How many people do you know who have felt betrayed personally, politically, institutionally, or economically?

The sense of betrayal that seems rampant in our times has spurred research interest in various forms of betrayal and expanded definitions of what constitutes betrayal.

The reasons why so many people feel betrayed are a complex interplay of cultural and psychological factors. Primary among these are entitlement, the adrenalin effect, and obsession with feelings.

Entitlement: A sense of entitlement rises from the belief that you have the right to do or get something or to feel a certain way. Entitlement inevitably produces resentment, as most people, including the most loving of intimate partners, are likely to resist mere displays of entitlement, much less submission to the behavioral demands that go with it. Resentment breeds resentment. This enables the betrayer to justify betrayal in reaction to the resentment his/her resentment stirs in others. Most betrayers feel like victims, and their betrayals seem, at the adrenalin-driven moments of commission, like mere compensation.

The Adrenalin Effect: Betrayal is a violation of the betrayer’s deeper, more humane values. It takes a dose of adrenalin to overcome the initial inhibitions of violating deeper values. Adrenalin stimulates energy, vitality, and excitement and gives a temporary sense of confidence by muting self-doubt. It works much like an amphetamine, creating a surge of energy and confidence, which eventually plummet, i.e., you crash. Although an endogenous hormone, the amphetamine-like effect of adrenalin mimics a street drug in that it takes more and more of it to get the same level of excitement and confidence. Thus a minor betrayal leads inevitably to a series of major ones for those who do not regulate or beneficially channel the urge for excitement or who lack alternative means of increasing confidence.

Feelings: Our culture currently emphasizes immediate feelings over long-term values. “This is how I feel,” has replaced, “This is what I believe in.” Getting temporary feelings validated has become more important than standing for something or acting in accordance with basic humane values. Insufficient validation seems to justify violation of deeper values, such as compassion, kindness, loyalty, and honesty. Of course, no one feels like being true to deeper values all the time or even most of the time. When we act consistently on our feelings, we are bound to violate our values and greatly increase the incidence of betrayal.

Recognizing Betrayal

Intimate betrayal is, of course, the most common form; intimate connection requires the deepest and most pervasive type of trust. Statistical evidence of intimate betrayal is understandably elusive and varies widely, depending on whether people are interviewed individually or as couples. Here are conservative examples:

• Abuse: suffered by 35-40% of women, 30-35% of men

Infidelity: about half say a partner cheated on them, another 40% admit to cheating

• Chronic resentment, criticism, stonewalling, disengagement: 45-50% of couples.

Intimate betrayal is far and away the most insidious kind, as it strikes at the core of our ability to trust and love, through violation of the implicit promise that gives us the courage to love in the first place:

No matter what happens, the person you love and trust will care about your wellbeing and never intentionally hurt you.

Behaviors that intentionally hurt include most emotional abuse, verbal aggression, and domestic violence. Failure to care about your wellbeing covers most deceit, infidelity, covert misuse of communal resources, as well as continual resentment, anger, criticism, stonewalling, and other isolating or hurtful behaviors.

Recognizing the commonalities of intimate betrayal raises the bar of what is acceptable in relationships. Instead of arguing about labels for behavior – whether or not it’s abusive or deceitful, disloyal, etc. – the focus falls on replacing hurtful behavior with the only acceptable intimate display – that which is, in some sense, compassionate and kind.

The primary task in recovering from intimate betrayal is shifting from victim identity – focus on injury, damage, and weakness – to a healing identity, which is focus on strengths, resilience, and building value and meaning into everyday life. The process of recovery is long and difficult, testing the resiliency and courage of the human spirit, yet offering the profoundest reward in achievement: a powerful and compassionate sense of self.

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