Betrayal is probably the most devastating loss a person can experience. To be betrayed, the person must first experience trust in the betrayer. It is fairly impossible for you to be betrayed if you did not trust the individual in the first place. Therefore,the definition of betrayal involves the act of someone violating your trust in them. The betrayal I am discussing in this article refers to a variety of forms of betrayal. For instance, a child is betrayed when he or she is abused by the parents who are supposed to love, support, and protect the child. A spouse is betrayed when their partner has an affair. Betrayal is when someone you trust lies to you, cheats on you, abuses you, or hurts you by putting their own self-interest first.
Betrayal as loss. Betrayal is probably the most devastating loss a person can experience. Notice that I am using the term "loss" to describe the consequences of betrayal. In our society, we have trouble understanding the concepts of loss and grief. We understand that when someone dies we experience loss and grief, but frequently we don't recognize the other forms of loss that we may experience in life. Loss can be losing a person through death. However, it can also be losing a part of that person such as through illness. When a spouse develops Alzheimer's, for instance, the healthy spouse may experience loss of companionship or loss of emotional support.
Loss can also involve things that are less tangible such as trust. When an individual is betrayed by someone, they lose trust in that person. In trusting another person, we believe that they won't hurt us; when they do hurt us, we then have the awareness that this other person has the capacity to hurt us. Therefore, we have lost something very important to the relationship.
Purposeful Aspect of Betrayal. The reason that betrayal is the most devastating kind loss is because most often it is a loss that didn't have to occur. It only occurs because of someone's deliberately hurtful behavior, or their carelessness, or their own personal weakness. Unlike a loss such as death or illness, there is usually some sort of choice involved. The person who was betrayed believes that the choice was wrong and preventable.
Loss of the Illusion. Even more confusing, however, is that sometimes loss can be the loss of an illusion. Frequently, we develop in our minds the way we think things "should" be. However, reality doesn't always correspond with the demands that we put on life, ourselves, and others. Therefore, sometimes we are hurt when we have to face this reality. For instance, imagine children who grow up in the fortunate experience of having parents who always put the needs of their children first. But what they don't know is that their parents are unhappy together. Those children become young adults and are confronted with their parents telling them that they are getting a divorce. Frequently, those children feel betrayed by the illusion of the happy family they always thought they had. Suddenly they are confronted with a hurtful reality.
Another example is that a man marries a woman and thinks of her as a virtuous, moral person. Later he finds out that she had numerous sexual encounters prior to their relationship. He has lost his concept of how he thought of his wife. He feels betrayed even though she didn't do anything to break her committed to him; his sense of betrayal is the loss of the illusion of how he thought of his wife.
However, even if the betrayal is the loss of the illusion, the grief is very real and needs to be dealt with. Sometimes this is hard to do because the person is told and believes that they shouldn't feel so strongly about something that was not an actual betrayal of them. So with this type of loss a person is often tempted to move on too quickly without resolving it.
So, given that betrayal is a loss, it is necessary to understand the process of grief in order to deal with having been betrayed. Most often, when people have been betrayed, they have overwhelming emotions which are so intense that they are unable to make any sense out of them. Therefore, if you have been betrayed, you need to understand what these emotions are and why you are experiencing them before you can really take any action.
The theory of grief is that it involves several stages: shock/denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance. Frequently these stages may overlap, or one may be experienced more intensely than another, or one might be so shortly lived that it didn't seem that it was part of the experience. However, the most important part of this theory is that it is not possible to reach the final stage of acceptance without having moved through the prior stages. Sometimes people will get stuck in one of the early stages which prevents them from moving on. It is even conceivable for someone to be stuck in one of these stages for years.
Denial Stage of Grief. Most commonly people want to avoid the experience of grief because the emotions are so intense. So they will engage in avoidance behaviors. These can be compulsive, additive behaviors such as abusing drugs or alcohol, over-eating, or gambling. These types of behaviors are escapes from emotions. People also escape emotions in other ways such as obsessive reassurance-seeking, questioning, or dependency. Or people might just avoid the situation altogether and write the other person out of their lives. These are only a few of the most common ways people avoid the grief process.
The Anger Stage of Grief. A common stage where people become stuck, especially with the issue of betrayal, is in the anger stage. They become so focused on the wrong that was done to them that they never fully experience the other emotions such as the sadness due to the loss of the relationship. Other times, people become stuck in the denial stage by becoming so focused on forgiveness. They are so quick to want to resolve the issue that they deny the full experience of the anger and sadness involved in the loss.
1) Denial/Shock. The first stage of shock or denial is when you are initially confronted with the betrayal. You may feel numb or feel like someone just punched you in the gut. There might be a tendency to disbelieve the betrayal. For instance, if you hear it from a third party, you might tend to ignore it or even get mad at them for making things up. This stage, however, is usually fairly short especially if the individual acknowledges the betrayal and the loss. It may be longer if someone has an issue with feeling anger; then they might want to try and dismiss the seriousness of the transgression or try to focus too quickly on forgiving the transgressor.
2) Anger. Once the betrayal and loss is fully acknowledged, the individual is likely to feel intense anger. This is a very delicate stage because this is when many things can go wrong in the process. Primarily, it is critical to recognize that the emotion of anger is perfectly okay, but our actions that are influenced by anger may not be okay. For many people, when they are first hurt and react with anger, their inclination is to retaliate, to hurt the person who hurt them. There is nothing wrong with feeling this way, but it is best to not react during this stage. It is better to work fully through the stages of grief and then decide how you are going to react. Even if it takes a number of months to work through the grief, it is better to wait than to regret rash actions. Now, this doesn't mean you have to be completely passive about your anger. In fact, it is okay to tell the person, "I am so angry right now that I can't think straight. Before I do anything I will regret later, I need some space to process this."
Venting Emotions. During the time of anger, the betrayed person needs to vent. The tendency is to want to vent with the person who hurt you as a form of retribution. However, it isn't really a safe way for you to vent. The transgressor is going to be dealing with his/her own issues and is most likely to respond defensively. Therefore, it is only likely to lead to escalating anger. You need to vent to someone who will listen and validate your anger without feeding your anger. For example, you want someone who will say, "I can understand why you are angry" but not someone who says "He's really scum. You should throw him out." Therefore, it is often best to talk with a trusted but unbiased friend. If that's not possible, a minister or a therapist can help you through this process.
Write Grief Letters. Another way to vent is to write out your feelings. You can even write a letter to the person who hurt you. However, it's not usually a good idea to send these initial letters to the transgressor because it may not reflect the final outcome for you. A letter format is frequently helpful in working through the anger stage of grief because it feels as if you are talking to the person and able to vent without having to regret it later. This is also a good method for people who have trouble getting in touch with their anger. Also, you need to recognize that especially if you aren't venting the anger, you are likely to misplace it, feel generally irritable and angry, and are likely to take it out on people who haven't really done anything to you. Finally, with anger, recognize that it is okay and necessary to release the anger physically. However, it is not okay to physically violate someone else. Therefore, find a physical release such as hitting a punching bag or breaking old pickle jars (in a safe way so as not to get hurt).
3) Sadness. As you work through the anger, you should begin to come to a point of sadness. The sadness is experienced when you begin to recognize the full extent of what you have lost. You begin to think about the good things in the relationship that you miss. You think about the shattered trust and knowing that you can never get complete trust back. Once someone has violated our trust, we can get to a point where we can continue the relationship with them, but we will forever know that they have the capacity to betray us. During the time of sadness, you need to release those emotions just as you needed to release the anger. Again, you can write how you feel. Or you can imagine telling the person the hurt you have experienced and the loss of the relationship that grieves you. And, of course, it is okay to cry.
4) Acceptance. The grief process is a healing process. It was built into our systems to help us cope with the numerous losses we experience in life. If we trust the process fully, we will heal. Trusting the process means allowing the feelings to be what they are, whatever they are. Feelings are never wrong or bad. What we do because of feelings can be wrong or bad, but that is a choice. The feelings themselves are not bad. Therefore, they won't hurt us. They help us in healing. If you trust this healing process, you will finally get to a point of acceptance. This is the point where decisions can be made and action can be taken. At this point you are able to think clearly about the situation and decide what is the best course of action to take. And, of course, that action will vary depending on the person and the situation. You may decide that a continued relationship with this person can only lead to more hurt and is not worth the effort of trying to sustain a relationship. Or you may decide that there are too many good things in the relationship to give it up.
Many people ask how to know whether or not to forgive and continue with the relationship. I can give you some of the questions to consider for this issue but I can't give the answers because each person needs to determine for him or herself what is right.
1) First of all, is the behavior a continuing behavior or does the person recognize the hurt they have caused and are trying to change the behavior?
2) Also, does the individual want forgiveness? To want forgiveness the person has to see the behavior as wrong and not intend to engage in it any further.
3) Was the transgression out of justified anger and the person regretted acting so rashly? Did they learn from this behavior and are unlikely to do it again?
4) How long have you know the person? Is this typical behavior or is a single instance?
5) Have you talked with the person and they have accepted responsibility?
6) Was the behavior intentional or was it related to the loss of an illusion (as described above)?
7) What makes this relationship worth the forgiveness?
8) Do you need to forgive so as to move on in your life without the bitterness? However, this doesn't mean you have to continue the relationship.
This article only touches on the surface of all the emotions involved with betrayal, grief, and loss. Hopefully, however, it will give you some ideas about putting it into perspective and working through the stages of grief in order to determine what you want to do regarding the betrayal.