Can You Ever Fully Forgive A Friend For A Betrayal? Our Neuropsychologist Weighs In

Humans are social creatures. Our need to form bonds is innate, and we seek friendships from a very young age. Statistics published on Gitnux show that 50% of friendships begin between ages five and 10, and 35% of adults keep a friend from childhood for life. Friendships are indeed important for our emotional well-being, but there is not really an ideal number of friends you should have; the average American has approximately 16 friends.

However, sometimes friendships do go awry, and when a huge betrayal enters the picture, we experience intense heartbreak. Potent emotions like sadness, anger, and confusion follow our broken trust. Can you ever fully forgive a friend after this? Gliz spoke exclusively to Dr. Aldrich Chan, a Florida-based licensed neuropsychologist and founder of the Center for Neuropsychology and Consciousness (CNC), who shared his valuable insights on how we can navigate a friendship betrayal.

Dr. Chan says that "it is possible to forgive a friend after a betrayal. Because humans are social animals, perseverance of relationships has been crucial to survival throughout evolution. However, the process of total forgiveness is not so simple." Sometimes, in our attempt to hold on to our friendship, we may inadvertently dismiss the harm done, something known as "betrayal blindness," according to Betrayal Trauma Theory. "Betrayal blindness is the tendency to remain 'unaware' of the harm caused by betrayal in order to cope," Dr. Chan explains. This, and the offender not being remorseful, can jeopardize the process of forgiveness. Ultimately, forgiveness requires that both victim and offender have a high degree of self-awareness, assume responsibility for their actions, and are willing to work on restoring the friendship.

Healing steps toward forgiveness

"To achieve true forgiveness, one must first decide to forgive rather than pursue revenge or withdrawal. Evaluating the meaning and value of a friendship should be done before pursuing forgiveness, as it will establish your purpose for forgiving," Dr. Aldrich Chan told Gliz in an exclusive chat. Deciding whether to forgive or not is only the first step in the healing process; committing to your decision is the second step. "Committing to forgiveness can be challenging because one must put aside negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If unresolved, these feelings can lead to anger, anxiety, and depression," Dr. Chan shares. 

Next, try to foster positive feelings toward the offender by practicing empathy. This step of "emotional forgiveness" is crucial in restoring the balance between you and your friend and "requires conscious regulation of emotions to reduce stress reactions and cultivate more positive feelings," according to Dr. Chan. "Behavioral research suggests that empathy for the offender is a key factor in forgiveness. To heal a friendship, being willing to understand and feel with the other person will aid in working towards emotional forgiveness," Dr. Chan explains.

If you feel that you cannot handle the situation alone, seek help from a professional. Ultimately, if you do decide to forgive, you will need to set some boundaries and redefine your friendship standards to ensure that a similar situation is not repeated down the line.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Can all forms of betrayal be forgiven?

We asked Dr. Aldrich Chan whether all betrayals can be forgiven or, from a psychological point of view, whether some betrayals are worse than others. "Although most betrayals follow a similar path to forgiveness, certain betrayals can cause more psychological harm than others. Betrayal typically involves some measure of broken trust, and the effects vary depending on the initial level of trust and bond with the offender," he told Gliz exclusively.

Betrayal can take several forms; your friend might have shared some of your private information with others, lied to you, or failed to stand by your side in times of need. Naturally, the type of betrayal and the motives behind it will ultimately contribute to whether forgiveness can take place or not. Your friend maliciously going behind your back and gossiping about you does not bear the same degree of "betrayal" as, say, suspecting that your friends are not really rooting for you. In the former scenario, betrayal includes "a sense of violation [where] self-esteem is often affected and results in feelings of worthlessness or humiliation."

Unfortunately, some cases of betrayal may also lead to OCD and PTSD-like symptoms, which can spiral into depression. As such, "mental contamination" may take place — where the intense emotions experienced by the betrayal are relived all over again simply by seeing and talking to the offender. Understandably, if the betrayal is causing you so much distress, then forgiveness is a lot harder to achieve. Remember that having a small friend group isn't a bad thing, so if you find that you can no longer keep this person in your life, gracefully remove them and protect your emotional health.