As someone who has experienced betrayal, I am guessing that somewhere along the way someone used the word “denial” with you. Maybe you were told you that you were in denial, or that you needed to get out of denial. And in reality, denial can be a very dangerous place to be, or to stay long term. However, I believe that a better way to think about the issue of denial is to look at it through the lens of attachment, and how attachment functions in our relationships.
Dr. Jennifer Freyd, one of the seminal researchers on the issue of betrayal trauma, has coined the term “betrayal blindness.” I believe this is a much better way to think about what is happening when we enter or stay in what we used to call denial. Betrayal blindness is not allowing yourself to see what is going on, to connect the dots, or to fully engage with reality, because if you did, the information would threaten your relationship with the person who is most important to you.
What this means is that events or realities that threaten our sense of secure connection to our partner can feel like life or death to us. Whatever the threatening information may be, we can’t let ourselves know about it because it would create such chaos, terror, pain, and confusion that we feel we might not survive it emotionally and psychologically.
Instead, we keep the information out, and we don’t allow one plus one to ever equal two. By doing this, we keep our world intact. This is a coping mechanism, and it is largely unconscious. We aren’t saying to ourselves, “I don’t think I’ll let myself know about that, thank you very much.” Instead, our bodies register that we are in danger, and before the information gets to our conscious minds, we instinctually move to protect ourselves by blocking it out, rationalizing it away, or in some way keeping it from landing where we have to fully deal with it.
I’m an advocate for being as fully aware and planted in your reality as you can be. If you are not fully in your reality, you can’t make decisions to take care of yourself. It puts you and others at emotional, financial, physical and psychological risk when you are blind to what is happening. Situations often get worse when you are in betrayal blindness. The consequences to you and those you love can become even more dire then they already are.
However, I think we all need to take a kinder, gentler approach to what is happening. Betrayed partners are not staying in denial because of stubbornness, or a commitment to making bad choices, or even because of codependence. We stay blind because betrayal is so utterly awful and scary, and it threatens the entire life we have built with the person we love the most. We are blind because we are trying to protect ourselves. We are blind because we don’t want what is true to be true, and if we can ignore the signs just a little bit longer, then we get to hold on to the life we wanted and believed in.
My experience working with clients has shown me that we come out of betrayal blindness when we feel that we are able to handle the information. Often, the task in therapy is to grow a person’s internal strength, confidence, and sense of self to the point that they are able to look fully at what is happening in their relationship and survive it emotionally, even when it is incredibly painful. This is a slow and gentle process, and a skilled therapist who is experienced in working with betrayal and betrayal blindness will know how to help clients navigate these waters.
So, let’s step back from the boogeyman of denial, and with great compassion, acknowledge that no one wants to find out their spouse or partner or lover has betrayed them. In the face of such devastating events, trying to find an alternative explanation for what is happening that will leave your world intact and secure is to be expected.
Betrayal blindness is something to become aware of. By bringing it into your consciousness you can then begin to nudge it out of the way. Asking yourself questions such as, “If I were to face this issue, then what would I have to feel? What would change for me? What scares me about it? What would I potentially lose?” Once you become clear about why you are avoiding the issue, then you can ask the next big question. “What support do I need around me to be able to look at and face the reality of my situation? What will help me feel strong enough and grounded enough to look at the issues I’ve been avoiding?”
This is the easier, gentler way to work through betrayal blindness, and will provide you with a path to build the support and sense of inner strength needed to look honestly and fully at whatever is in front of you. And this, in turn, will enable you to take much better care of yourself, making good decisions for you and those you love.