we do not have to let them back in. That decision must be made thoughtfully and calmly. The more intimate the relationship, the greater the desire to rebuild. Whether the betrayer was our boss, parent, or spouse, rebuilding is still our choice.
The very process of making that choice is the blessing of betrayal because we use that experience to grow. Michelle and Dennis Reina have done significant work on the issue of trust and in their book, “Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization” where they describe 7 steps to rebuilding. I suggest these steps are critical to personal growth regardless of whether or not you choose to rebuild the relationship.
1. The first step is awareness. Observe your feelings without judging them. You need quiet time not immediately after the betrayal itself. Step back and observe what happened from the corner of your mind.
2. Once you observe, allow those feelings to surface. This is extraordinarily difficult for some of us. We judge feelings of pain, humiliation and helplessness as “bad.” But feelings are neither good or bad. They just are. Acknowledged or not, our feelings are always with us. Burying them gives a false illusion of control. Unacknowledged, they influence us even more as we unknowingly make decisions based upon fear, worry and anger. To observe, we must first allow them to surface. This is not the obsessing that often happens after a negative experience where we relive the painful, bitter moment over and over even when we’d prefer not to do so. Choosing a quiet time in a safe place to experience the painful feelings of betrayal is the first step to awareness and healing.
3. Get Support. Experiencing negative emotions is frightening for many of us. This is best done with an experienced therapist but an empathetic and nonjudgmental friend or mentor is helpful as well.
4. Reframe the experience. Beth Hevda, Ph.D. wrote, Betrayal, Trust, and Forgivenness, A Guide to Emotional Healing and Self-Renewal. She describes betrayal as a strong medicine, a real catalyst, the ultimate homeopathy, the paradoxical time when suffering accelerates personal development. In reframing the experience of betrayal, we choose to grow.
Tom Wilson wryly said, “Wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself.” While reframing is challenging both emotionally and intellectually, it brings wisdom. It begins with an inquiry. How did this happen? How has it affected me? What have I learned? What lessons do I need to learn from this? Going through the process enlightens us.
5. Take Responsibility – I was betrayed and I’m responsible!? Don’t be too quick to judge. Take some time. Walk. Really think. What choices did we make that contributed to the betrayal? Was our trust justified? Did we miss signs that could have forewarned us? How did we react? Initially, did we overreact? Were we respectful? How could we have reacted?
Most important, how will we choose to react in the future? The experience we had, however painful, is ours only to learn from and not to share with others for pity or retaliation. What will we choose as our attitude?
I listened to Shawn Achor, Ph.D. who recently spoke at the ACR Minnesota mediation training. Shawn wrote about our attitudes in “The Happiness Advantage Book.” Shawn notes that culturally we are taught that we will be happy once we are successful. He analyzed that concept studying Harvard undergrads.
Shawn’s research proved that the opposite is actually true. Instead of waiting for success to become happy, choosing happiness first fuels success. He found was that while students were initially elated, a month into the first semester, they were no longer overjoyed or even content with having achieved the academic success of admission to Harvard. Instead, they were miserable with stress, challenges and competition. They did what we all do. Once achieving “the goal” that defined success, instead of being happy, they set a new goal basing their long sought happiness on yet another target.
Shawn described “our single processor brain” which devotes finite resources as we process the world. If we scan for the negative first, our brain literally has no resources left over to see the things for which we are grateful. But if we scan the world for the positive, we start to reap an amazing advantage. People are more productive. Sales increase. Doctors diagnoses are significantly more accurate. Our brains are more productive. Given this research, it is critical to observe, reframe and learn not only for personal growth but as a core component of our personal happiness.
6. Forgiveness. This is one of the most important steps. In both divorce litigation and mediation I have watched spouses live diminished lives because of their inability to forgive. Instead of looking for solutions, they prefer to go to trial. “Even if I lose – it will be worth it.” Any satisfaction is short-lived and at the expense of their long-term happiness because this angry, intimate obsession prevents them from establishing a new and healthy intimate relationship with someone else. Untold second marriages fail because of the toxic connection with the first ex-spouse.
Many choose not to forgive often because it was discussed but never modeled in their home. So they didn’t learn how to forgive while growing up. Some people rationalize their choice not to do so saying, “Well, I hold grudges. My whole family does.” For the unwary, forgiveness is not merely speech but an active and continuing choice. There are those who only talk about forgiveness. We’ve all heard people say, “I forgive you but I’ll never forget – ever.” Is that really forgiving?
Another trap is conditional forgiveness. “I’ll forgive her if she apologizes. On its face it makes sense. Why should I forgive that person if she never apologizes?” Because forgiveness is not something we “do for others.” It is what we give to ourselves. By waiting for apology, we are held hostage to the very person who betrayed us in the first place.
How do we do this when we do not feel like it? First, focus on what is healthy and what we want. Then just say it. “I forgive you.” If that still feels insincere, then describe what you hope. “I will forgive you” soon becomes “I will forgive you today.” Putting stickies on the mirror sounds corny but helps us visualize what is positive and important.
7. The last step is to move on. This will not happen until we work through the process. In this stage, we have perspective and can look past being victims. Finally, even though we have forgiven the betrayer, we must still decide if is this a person that we are going to let back into our room. We can open the door if we want to preserve the relationship and believe it is worthwhile.
But if this person betrays and shows no remorse, or repeatedly betrays even if unknowingly, we can choose “no” and still live a full life. Whether as a family member, ex-spouse or co-worker, we must choose carefuly when and how we interact. In doing so, it is critical to communicate clearly and in writing (even by email or text). Even as we choose less interaction, when we do, we must remain calm, respectful and empathetic rather than irritated, impatient and petty. Going forward, sharing the betrayal with others is a toxic choice. I knew an attorney who told funny but demeaning stories of a judge even decades after the judge’s death. With each story, in spite of the laughter, he relived those betrayals which only fueled his bitterness and perpetuated his feeling of being victimized and helpless. An attorney can substitute a judge or even choose not to practice law. But being in the courtroom is still a choice.
What about our own mistakes? So many betrayals are unintentional. How might we have betrayed those close to us? Do we expect to be rejected and constantly test people’s loyalty? Do we contribute to conflict being defensive? Are we so preoccupied with our problems and life that we are oblivious to the impact on others? Do we discount people, ignore them or run over them? Do we micromanage people? Do we miss deadlines, fail to communicate, clarify or listen well? We’ve all done this at sometime in our lives. Every one of us. We have to recognize it, apologize and forgive ourselves. In this way, we can experience betrayal not as a painful impediment but rather as a catalyst for happiness and personal growth.
For more information on divorce mediation and conflict resolution training, visit our website at derrlaw.com.