Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘Betrayal’ Category

The Lying Relative

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 14, 2014

The Truth May Hurt For A Little While But A Lie Hurts Forever


Mom and dad have both passed away, leaving four siblings to deal with the modest estate. Two of them, number one and three, by birth order are charged with the job of joint trustees. The other two, numbers two and four, live in the same state, and are not sure why they were not “chosen”. Number four, Jorge, is my patient, age fifty-six and essentially happy with his current life, but becomes massively tearful when talking about his childhood. “The number of times my mother lied to me are so numerous, that I can hardly stand it,” Jorge says with the feeling as if he spoke to his mother yesterday, but, in fact, she has been dead for five years. “My nephew lived with my parents for an entire year and they never told me that was happening, until the end of the year, when they invited me to graduation, which was local. All that time I thought he was in another city. Can you imagine how awful I felt?” He says, with characteristic rage and shame, as if wondering what was wrong with him that his mother did not give him the courtesy of including him in family news. “You have so many complicated feelings about this withholding of information. It seems like you are both angry and self-denigrating about his omission.” I say, highlighting that at times he is more focused on his rage, whereas other times, he focuses on his shame and poor self-regard, resulting from being treated without respect.

Jorge, a successful university professor, flies off the handle, internally that is, when a student does not show him respect. “Sure, no one likes these millennials who think the world owes them everything, but I am particularly sensitive to their entitlement,” he tells me. “I had a student who told me that she did not like my assigned readings.  That was so painful for me.  A part of me knows that I cannot please everyone, and another part of me knows I should review the chapters I assign to make sure they are relevant for my students, but the biggest part of me felt hurt and disrespected, bringing back these terrible memories from my childhood, where nothing I said mattered. You know, when I saw the play Fiddler On The Roof, as a child, I said repeatedly, those two younger kids never spoke, no one knew what they were thinking, and that was just like me. So, now my sibs are dealing with the estate, and how can I trust anyone when my mother was so dishonest? Why did she pick her ‘favorites’ to deal with the estate? Did she just want to rub it in even deeper, how mean she could be?”

Jorge jumped from his class, to his childhood, to his current struggle with his family of origin, all without my prompting. This chain of associations, free association, if you will, helps me to understand how he is working at connecting past to present, and how his present classroom situation makes him feel bad about his past and how his. past, his childhood,  makes him feel bad about his present situation with the estate.  My job is to facilitate this narrative where he can come to understand his hurt, so that the student who criticizes his choice of readings, is seen as feedback, and not as deep dig into his psychic world. Likewise, the estate is bringing up for him, the dishonesty, and hence the anxiety he had in his childhood of  not knowing who to trust, but that does not mean that he cannot trust the other intimate people in his life. Not confusing past with present, or present with past, is challenging, as every experience brings up memories, and so it is hard to maintain perspective. The opportunity, however, to consider past and present together is the gift that Jorge gives himself. Dishonesty is a malignant experience in childhood. If Jorge were not mindful, he would grow up convinced that no one cares about him, enough to be honest with him, thereby not allowing himself the intimacy of relationships.

“If your own parents lie to you, how do you recover from that? ” Jorge asks me, not necessarily wanting an answer. “It is hard,” I say, “very hard”.


Posted in Betrayal, Child Development, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy | 4 Comments »

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.

Posted in Betrayal | 4 Comments »

‘The Descendants’ Descended Quickly

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 21, 2011

    Loving someone who hurt you, a stale tale, told poorly in this movie ‘The Descendants’. Sure, I was excited to see George Clooney play a family man. Sure, I like movies with obnoxious teenage children. I thought, going in, there was no way that I could not enjoy this experience. I was wrong. I found the movie to be shallow and uninteresting. Perhaps it was meant to be a vehicle for George Clooney to show his softer side. If so, it failed. His acting was poor and predictable. The writing was uninspired. On the only positive side, the scenery was beautiful. We should all be so lucky as to be betrayed in such a beautiful setting. It is hard to feel for people as they go through their work day in flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, but I understand that is the island way. Still, the show of affluence, along with the leisure that often goes along with that was a bit hard to take. By that I mean,  that although the story is set within tragedy, the screen shows a large home, the ease of dropping everything to go and explore another island, and expensive private schools. This show of affluence seems to create a feeling of freedom, making one lose sight of the impending loss. The movie seems to miss its own point; relationships are complicated and they dominate mental existence. Yet, I walked away not feeling sad or thoughtful, but annoyed that I spent two hours on eye candy and nothing else.

Posted in Betrayal, Movie Review | Leave a Comment »

More Betrayal

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 30, 2010

    Monte, betrayed by Marla,,        Tom, my twenty-four year old patient betrayed by his mother, Christopher, betrayed by his boss,, Teri betrayed by her psychiatrist,, all came to mind as Al described his feelings about his children. Fifty-five years old, three grown children, married for thirty years, Al was relatively content with his life. His oldest son got married a year ago. He and his wife danced at the wedding; “the happiest they have ever been” he says. On Father’s Day, 2009, his wife announced she had a lover, she was leaving him, the kids have known this for the last eighteen months and “they agree it is a good idea” his wife tells him.

     Al came to me with excruciating back pain which followed this news. He was seeing a wise psychologist who felt that since Al had body pain and mind pain, then he needed someone who could work with both. Sure enough, the pain of his separation from his wife exacerbated his underlying pain in his back. Sure enough, as we uncovered the psychological issues, his back pain improved, without medications. Together, Al and I came to understand that although he was upset that his wife left him for another man, the most wounding part was that his kids knew, but they did not tell him; they kept the secret. Al loves his children. He thought he had a great relationship with all of them, but this episode made him seriously question his beliefs. “Why did they not tell me?”  He asked repeatedly. “Why do they not apologize?” He quickly says. The pain in these questions is intense.

    Like Monte, Tom, Christopher and Teri, Al feels that the people he loved, the people he counted on to “watch his back” seriously let him down. An apology could mend the wound, but in all these cases, the apology does not capture the pain inflicted. In Al’s case, the pain was both physical and psychological. Many months later, Al’s kids came around. Each one asked for forgiveness. Al was living alone in the family home. He was working at his job, lonely at night, suffering with chronic back pain,  yet these apologies brightened his mood considerably and diminished his backache. Al feels renewed. He is looking forward to the next chapter in his life. He looks back on his marriage and he now realizes that there was a lot missing. He accepts his divorce; he has understood that for a while. He could not accept his children’s behavior. Fortunately, he does not have to. Al is a new man; up from the despair that he felt when he thought he lost his whole family. Happy ending.

Posted in Betrayal, Musings | 11 Comments »

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