There are books galore about handling infidelity in a marriage. But what happens when a friend is disloyal or unfaithful?
Several years ago, my best friend betrayed me in a deeply hurtful way. We both worked at the same mental health clinic and our boss suggested that I be promoted to supervise new, less experienced clinicians. I was excited about the idea — that is, until my friend surprised me by saying she should be first in line for that position since she had seniority (she was hired one week before me), even though she didn’t really want the job. In the end, she finagled the promotion for herself and I was left with my old job.
I was crushed. Of course, I was disappointed about not getting the promotion. But much worse was feeling like our friendship meant nothing to her. She’d snatched a job she didn’t even want away from me, without even talking about it or considering my feelings.
Friendship-based betrayal comes in many forms, from stealing or sleeping with your significant other, to going after a job you want, to gossiping or sharing something you told them in confidence. From my work with men and women, and my research on friendships, I’ve learned that disloyalties and disappointments like these are woven into friendships far more often than we realize. In one study, 68% of the people who were questioned reported having been betrayed by a friend at some point in their lives. Even close and loving friends can betray one another – sometimes intentionally, but sometimes without meaning to or even realizing what they’ve done. This is because friendships involve an interaction between the inner worlds of several people. Each friend’s personality, needs and past experiences have an impact on the relationship, and each of us will have a (sometimes dramatically) different take on what happens.
The issue, then, is not so much whether friends do hurtful things to one another — it’s pretty much inevitable — but how we understand the behavior. If you’ve been betrayed by a friend, what can you do?
1. Find perspective
Friends’ disloyal behaviors are rarely about us: More often, these behaviors are about the things that are going on in the other person’s life. But remembering this can be easier said than done. Psychologist Julie Fitness writes, “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.”
So, how do you find perspective when you feel deeply betrayed? Think about what you know about the other person, and what might be motivating their behavior outside their relationship with you. For instance, could something be happening in their love or work life that is making them behave badly? Understanding does not mean that you have to like what they are doing, but it can make it a little less painful.
2. Voice the unspoken
A therapist might encourage you to talk directly to a friend (or a romantic partner or family member) about something that’s bothering you. This allows you and that person to find language for the unspoken conversations going on between you — psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas dubbed this idea “the unthought known.”
Whether you’re the betrayer or the betrayed, talking to the friend in question is easier said than done, but putting your silent worries into an actual discussion can have many potential benefits. Sometimes you find out that there’s another way to look at what happened. Sometimes you may realize that what you believed to be the truth wasn’t the whole picture. Other times you might alert a friend to something they’re doing without realizing it. Even if your take on the situation turns out to be right, talking about it can limit the long-term damage in your friendship. Sometimes, of course, the fallout from a betrayal can be permanent and life-changing. No matter the outcome, though, you’ll never know if the relationship can be repaired if you don’t talk about it.
One other thing (which may sound obvious, but it’s worth highlighting given we live in the age of technology): While texting or emailing can seem easier than a face-to-face convo, they are often less successful means for repairing the damage. So if you can, try to have these discussions in person.
3. Process your feelings
Most of us try to avoid painful feelings. But in order to process emotions and move past them – the good, the bad and the ugly – you do have to face the experience. Know, however, that your feelings about what happened won’t stay the same over time. Hurt may turn into anger or vice versa. If you can’t talk to your friend about the feelings, try writing them down or talking to someone else who you can trust to keep the information confidential. A confidant might just help you let off steam, but maybe she’ll offer a different perspective on what happened.
4. Decide whether your friendship is more important than what has happened.
Nothing says you have to forgive your friend for hurting you. And if the behavior is a pattern, you might want to consider how much of a friend she really is. But sometimes a friendship is too important to let go. Recognizing that you’re both human and that you’ve made mistakes too can be enough to help you move past it.
When my own therapist tried to get me to talk with my work friend, I couldn’t do it. I was hurt, angry and afraid of a painful scene. Instead, I took what seemed like an easier route: I stopped being friends with her. I often wish that I had known then what I have learned since. If I had talked to her about what happened, maybe we would still be friends or maybe I’d have gotten some much-needed closure. I’m pretty sure that she had no idea what created the rift between us. I also imagine that if I did tell her, she would not buy that it was all her fault — and I’m guessing that I would agree with her. Maybe I did something I don’t remember or didn’t realize at the time. I wonder: Should I take my own advice and find her now, to have the talk we never had before?
Diane Barth, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, teacher, and writer in NYC. Her most recent book is I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).
Collage by Madeline Montoya.