by Ken Edelston
What do you do when you have been betrayed? How do you respond?
Examples of betrayal: your partner cheats on you, your friend lies to you, you are the victim of gossip, your father ignores you, your mother ignores you, a teacher yells at you, your boss passes you over for a promotion that you have definitely earned, your best friend dismisses you, your children lie to you, and so forth. Each of these examples has to do with a breach of trust.
Trust is about consistency and predictability. Trust occurs as a result of two people learning that each other are trustworthy- that they won’t turn on you, won’t abuse you, won’t reject you, won’t leave you, won’t lie to you, will be straight with you, can be counted on for support, will accept you as you are and so forth.
Unfortunately, humans are not completely trustworthy. Not only will others betray your trust. You will betray others, and worse than that, you will betray your own trust. You will make promises to yourself, and you won’t keep them. You will strive for a goal and then subtly or not so subtly sabotage yourself. You will lie to yourself, and sometimes you may even be more critical of yourself than anyone else.
We live in a throw away society. When something gets worn out, we toss it out. When something is no longer useful, we get rid of it. When a person betrays our trust, we get a divorce, stop speaking to them, fire them, leave them, gossip about them, and otherwise try to get back the pride that we seem to have lost as a result of the insult (the betrayal).
And then on to the next relationship.
Each time we hope that this relationship will be the true one, the one in which trust lasts. Each time, sometimes quickly, other times not, the betrayal occurs. Each time, to bolster our well deserved pride, we assert, “Nobody is going to treat me like that!”, we cut our losses and move on. We don’t move on unburdened by the past, however. We carry with us the deep wounds and consequent resentments that have built up from one betrayal to the next.
Right now, you might be saying to yourself, “That might be true for others, but not for me. Sure, I’ve had some hard times when people let me down, but I don’t feel burdened or resentful.” You may be right for the moment, but when that next blow comes, all those feelings that have been placed on hold on the back burner will come out. If this does not happen for you, congratulations, you are one of the few people who has been able to negotiate through life without such an accumulation of let downs.
There is another way to handle betrayal. It is a simple answer, but a hard path. It is your pride that is not your friend. Your pride tells you that if someone mistreats you, you had better get even or get out. Your pride tells you that if you don’t get even, people will walk all over you. Your pride tells you that if you don’t get rid of this relationship, you will be hurt again and again. Better to cut your losses. But, if you follow the dictates of your pride, you will repeat the same cycle. Betrayal is a natural and normal part of human relations.
Instead of trying to insure that betrayal never happens again and failing, the challenge is to use betrayal as an opportunity to deepen your relationship. First of all, remember that up to now, we have been talking about being a victim of betrayal. Odds are that you have betrayed people quite a few times yourself. I sure have. When you are the betrayer, most often when the betrayal becomes conscious, you will want to make amends, you will want to apologize, and you will want to do something to reconcile and make up for the damage done to the mutual trust. Most likely, you will not want the other to leave you, call you names, reject you, or otherwise hurt you in order to get even. I say “most of the time”, because there are individuals who have no compunction about lying, cheating, and otherwise hurting others. They offend and walk off . There is no possibility of a healthy relationship with such people. However, these people without conscience are very rare. Most of us feel guilt and shame when we make mistakes.
So, here is the challenge.
When you have been betrayed, acknowledge the betrayal, be angry, sad, disappointed, and have whatever other feeling you experience. If you need to, separate yourself from the other person for a while- minutes, hours, days, or weeks- whatever you need to have a clearer perspective so that you don’t react out of anger and revenge. Your pride will tell you to act quickly, to defend yourself with all the force that you can muster. Your pride will tell you that if you don’t act, you will lose more. None of this is true.
The truth is that other people do not really have the power to injure us mortally. Yes, we will be hurt, and yes, the hurt will have been caused by the other’s betrayal, but we do not have to seek an immediate remedy. We will not hurt ourselves if we do not listen to our pride. We will not lose self esteem. We actually will gain self esteem, as we realize our love for ourselves can never be diminished by another’s action. What someone does to us says much more about them. They are the ones who must deal with the “wrong” action. To fend off taking personally another’s actions, is a great accomplishment. We may be hurt by another, but that says nothing about who we truly are. This is not common sense. Common sense says to strike back. Striking back creates the endless cycle of betrayal and getting even. It is time for you to break this cycle.
So, tell the betrayer that you need time to regroup, but that you will be back to talk about where to go from here. Make no promises, but keep the door open for the possibility of positive change. In order for betrayal to be an opportunity for deepening rather than ending a relationship, the betrayer must be accountable for the betrayal. In other words, they must admit that they have been offensive, that they violated the mutual trust, and that they want to reestablish the trust that has been lost. This last part is critical. If your betrayer insists that they did nothing offensive, there really is not much hope of a renewed relationship. However, we often deny our wrongs when they are pointed out to us. We lie to defend ourselves and to maintain our pride. It is quite possible that during the time of separation, the betrayer may come to an understanding of what they have done and what the impact has been. Let time work for both of you.
When you betray someone, you wound them and you wound yourself. Wounds take time to heal, and they also take attention. Time does not heal all wounds. Wounds often fester when left unattended.
How do you pay enough attention to heal the wound?
You cannot expect or demand that someone you betray will get over the betrayal as soon as you would like. You will want them to get over it, so that you may feel less guilt and shame. Let the other have their pain, and do not try to make it go away. Your job, as the betrayer, is to clean up your act. Your job is to be vigilant, so that you may avoid yet another betrayal. When a partner is betrayed, they will not demonstrate a loving attitude. A wounded person, just like a wounded animal, wants to strike out. Accept that for the time being. Accept that you, the betrayer, are not very lovable. This will change if you continue to act in a trustworthy manner, even if the other person does not acknowledge your good intentions. However, regaining trust takes both a demonstration of “right” action and time. It does not proceed perfectly.
There will be arguments and times when you, the betrayed, think it is not worth proceeding. Proceed anyway… unless you are totally certain that it is not possible to regain the trust. One warning about this kind of judgment: If you find that there are continued though slighter acts of betrayal and that trust is not coming back, it may very well be the case that there was not the level of trust that you thought there was before the betrayal occurred.
If you need to leave the relationship, then leave with style. Don’t leave in an act of revenge. Simply leave. That is always your right.