by Maria Lebron, January 2020
Why can one person open up and trust again while another shuts down and withdraws?
Years ago, a friend of mine found out her husband was cheating on her. Not only did she have to deal with that betrayal, but her husband had been having an affair with her “best friend”…the person she had confided in, including intimate aspects of her relationship. In some ways, the betrayal by this friend was even more difficult to get over than the affair.
The following year after this incident, my friend was in a serious relationship with plans to marry. I asked her how she was able to trust someone again enough to open herself up to a serious commitment. She said that she had dealt with the two betrayals in therapy and although it was something she carried with her, she knew that if she didn’t open herself up to trust again, she’d never be able to have the family life she wanted. Today, my friend is still married and she and her husband have two grown children.
What makes one person experience the pain of betrayal and allow themselves to trust again while another feels they can never trust again?
Someone who can overcome betrayal and open themselves up to the possibility of getting hurt again has had enough life experiences to believe that for the most part, the world is a safe place with good (or good enough) people. There is a belief based on personal experiences that one has the strength and resilience to deal with the possibility of being betrayed or hurt in order to seek positive and supportive relationships.
If someone has not had enough experiences of trust in their relationships, especially in their early development, every time there is a betrayal, disappointment, or other break in trust, these experiences reinforce the idea that the world isn’t a safe place and that people can’t be trusted.
After experiencing a betrayal, a person can understandably withdraw or limit their exposure to any potential future pain as a protective defense. The problem is that sometimes the cumulative effect of continued betrayals and hurt can cause the person to shut down permanently from potential friendships or intimate relationships. There isn’t enough confidence to believe that they can determine who to trust anymore or to survive another betrayal.
Therapy can help one to work through betrayals and to understand any historical trauma which is impacting on what is happening in the present. For example, someone with a history of having been cheated on previously or someone who had a parent who had affairs will have those experiences impact how they experience further betrayals. Part of the therapeutic work will be to help the person build the confidence to believe that they can experience future relationships with new insight. These insights will hopefully help them to see potential problems and red flags so that they can take precautions, but should unforeseen issues surface, they will have the confidence to believe they have the strength and resilience to overcome the emotional pain.