Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Re-Posting Betrayal: With A Recent Anonymous Comment

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 29, 2011


Subject: Me too
I was also betrayed recently by my mother and have been so distraught by it.
I thought maybe it was just me being stupid. I finally looked for something
online that might help me and found this article. It describes me to a “T”
and it really helped me realize I am not “stupid” for feeling the way I do.
It is actually normal. I need to work through it now. I don’t think that will
happen easily. Thank you so MUCH for posting this article, Dr. Sincerely.



“I feel like I was thrown under the bus” says my 24 year old patient who experiences his mother as having a great deal more love for his half siblings. The word betrayal immediately came to my mind. Betrayal is the violation of a presumptive social contract that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship. In all of my years of psychoanalytic education, I am not familiar with any literature on betrayal. Yet, the theme comes up over and over again in my office. Adultery is the most common type of betrayal, but any type of relationship can end in betrayal. In the case of this patient, he trusted his mom to always treat him like he was very very important to her, but in point of fact, he feels that he is significantly less important than her children from her current marriage. This is a betrayal because the social contract implies that parents make all of their children equally important. I begin to wonder about this social contract. Perhaps growing up means understanding that parents have preferences and as such, children are not treated equally or fairly. Perhaps this is not a betrayal in that the social contract is in fact a myth. Although it may be true that the social contract is a myth, it is also true that children believe this contract and as such, growing up and finding out that the feelings do not correspond with the alleged contract, means that the budding adult experiences betrayal.

In my way of thinking, betrayal is one of the worst human experiences. I say this because betrayal involves shock, disappointment and re-evaluation of one’s belief system. Almost every betrayal makes the victim look back over their past to try to determine what caused it. This reflection almost inevitably leads to self-blame and guilt. Although my patient may express anger at not being treated well, underneath this anger is a sense that he must be unworthy of his mother’s love. This linear path between betrayal and unworthiness is how deception causes so much damage. That is, since betrayal causes the victim to feel bad about himself, the victim is hit twice. First, his social contract has been broken. Second, he thinks poorly of himself.

Betrayal leads to an utter sense of helplessness. The victim feels like there is no way they can fix the situation since the damage has already been done. Helplessness leads to profound and paralyzing depression. Sometimes, the desired solution is revenge, in order to restore a feeling of potency. The movie Inglorious Basterds demonstrates this fantasy. As Daniel Mendelsohn says “Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by-well, by turning Jews into Nazis.” In this area, psychoanalysis does help us to understand the revenge fantasy. Being passive is so painful that we often want to turn passive into active. The victim becomes the perpetrator.

Generally speaking, the greater the trust that one puts in another person, the greater the impact the betrayal has. In the case of my client feeling betrayed by his mom, the impact is enormous. This impact results in anger, despair and fear. The patient will likely fear that he cannot trust anyone. After all, if your mom lets you down, how can one believe that anyone will really be there for them. So, in addition to having low self-esteem, my patient suffers from relationship problems where it is hard for him to allow himself to become vulnerable to trust anyone.

I imagine my patient being thrown under the bus. I imagine him screaming for help. I feel his pain. I want to help, but I am not sure he is still alive. Worse yet, I imagine that he believes his mother put him there. Then, I think that maybe, just maybe, the bus has high clearance and so rides right over him. I see a near-miss, like the story of the man who jumped into a New York subway to push a young gentleman having a seizure down into the hole so that the subway went right over the two of them, causing no damage. I see a story with such a happy ending that I cry every time I think about it. Still, the fragility of life, both physical and emotional,  is all too present.

I trust that we can keep working. The opposite of betrayal is loyalty. Both exist. My client and I need to remember that. Sometimes, many times, when the pain is great, it is hard to keep that in mind. As I said before, we have work to do. Our work involves loyalty to each other. Perhaps in that loyalty, trust will develop, and maybe this newly made trust will layer over the betrayal he has felt.  A layer of trust will help him, but make no mistake, it will not take away his pain. My hope is that this new layer will help him manage his feelings so that his world is now a mosaic of trust and betrayal.

Disclaimer: Details have been changed in order to maintain privacy. This blog is for illustrative purposes only.

4 Responses to “Re-Posting Betrayal: With A Recent Anonymous Comment”

  1. Jon said

    Being betrayed is indeed a most painful experience. Most of us who have cared about others will have felt some betrayal of some sort or another – it is part of the human condition.

    I am glad that your anonymous commenter has found your blog for it is full of good insights and helpful to those who read it.

    • Hi Jon,
      Thanks for your comment. I am not as sure as you are about the universality of betrayal. I think all relationships yield disappointment, but betrayal seems to me a deeper, more hurtful, and yet, not an inevitable experience of life. I suppose there is a continuum from disappointment to betrayal and in that sense I would agree that we have all had painful experiences on that continnum. Thanks again!

  2. Shelly said

    While all of us have had disappointments in life, feeling betrayed by a parent is a disappointment that very few of us have experienced, I hope. I have to agree with you that being betrayed by a mother (or feeling betrayed by her) can influence our future relationships for the rest of our lives. What do you think will be key for your patient’s recuperation, other than hoping that the bus will miss him? We cannot change our parents, nor can we always hope that they will “see the light.”

    • Understanding the betrayal, seeing his mom as a flawed being, helps him to see that it was not he who was “unworthy,” but rather she who was too focused on her own needs to support him through his childhood. This way of seeing his world might help his self-esteem such that he finds relationships which are higher quality than the relationship he had with his mother. This is the hope of psychotherapy. Thanks, as always.

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