Family Loyalty & Betrayal




Quotes + Episode Excerpt

“In false loyalty, there’s no mutuality. Loyalty is reserved for just certain elite members or certain favorite members. And some members have all the responsibilities and the commitments, the expectations are all on on them. And while the other family members, the elite have the rights to the loyalty. And there’s no equality.”


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Episode transcript:


Welcome to the Overcoming Sexual Abuse podcast where you get the tools and inspiration to help you overcome childhood sexual abuse. I’m your host, Christina Enevoldsen, certified coach, author and incest survivor, and I’m here to help you heal and live your very best life!


It can be excruciating to really see the level of betrayal you’ve experienced with childhood sexual abuse. The betrayal wound creates a chasm in all your relationships until you face and heal it. I share my family’s betrayal and how I navigated that as well as how you can heal the wounds in your own life.
There’s a Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show, that I can very much relate to. In it Truman is a man who is completely unaware that his life and everything that surrounds him every day is for show.
Literally he’s in a TV show that he doesn’t know about and his family and friends, the entire town of people are all actors.
The facade of Truman’s life slips one day when a part of the lighting equipment falls and he begins to question his reality and eventually he gains his freedom from this exploited Hollywood life and he learns that his own father was the director and the one responsible for the deception.
And that resonates with me so much because I was unaware that my life was a lie too. I thought I came from this good family, I thought my parents loved me, I thought my place in my family was secure. Now I didn’t feel any of those things but I didn’t think about that too much and if I did sense that anything was wrong about my family I just brushed it off as I was unappreciative or “No family is perfect”.
And just like Truman, I had my own version of the light falling from the sky. Of course my memories of incest were my first clue but I didn’t recognize the betrayal behind that. I just wanted to forgive and forget and stay lost in my fantasy about my family.
The first clue that I actually paid attention to for maybe half a second was in August of 2004. And you might think it’s strange that I remember that date, but it’s significant to me because it was a week before the blinders came off in another relationship too.
I had an interior design business at that time, and I was living in Phoenix and I had a client in San Diego. The client was the daughter of a good friend of mine, and the friend came with me to help me with her daughter’s house. The goal was to finish the whole house in a week, which we did.
Maybe it was seeing my friend with her daughter that helped me see the truth about my own mother. And maybe it was how nurturing and generous my friend was to me in a very motherly way. And maybe that’s what made this seemingly small incident stand out to me because it was a small thing. And maybe that’s all I could afford to see at that time. Maybe that’s all I could handle.
That week I was away, it was my birthday, and I waited all day for my mom to call me. I kept that phone close by so I wouldn’t miss her call, and the whole day went by and I didn’t hear from her. Meanwhile, my friend and my client had a cake for me, and my mom didn’t acknowledge my birthday at all.
So the next day I called her, and after some small talk, I reluctantly asked her why she hadn’t phoned me for my birthday. And her reply to me was that we’d already talked earlier that week, and she thought that counted. And it seemed like I was just something to check off of her list.
And like I said, it was a small thing, but it wasn’t consistent with the facade that I’d created about my family and about my relationship with my mom. I felt hurt and disappointed, but when I went back home a few days later, I forgot about it.
And a few days after I got back from that trip, I was talking to my husband. I was still in my first marriage and I was asking him to be included in the financial decisions and to even just really know the state of our finances because I didn’t know. And in that marriage, there was financial abuse and many other abuses, but I didn’t recognize it as abuse. But even so, suddenly I could see that my husband’s promises to me that things would change were just empty promises. And I had a moment of clarity and I told him I wanted a divorce.
When I told my parents, they tried to talk me out of it. They were adamantly against it. They thought my husband was wonderful and he was wonderful to them. So we sold our house and I moved out of the guest room and into an apartment. And that was in October.
So by the following month, I had another glimpse of the truth. It was a surprise to me when my parents told me that they planned to spend Thanksgiving with their soon-to-be ex-son-in-law and his new girlfriend.
I didn’t know how to react. I struggled to know what I was supposed to feel. I berated myself for feeling hurt and told myself that I should just be glad that everybody loved each other and that my family continued to be on friendly terms with my ex. And I told myself that I was selfish for wanting my own parents with me. And I reminded myself that they were free to choose where they wanted to go. And I tried to be glad that my children hardly had much of an adjustment to make since all the usual people would be there in one place celebrating the holiday minus me.
In my mom’s explanation of why they chose my ex-husband over me, she told me that he was special to them, especially to my dad. That man had abused me for years and yet he was their favorite. And still our relationship continued as it had.
So I remarried and my husband and I relocated to Los Angeles. And the distance and a new healthy relationship that I was in gave me a lot more clarity. The blinders were coming off in other relationships too.
Don and I both recognized that the church we’d come from and my parents were still attending, that was rampant with abuse. And people from the church, both current members and former members, were coming to him. And so Don started exposing the abuse.
Well, the pastors heard about it and sent my parents to deal with us. They pressured both of us to stay quiet. And my mom even claimed that her job was in jeopardy if Don kept speaking out. And we knew that was just a tactic that they used to control people. So I knew my mom was lying. Still, it was really hard to believe that my mom would use deception. She was this community leader. She was well respected and well loved. And yet the facts were just undeniable.
And something about her lie felt familiar. And as I considered, it was really astonishing to remember the many, many other times when she’d lied to me beginning in childhood.
So in response to that, I wrote her a very vulnerable and heartfelt letter an invitation really to become closer by changing the way that she treated me. I’d always wanted to be closer to my mother and I thought she wanted that too. That was another one of those lies that I was believing because she really never made any effort to become closer to me. I never questioned why I always had to do the things for her to earn a relationship. I never wondered why I thought she was more important than me and I just had to settle for what I could get.
And when I wrote to her, I never expected anything other than an apology and some changes. I was so deluded by the fantasy I created. Her response was a series of letters to me. One was angrily accusing me of not honoring her as my mother. And another one, she reminded me that I wasn’t perfect and that she never remembered any wrongs that I did. And in her last one, she bribed me with a request to have me help her with her will. And when I didn’t apologize or back down, my parents’ response was to kick me out of the family. My dad’s last words to me were, “We’re not allowed to know you or to talk to you.” Again, my parents chose an abuser, the abusive pastor, over me.
That time, I noticed that they’d wronged me. However, I also had the feeling they were justified in walking away from me.
I’d been disloyal, I went against the family, I went against the rules, I was unloving. It felt like a punishment that they walked away from me and part of me felt like I deserved that punishment.
About a year later, I finally saw the betrayal for what it was. My daughter reported her father for sexually abusing her. Now, keep in mind, this is the same man my parents had chosen over me. And they betrayed my daughter in the same way. My mom called her wicked and accused her of destroying the family. My dad tried to discredit my daughter and bribe her not to testify. They didn’t deny that their precious ex-son-in law had sexually abused their granddaughter, but they took his side anyway.
It was one thing to treat me like an outsider in my own family. Because of the years of all forms of abuse since I was a child, it was hard not to see myself as the problem. But when they betrayed my daughter, it was very clear that my daughter wasn’t the problem. These people were the problem.
My parents were the problem. And I knew I wasn’t any less deserving of their love and loyalty than my daughter was.
All along I’d had glimpses of the truth, but I didn’t recognize them. And when I saw or felt that things weren’t consistent with the childhood that I remembered, I easily put that knowledge in a box since it didn’t fit the life that I knew. The truth tried to break through, but I explained it all away.
It’s a really normal response to respond to betrayal by pulling away from the person who betrayed you. But, when you depend on someone to meet certain needs, it isn’t always easy to pull back. Some really common responses might be accepting perceptions or views that are in contradiction to your own, going along with the other person’s decisions or behaviors in order to avoid conflict, or ignoring minimizing or pretending that issues in the relationship don’t exist, or failure to identify or acknowledge imperfections, or denying obvious examples of damaging behaviors.
It wasn’t until years after these events happened in my life that I heard the term betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma was originally introduced by Jennifer Freyd.
She also coined the term betrayal blindness, and that’s the experience of hiding the betrayal even from yourself. When the person or people who violate your trust are the people you rely on for protection,
resources, or survival, you need to maintain that relationship. And that’s because there’s a higher need to maintain that connection than to know your truth and to speak your truth.
As humans, we have this security system in us that detects this untrustworthiness. This B.S. detector, we have this cheater detector, and in the context of abusive relationships where escape isn’t possible, that detection system can be suppressed for this higher need of survival and so it’s less painful while you can stay in that connection and continue to have those needs met in that relationship. So if you’re just waking up to the fact that you’ve been betrayed and you’re asking how did I not see this, there’s a very good reason for that and you are definitely not alone.
You might recognize the name Jennifer Freyd. It was her parents who founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and that was an organization to debunk the concept of repressed memories of sexual abuse. So they protected child molesters by providing expert witnesses in court and the Freyds created the foundation after their adult daughter Jennifer as an adult accused her father of sexual abuse from when she was a child and through her teen years.
So her experience with her parents was betrayal.
Betrayal is when the person or people who are entrusted with your care are the ones who mistreat you. And so the first betrayal was her dad’s sexual abuse and by her mom’s disbelief, blame and refusal of help. So her parents went so far as to create this whole organization to discredit her. So the very people that she should have been able to count on the most were the most dangerous people to her.
When a family prioritizes the needs of the family over the needs of the individual family member, that’s betrayal. And that can look like protecting the family’s reputation and silencing the victim and the same is true when the violation happens in an institution and we hear so much about that nowadays in churches and sports organizations and and military and much more.
And one of the ways that the betrayal impacted me was that it made it very difficult to trust that anyone would ever be there for me. And if you don’t trust that the people that you love the most and who supposedly love you the most will be there for you, it’s hard to truly commit to a relationship. And I can look at my relationships and see one foot in the relationship and one foot out, like just waiting for the betrayal, always watching the exit door.
There’s another thing I’ve noticed. I could look at the pain of betrayal to a degree. So even after I noticed all of these things, I acknowledged the betrayal. There was only so deep I could go. But I couldn’t look at the concept of loyalty. I saw that concept as dangerous. I’d been taught in my family of origin that loyalty was so important. And they used like the language of family sticking together and having each other’s backs. But it was just words. And in the abusive church, where we were members for years and years, loyalty was one of their highest values. But the loyalty that I learned trapped me in abuse. It meant I had to stay no matter how I was treated. It meant I was obligated to serve them no matter the sacrifice it was to myself.
And what I didn’t know is that that was false loyalty. In false loyalty, there’s no mutuality. Loyalty is reserved for just certain elite members or certain favorite members. And some members have all the responsibilities and the commitments, the expectations are all on on them. And while the other family members, the elite have the rights to the loyalty. And there’s no equality. And there’s only a finite amount of love or value to go around. So there’s this hierarchy to determine who does get the love, who does get the special treatment. And the things that go with love, the attention and approval and respect. And so love has to be earned. And you have to compete with other family members for what little love there is. And with that competition, you’re not happy when another family member wins or succeeds since you’re in competition. If they win, then you lose. And they aren’t happy for you when you win because they perceive that you’re a competitor and you took something from them. And so it fosters anything but loyalty.
And in this false loyalty, there’s the ignoring of serious problems. And there’s the avoidance of difficult conversations. They overlook when one member is abusive to another. Maybe there’s a substance abuse problem or gambling issue or some other serious thing, but they ignore that when it’s a favorite family member. Instead of closeness, it’s enmeshed and codependent.
There’s no boundaries. They don’t allow for individuality. Each member is really just an extension of the unit. There’s this over-involvement. Decisions are made by committee or by these unspoken rules or expectations. And there’s a group opinion, there are group emotions. And instead of this generosity of spirit, there’s guilt and manipulation and obligation. It’s not done by heart or love, it’s done by fear.
And that leads to a fear that if you don’t go along with the unit, then you’re out. And maybe you’re not completely ostracized, but maybe you’re treated like you’re not quite an insider. Like maybe you’re not invited to all family functions or maybe you’re not included in the family news.
So that’s false loyalty. And like I said, I resisted looking at what true loyalty is for a long time because I didn’t wanna see what I didn’t get and what I thought I couldn’t have. But just because I hadn’t experienced it didn’t mean I couldn’t experience it. And if I wanted to have it, I needed to know what it looked like. 
What were the dynamics of true loyalty?
Well, it turns out that loyalty isn’t the painful thing and dangerous thing that I thought it was. Loyalty is a glue that holds healthy families together. Individual members are stronger because of their strength of the family. It’s like you build this strong house and the house protects you and offers you security. Healthy family loyalty involves mutually shared benefits and responsibilities and commitment and closeness and generosity and trustworthiness and reliability and emotional presence during good times and bad times, support and encouragement and consistency in treatment and behavior behavior and regard for one another and fairness and treatment and behavior and regard for one another and kindness and treatment and behavior in regard for one another.
But in all of this mutuality is the key. No one is treated better or worse than any other family member. All have equal value,
even if they don’t have equal authority and all are entitled to the benefits of belonging in the family.
Other characteristics of a truly loyal family means that they act in each other’s best interests. They allow for conflicting, can handle conflict. It’s not dangerous to have conflict. They can have difficult conversations with the actual people involved. There’s not gossip and going behind your back. They’re a fair and resolving conflict. They have a family culture that allows for individual expression and exploration and it’s safe there to be authentic and honest, your true self.
So as you recognize the true idea of loyalty and the false loyalty and the betrayal that you experienced, there’s healing that you can do. Healing requires that you first come to terms with what happened to you. So really acknowledging the betrayal, being honest with yourself and considering the impact of the betrayal on the relationships in your family and in your life, and then identifying the emotions that you’re experiencing and creating space to reflect on them and process them instead of suppressing them or avoiding them. And then you need support. People who have experienced betrayal trauma often feel like they can only rely on themselves and they tend to isolate themselves when they’re betrayed and it’s really important to do the opposite and reach out for support. This is a profound loss and your grief needs to be witnessed and supported. And it’s important that you know that you can set boundaries. Protect your physical and emotional and mental well-being if the person is still in your life. In some capacity, find what boundaries you’re comfortable setting. And lastly, recognize where it’s affecting relationships in your present. Understand that you deserve to have relationships that are mutually supportive and beneficial.
Thanks for joining me today. In the next episode, I’ll continue along the same lines with the topic of family estrangement and how to sort through betrayal and deciding what boundaries are necessary in your life.
I’m bringing you lots more on healing and boundaries and self-care and family dysfunction. So be sure to subscribe, see you, don’t miss any of it.
Family Loyalty & Betrayal
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