Friendship And The Deep Pain of Betrayal

Friendships have always been incredibly important to me. Part of it is that I'm a classified intimacy freak who isn't satisfied with dancing on the surface of anyone's life. If you're telling me something I can google, we need to go deeper. When I meet people with walls, I feel like I've won the lottery. They've handed me an invitation to climb, and I welcome the challenge. Those stodgy businessmen sitting next to me on the plane with hearts too proud to be found? Meh. They always cave. And those cold students too cool for my school? Toast.

Some friends say I irritate them with my emotional intensity, some say I scare them, and one recently said I was like Jesus quietly knocking at the door of her protected heart.

I love that friend. She's brilliant.

I confess I'm fairly OCD about keeping communication real. If we interact, I want to know you. I don't necessarily want to hang out with you, or text daily, or talk weekly. I just want to know what's going on inside that heart of yours. 

No matter how introverted, or how relationally superficial, or how protected, most people possess a desire to be known for who they truly are beneath the facade. And not only to be known, but to be loved no matter what's seen. God's not only graced me with a passionate love for people, He's also given me a genuine hunger to peel back all their layers. Providing a safe place for your heart is about the sweetest gift you could ever offer me. And if you're a close friend, it becomes a necessity. Otherwise, I'll grow increasingly paranoid trying to figure out what in the world you're hiding. Not only that, I'll fight with feelings of rejection as I struggle with anger trying to understand why the heck you won't let me in your freakin' heart!!! 

Whoops. I mean I struggle to understand why you're not letting me in when I'm patiently knocking like Jesus.

When people ask me how I became a counselor, I always answer that I don't ever remember not being one. Counseling is far more about listening to people than offering words of wisdom, and somehow I knew at an early age that I wasn't given large ears for nothing. I was in a couple dozen weddings during my college career, but hardly ever the counterpart to the best man. I was the smiling maid shuffling in at the end to the umpteenth round of Canon in D, surprising people that the bride even knew me. That's because we probably rarely hung out together in public places. Though it's a given we would have shared craziness and laughter, it's much more likely that I was chosen for being the foul-weather friend. The friend who wept with her in the stairwell over the cheating boyfriend, cried with her on the phone over having to wear pantyhose with culottes, and groaned with her in prayer to a God Who can sometimes seems so very distant. 

Because I'm a strong believer in cultivating meaningful relationships, I found this sermon on Friendship by Tim Keller to be a special blessing. Carefully unfolding Proverbs 17, he offers some excellent thoughts about the constancy, carefulness, candor and counsel that mark authentic friendship. His first point on constancy is especially important, because being a good friend rises and falls on our commitment to stay engaged. And even if that engagement becomes marked by a slow fade as my friend Sharon Hersh so beautifully writes about here, it's an engagement that's unmarked by any intentional disengagement.

Since most of us don't think of betrayal in terms any broader than Benedict Arnold, we often minimize and misunderstand the raw pain that all of us are so very capable of inflicting upon the hearts of others. The word betray literally means to mislead. Whenever we betray someone, we are guilty of misleading them. Betrayal in a friendship happens when two people enter into agreement to head down a path of relational commitment together, then one of those people leaves that path. Sometimes that leaving is done deceptively, sometimes carelessly, and sometimes as thoughtfully as possible. But no matter how it's orchestrated, the reality is that the person left behind has been misled. In other words, they've been betrayed. And it hurts deeply.   

If what I've said bothers you, please understand this. Betrayal isn't just seen in raw infidelity. It's seen in every broken promise, every breach of confidentiality, every cruel and unkind word, and in every retreat. As a Christian, it's seen in every sin. 

By nature, we are sinful betrayers.

And because every friendship is comprised of two sinners who mislead each other with expressions of love that aren't always followed by words and actions of love, constancy is always at risk. Constancy says this: I choose to walk this path with you. I won't disengage from my commitment to this friendship. I won't disengage from my commitment to walk with you. I won't disengage from my commitment to fight for you.

But the trouble is that we often enter into friendships with an idealized perception about how much it will cost. Most of us are wholly unprepared for what lies ahead, ignorant of what is required to stay the course. And even if we're as prepared as possible, we can end up facing difficulties we never dreamed possible. Not only that, we're selfish enough to sometimes enter into friendship for nothing other than its usefulness. We see it as connecting us, or informing us, affirming us, or providing fun for us. Sometimes there's even a mutual understanding about this usefulness. But that's not a friendship. And if there isn't mutual agreement, we can be assured that our inevitable betrayal will eventually inflict wounds on our friend that will run far deeper than our selfishness. 

The reason the betrayal of disengagement hurts so deeply is because it launches a direct attack on our sense of value as a person.  Accusatory words, hurtful actions, gossip, violations of confidentiality--these betrayals hurt, but they all come with at least the hope of  reconciliation. Disengagement not only removes that hope, it sends the message that we aren't worth the effort of reconciliation. It sends the message that we aren't valued enough to even be offered the dignity of closure. It sends the message that a cherished friendship can be carelessly dismissed as easily as a friend can be coldly devalued. 

In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, research professor and vulnerability expert Brene Brown addresses the pain associated with the betrayal of disengagement:

"When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing and fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain—there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.”  

If you've endured this kind of betrayal, you understand crazy-making.  It's a painful experience that tears at the heart only slightly less than it torments the mind. It's the kind of crazy-making that narcissists are skilled at producing with flattery and superficial bids for attention that give the illusion of emotional availability when there is none. Betrayal by disengagement can lead to the kind of crazy-making that causes even the most sane person to reel with irrationality. The pain is raw, and the pain is deep. I have spent many hours listening to the sorrowing hearts of those who have been broken over a friendship that has left them empty-handed with no ability for reconciliation. 

Nothing reveals the selfish motivation of our heart in entering a friendship more than comparing how much time we were willing to offer the relationship at the beginnning in comparison to the time we were willing to offer the relationship at the end. 

I want to be a friend marked by constancy. And when difficulties arise, I want my commitment to that constancy to keep me fighting until I'm convinced there's no more blood left to shed. I want to be a friend who loves at all times. I want to be a friend who will never disengage carelessly or thoughtlessly or selfishly. And if there's some compelling reason that makes disengagement necessary, I want to love enough to speak with candor. Carefully. Kindly. Thoughtfully tending to the spirit of my friend. Thoughtfully upholding their value. 

God help me to never do anything that would ever cause anyone to be swallowed up by feelings of rejection. 

I am a betrayer at heart. I need Christ. I need grace. 

The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear? Proverbs 18:14