‘Some things can’t be repaired’: how do you recover when a friend betrays you?

As the libel suit between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney rumbles on in the high court, the public has heard weeks of claims and counterclaims about Instagram stings, paparazzi ambushes and phones lost in the sea. But one thing has been clear from the outset: one of the two women has been betrayed. Either, as Rooney claims, Vardy sold stories about her fellow Wag to the Sun, or, as Vardy maintains, Rooney’s baseless accusation has dragged her good name through the mud.

It is a messy and sordid tale from which no one – except possibly the lawyers – emerges the better. Rooney has described Vardy’s WhatsApp exchanges about her as “evil”; Vardy has said that the threats and abuse she received after Rooney’s accusations made her feel suicidal. What is driving the former friends to spend millions airing their most intimate details?

Betrayal by a friend is not something you can just laugh off, says Dr Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. “The very place where you should be able to get help and protection from the harms of life becomes the source of harm.” She coined the term “betrayal trauma” to describe the pain such treachery can cause. “We are a social species; when someone betrays us, it’s a real threat to our wellbeing.”

There are degrees of betrayal, of course. Most of us will have experienced a friend gossiping uncharitably behind our backs, for example – or perhaps we have been that friend. This is hardly Judas kissing Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “But what we find overall is that betrayal is toxic,” Freyd says. “People who are betrayed are likely to have physical and mental health challenges.”

Annabel, who is in her 50s and lives in Wales, was betrayed by her former friend Jane. They met in the early 2000s. Annabel ran a specialist business at a food market; Jane visited her stand often and befriended her at a marketing event. “We just clicked,” says Annabel. “She was really friendly. We’d go to each other’s houses for meals.”

Annabel introduced Jane to her friends and gave her work on her stall, teaching her all about her business. Jane then announced that she planned to set up a rival stand, selling the same products at the same market. Annabel was horrified. “I told her that I was hurt and I thought it would be awkward and strange for other people,” says Annabel. “It didn’t work personally and from a business point of view we were going to be sharing customers.”

Jane was unmoved, even suggesting that, if Annabel was unhappy, she might like to consider moving markets. Just like that, their friendship was over.

At first, Jane’s stand didn’t affect Annabel’s sales too greatly, but over time her income declined. “The market could not sustain two similar businesses,” she says. Eventually, Annabel left. The experience made her feel “very lonely – like I couldn’t trust anyone. I felt that people might just be after what I had got.” She was, she says, “upset for a very long time”.

Coleen Rooney (left) and Rebekah Vardy watch England play Wales at Euro 2016 in Lens, France
Better days … Coleen Rooney (left) and Rebekah Vardy watch England play Wales at Euro 2016 in Lens, France. Photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

This is a common response to feelings of betrayal, says Holly Roberts, a psychotherapist with the relationship charity Relate. “When you open up to a friend, you make yourself vulnerable to that person,” she says. “That’s what makes it hard. Because you’ve bared yourself emotionally to that person and been hurt by them.” Roberts says these feelings “can sit with you for a long time”. Annabel has moved on with her life. “I can be philosophical about it now,” she says. “But it ranks pretty highly in my history of painful personal experiences.”

Betrayal stories “are as old as time”, notes Dr Lucy CMM Jackson, an assistant classics professor at Durham University. Tales such as Euripides’ Medea, about a woman’s bloody quest for vengeance after her husband abandons her, “are so fascinating because they articulate a fear”, she says. “We tell stories about betrayal to make sense of it, in the hope that maybe we can avoid it or, if not, be better prepared for it. Ultimately, we come back to the idea of betrayal so often because we do have to trust each other.”

Medea “takes vengeance because her name has been dragged through the dust”, says Jackson. Does she see parallels with Vardy’s attempt to restore her reputation? “It’s all quite petty,” she says. “I don’t get the sense that so much honour has been given up in this modern parallel.”

Like Medea, Stacy Thunes’ story of betrayal revolves around a duplicitous lover. Thunes, a 61-year-old actor and screenwriter from London, was betrayed by her close friend Billie in the early 80s. When Thunes fell in love with a handsome musician, she arranged for the three of them to go for breakfast. At breakfast, to Thunes’ horror, “his foot was actually touching hers under the table”, she says.

That evening, Thunes went to Billie’s apartment. The lights were off and Billie wasn’t answering the doorbell. Thunes climbed in through an open window. Billie emerged from her bedroom. “I knew by the look on her face that he was there,” Thunes says.

Being betrayed by Billie, she says, was more painful than being betrayed by her boyfriend. “It made me feel like we were never really friends,” says Thunes. “Like the friendship meant nothing. All those years of feeling that she had my back were gone in an instant.”

Those who are betrayed often feel shame, says Roberts. “People feel embarrassed. They think: how could I have opened myself up to this person and let them do this to me? How could I have been so naive?”

‘It made me feel like we were never really friends’ … Stacy Thunes.
‘It made me feel like we were never really friends’ … Stacy Thunes. Photograph: Steffi Henn

Lisa, a disability support worker, knows this feeling well. “I couldn’t believe how stupid we’d been,” she sighs. Lisa met Anna in the 1990s when they worked in adjacent shops in Edinburgh. “She was funny and kind and generous,” says Lisa. “You knew where you stood with her. I liked that.”

When Lisa and her then-husband moved to a small village on the east coast of Scotland, Anna soon followed with her young son. Lisa helped out with childcare and even acted as a guarantor on her rental property. “She was my family and I was hers,” says Lisa. But everything fell apart when Anna’s landlord got in touch. Anna had fallen behind on the rent.

Lisa offered to lend her £1,500, the last of a small legacy her grandfather had left her. “She initially said no, but eventually agreed,” says Lisa. “I gave her the money in cash. And that was the last time I ever saw her.” Eventually, Lisa pieced together the story: Anna had used her money to run away with a boyfriend. “I felt more angry at myself than at her, for being so naive,” Lisa says.

Anna later wrote a letter to Lisa, apologising for hurting her – but not for taking the money. “She said it was my fault, because I forced her to do it,” says Lisa.

Not everyone will get the closure that comes with an apology, however half-hearted. Cormac and Duncan met a decade ago as teachers at the same school. They became friends quickly and Cormac introduced Duncan to his social and professional circles. When a management post became available, Cormac asked Duncan if he planned to apply for it. “He said no,” Cormac says. “I would have had no problem if he’d said yes.”

Cormac spent weeks going over his interview strategy with Duncan. At his interview, he was stunned to see Duncan there, in a suit and tie. “He’d gleaned all the information from me and he’d used me to lay the groundwork for getting to know everyone on the panel,” says Cormac. Duncan got the job. “I was in tears, because I knew I’d been dealing with someone very clever and manipulative and careful, and it was devastating.”

To make matters more maddening, Duncan not only never apologised, but also spread false rumours about Cormac around the school. “I had to find my own resolution,” says Cormac. “I can’t let him live in my head rent-free. I told myself: ‘That is in the past and everything from here on out will be good.’” Cormac ended up moving to a different school. “I wanted to draw a line under it,” he says.

Betrayal usually means the end of a friendship. “That urge to withdraw is a protective response,” says Freyd. “You don’t want to continue to be betrayed. It’s analogous to a fight-or-flight response.” After Billie wrote to beg for forgiveness, Thunes let her back into her life, but she never trusted her again. “Every time I was with someone, I knew she might have her eye on them,” says Thunes.

It is possible to rebuild the relationship “if you’re both invested in it”, says Roberts. “Check in with each other: how does this feel? But the trust may never come back. Accepting that can be a good step.” If you feel unable to trust your friend, walk away. “You don’t have to put yourself through it,” she says. “Some things can’t be repaired, and it’s OK to acknowledge that.”

Surprisingly few of the betrayed wish harm upon their betrayers. They would rather let go of the hurt and move on. “I couldn’t let it drive me mad,” says Annabel. “I had to carry on doing my thing.” But all of them are more careful now; more tentative about who they let in, more thoughtful about what they do with the trust that others place in them. “I am reminded of it daily, not because I want to make myself feel bad, but because I don’t want to be that person to hurt other people,” says Thunes.

But the act of continuing to trust after being hurt so badly is a form of resistance in itself. They will not stop connecting with others, because to close off from the world is to let their betrayers win. Lisa says she would lend Anna the money again in a heartbeat, even knowing everything she does now. “I’ve had so much kindness shown to me over the years, too,” she says. “That’s what makes life beautiful.”

Some names have been changed