“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.”
Considering betrayal is a big ticket theme in stories and movies, I've often found it interesting how little information has been written about it. Our real life experiences with betrayal seems to escape more pragmatic discussion, yet most of us can identify a time and relationship where we have experienced betrayal. 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, we believe our work place is healthy and 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 shattering and involves shock, disbelief, disappointment and demands the re-evaluation of our relationship(s) and belief system. Betrayal causes us to question ourselves, devalues our self worth and erodes our self confidence.
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 we extend to another person, the greater the impact betrayal has. In addition, the more we rely or depend upon a relationship and the more significant that relationship is in our lives, the more profoundly we experience betrayal.
Family is deeply primal and the place where we first learn about trust and belonging. If we experience betrayal in those relationships, we may carry fear and distrust forward with us into other relationships too. We are also likely to have these deep primal betrayals re-triggered by later ones. In other words, betrayal "stacks" so even lesser betrayals may feel life altering, because the weight of our previous betrayals can be factored in.
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 good relationship choices. We second guess ourselves. "If I got it so wrong with this person, maybe I've got it wrong with other people too." Betrayal sparks the fear that maybe we cannot trust anything, or anyone. Even the most reliable of our relationships may suddenly feel dangerous and unsafe.
Betrayal shakes up our belief in the fundamental goodness of people and of the wider world. 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 to seek trusted relationships with those who have consistently walked the hard yards beside us. If we find we are without people who we feel we can trust, we can enlist professional support to help repair the damage done to our sense of self and self-worth. In the aftermath of betrayal we may need to rebuild our willingness to take chances on people or show our vulnerability.
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.