I have often found it interesting how little information has been written about betrayal. The subject is a common theme in stories and movies, yet doesn’t seem to translate well to a more open discourse. Most of us can identify a time and relationship where we have experienced betrayal, and for many of us who are managing family estrangement issues, betrayal has been an intimate and impactful experience.
So what is betrayal, why is it so damaging, and how come no one wants to talk about it?
At the most basic level, betrayal involves the breaking or violation of an agreed or assumed trust or confidence. Often betrayal is seen as the act of supporting a rival person or group at the expense of another person or group. We believe our family will accept and value us ” no matter what”, we trust that our partner will be faithful, we assume that our friends will have our backs and seek mutually beneficial outcomes, we believe our work place is healthy and that our jobs are safe, we trust our wider social systems to protect us and support us when we need them to.
When our trust is broken, we experience betrayal – a substantial psychological and emotional dissonance, which occurs within a relationship between individuals, within families, organizations or even larger social and political systems. Betrayal is often unexpected but even when we have suspicions, discovering betrayal is psychologically and emotionally shattering and involves shock, disbelief, disappointment and the re-evaluation of one’s relationship(s) and belief system. As the Freud quote above suggests, the more we care or trust, the more vulnerable to betrayal we become because, generally speaking, the greater the trust that one puts in another person, the greater the impact the betrayal has. In addition, the more we rely or depend upon a relationship and the greater it’s sphere of influence in our lives, the more profoundly we will experience betrayal. Because family is deeply primal and the place where we first learn about trust and belonging, if we have experienced betrayal in those relationships, we may carry fear and distrust forward with us into our other relationships too. We are also likely to have these deep primal betrayals re-triggered by later ones.
The aftershocks of betrayal are anger, despair, fear, revulsion for the lack of integrity and loyalty demonstrated by the person who has betrayed us and a pervasive sense of helplessness or powerlessness. Discovering we have been betrayed is devastating because it strikes so deeply at the core of who we are. Betrayal causes us to doubt ourselves and to doubt our ability to make sound judgments about other people. Betrayal shakes up our belief in the fundamental goodness of people, of groups, of organizations and of the world. When we have been significantly betrayed we may fear that we cannot trust anything, or anyone and we may begin to perceive even the sturdiest of relationships as dangerous and unsafe.
Betrayal is an experience that causes us to question ourselves, devalues our self worth and erodes our self confidence. In the wake of betrayal, we may find ourselves socially isolated and silenced because not surprisingly, betrayal also leads to shame. Yet going it alone and silence are not our friends when we have been so deeply wounded. This is the time we must seek out trusted relationships with those who have consistently been present for us. This is not the time for fair weather friends, this is the time for those who will walk the hard yards beside us. If we find we are without people who we feel we can trust, we can trust ourselves and we can enlist the support of a professional to help repair the damage done to our sense of self and self-worth, and to help resolve any feelings of vulnerability we carry with us.
The opposite of betrayal is loyalty. Both exist and there is no point pretending otherwise. Building and establishing trustworthy relationships is a journey and so too is getting to the other side of betrayal. The important thing to remember is we can do it and we are worth it.