Trauma, Betrayal & Intimacy

by Gil Shepard Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Most people crave intimacy. Many wars have been fought to get it. 

But traumatic events can create confusion about whether intimacy is even desirable. It is true that all of us have a natural urge to be close, to share and to be able to trust another person. This is even true in the animal kingdom. I watch turkey chicks follow their mother in a row. I have seen many UTube videos of unlikely animals joining each other; natural enemies, like a cat and a parakeet, an elephant and a dog, or a lion and a baby gazelle become inseparable companions when these animals have lost a parent.

The trauma of betrayal by a loved one or spouse often undermines the very ability to trust. This is even more devastating if the betrayer was a parent and the betrayed is an infant or a little child who is sexually abused, beaten or neglected. This is betrayal because a child's natural trust in his parents is betrayed. The parent does not protect the child but instead hurts the child. This is deep betrayal.

On top of that the infant is helpless and knows it. She can’t fix burning from wet diapers or pain from gas. She knows she is helpless and needs others to help her. That desperate cry that pierces our ears says she is in serious distress. This is very different from loud or angry crying, which says "I need help and I have a right to it." That is the sign of a healthy child.

The piercing cry says “I am in a panic and fear abandonment and death. I need help. NOW!”  If help does not come for a long time the infant may become silent. This may mean the pain is so great he dissociates or leaves his body. This is a natural way to avoid pain. This pain can come from not having loving contact it needs. Babies died in the Second World War when they were well fed but not emotionally nourished.

A dear friend of mine I’ll call Sue, told me that she remembered looking at her mother’s eyes when she was an infant, and no one was in there! Sue said, “My whole being shattered.” Her mother had a lot of trauma in her life and was “seriously spaced out.” Sue eventually did get the help she needed in her 60's and then blossomed wonderfully. 

When an infant repeatedly experiences abandonment or betrayal such as from being molested it learns not to trust. Without trust there cannot be intimacy. How can you be close to someone you cannot trust? We are born with the ability to trust. That does not have to be learned. Notice the loving flow between child and parent when children trust their parents. The children are totally natural and obviously feel safe. That is natural.

But we can learn not to trust. This can happen when an over wrought mother yells at a baby for crying, or worse hits and yells at her, “You are bad! Stop crying!” It happens from incest when the infant is overloaded with sensations it cannot handle. And it happens when parents do not protect their child from being molested by relatives and strangers, especially of that child fears telling her parents of the abuse.

The message the infant gets is “I am bad. I am not worth being cared for.” Sometimes an angry parent tells the baby just that! The impact of the parent's rage tells the child it can’t be itself or it may lose whatever caring the parent does give; food, shelter, clothing. The stakes are very high: Physical and emotional survival.  A rageful parent does not provide desperately needed nurturing nor is he or she likely to help a baby who hurts. The baby learns that it is bad in its being, otherwise why would the parent be angry? This is called shame.

Shame is feeling bad, no good, unworthy in the core of one’s being. A child who is shamed learns it cannot ask for help. It grows up learning not to let anyone know that it needs anything because to ask is likely to be further abused and rejected. He has learned he has no value.

 If you were such a child you would have learned to be independent, keeping your pain secretly deep inside. Eventually you became so used to this it became normal and you dis-associated from it.

But in a healthy relationship people feel pleasure in responding to each other’s needs. If you have dissociated from your needs how friends can help you? This is again the result of shame. You feel you are not worth receiving anything, that you have no needs and so you remain lonely.

Many clients have told me that their spouses or lovers should know what they want and what they are thinking. This is a residue from growing up shamed. “Love,” was only obtained if you could guess what your parents wanted and provided it for them. You have value only to serve your parents. If you don't you are shamed and may receive other forms of abuse. You need to be psychic in such a family just to survive! And you cannot need anything!

There is no parenting for a child in such a family. Needing to read people's minds seems normal for those brought up in such a family. But to anyone else this is obviously absurd and unhealthy.

In such a family it is shameful to ask for help or even to need help. If you are raised this way and meet someone who wants to help you then you may be so full of shame you cannot even admit you even have a need. That includes even the need to have a friend and not be lonely.

My friend Sue, after she healed, told me of one day when she was out with friends who were trying to decide where they wanted to eat for lunch. She spontaneously said, “I want to eat at such and such a place.” She shocked herself when she said this for she had never said such a thing before. She had never even known what she wanted before and suddenly she simply said it in a natural healthy way! Her trauma had been healed. And they all ate where she suggested!

Here is the dilemma in a nutshell: If you don’t ask, you are left empty, feeling abandoned as you were when you were a shamed child. You may not actually get rejected if you don’t ask, but you will feel abandoned and isolated. You can make yourself like a rock, but that is lonely and no fun. On the other hand if you acknowledge that you need love you feel like you are admitting you are worth-less, shame-full and without value. After all, that is what you were taught as a child. If people really loved you they should know you want their love and save you the humiliation of letting them know.

This painful knot can be resolved in therapy. Of course you may not trust your therapist very much at first either. Being able to trust is the root of the problem you may be seeking help for.  You simply need someone who can be with you as you struggle to overcome the shame that was laid on you in your childhood, WITHOUT FURTHER SHAMING YOU. Certain methods such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) or EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) may make this faster and easier. 

Essentially you need a therapist whom you can trust enough to begin this adventure of discovering who you really are and shed the shame you have felt all your life. Such a therapist needs to help you feel safe and show you acceptance and understanding so that you will not be re-shamed. Then your journey to wholeness can begin.

Gil Shepard MFT has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for over 35 years and has an office in Walnut Creek, California. He has helped many people who have been traumatized, shamed, molested and violated by parents and even groups of perpetrators. He is specially trained in treating people suffering from Trauma, PTSD and Dissociation, and is skilled in the use of both EMDR and EFT. You can reach him at 925-937-3337 or


Friendship, Love and Marriage

by Gil Shepard Thursday, April 18, 2013


When someone says, “She (or he) is just a friend,” this generally means the relationship is not romantic, not sexual and not too intimate. It is also understood to mean, “You need not take this too seriously.”

On the other hand we sometimes hear someone say in a reverent way about a spouse, or a partner, “He (or she) is my best friend.” This is saying, “Yes, lots of people are married, lots of people have sex and live together, but what we share is a special trust, support and a rich love.”

What does it take to have this rich enviable friendship? For a start it takes risking being open about one’s feelings, being gently honest about what one thinks and does, being able to deal with disagreements in a relatively calm manner and being able to negotiate differences.

Unfortunately these skills are rarely taught in childhood. Instead many of us learned not to trust because we found caregivers not safe, not trustworthy and it was not smart to trust. Suspicion and fear are often survival skills in childhood but as an adult they can impede love. To learn how to be a true friend and how to choose someone trustworthy may take relearning in a safe environment.

In effective relationship therapy you may learn techniques, like how to let another person know that you heard what they said by repeating what you think you heard back to them and checking to see if you are correct. You may learn certain "no-no's" like telling someone they "should" do or be a different way. That is a sure way to create distance in a relationship very quickly, almost as fast as by telling someone they are stupid. These things certainly do not gain intimacy.

But most effective may be observing the therapist's style and emotional tone. Or you may notice that the therapist may see things very differently from the way you have seen them and wonder what he sees that you don't. You may explore why your partner's comments are so upsetting to you. What does it remind you of in your history? It can be very helpful to have a wise and experienced guide to do this and feel safe.



Gil Shepard is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Walnut Creek, California


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Social Work | Therapeutic Relationship | relationships, friendships | marriage


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