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Learning To Live With Betrayal

Can betrayal ever make things better?

Sobbing, Carly can’t believe it. That he could have done such a thing. This boy she loved, this boy she trusted. Or thought she loved and thought she trusted. “He’s ruined everything! Betrayed everything! Everything we had! Gone, just like that!”

Her boyfriend has admitted to sleeping with another girl at the weekend.

“I can’t believe he’s done it! He promised that he’d never do anything like this! He promised!”

I find myself caught between absolute pity for Carly, whose grief touches my heart, and a kind of detachment. “Of course he betrayed you,” I think to myself, stepping back. “It’s what lovers do. It’s what happens in life….”

The experience of betrayal changes the way a young person sees the world. But this is unlikely to be fifteen-year-old Carly’s first experience of betrayal. Growing up, she’ll already have felt betrayed by friends passing on her secrets or by idols not living up to her expectations. She’ll have felt betrayed by her parents. Whatever the occasion, it’ll have forced her to look at the world differently, confronting her with what she probably always knew but was choosing not to believe.

“I don’t understand why!” she says, still sobbing. “I just don’t get it!”

It’s sometimes argued that betrayals hurt so badly because they’re reminders of our entry into the world, when an original experience of ‘primal trust’ in the womb was replaced by a sudden experience of separation and anxiety: our first experience of betrayal.

“I could never do something like that!” Carly insists. “I could never betray someone! Not like he’s betrayed me!”

She’s wrong, I think to myself. She could. Any of us could. And however much we may hate being betrayed when it happens to us, most of us will betray other people ourselves, often the people who matter most. The important stories in our cultures (including the Bible story) usually hinge on a betrayal of some sort because betrayal is at the heart of life. And yet we rage whenever politicians ‘betray their election pledges’ as if we were so naïve as to believe that they wouldn’t, at least in part.

This matters because, as Phillips (2012) argues, “[O]ur sense of ourselves as moral creatures is organized around the question of betrayal,” (p.14). Is betrayal something that other people always do to us, or is it something that we’re perfectly capable of doing ourselves? Are we always victims or are we capable of being perpetrators? Phillips goes further, arguing that betrayal is a necessary experience, a mechanism by which relationships move on. This doesn’t mean that betrayal will always mark the end of a relationship, but that betrayal of some sort is usually necessary to shift relationships when they’re stuck.

I ask, “Will you split up?”

“Of course we’ll split up!” Carly replies, glaring. “We’ve already split up! What do you expect us to do when he’s done something like this?”

“What’s happened is horrible,” I say to her. “It’s horrible knowing that people can love each other and still be so cruel to each other.”

“Except that I’d never do that to him!” she says. “Never!”

For Carly, it’s as if her world has collapsed. But she’ll move on, sadder and wiser, obliged to acknowledge what she always knew, that nothing lasts forever and that love means living with the constant possibility of betrayal.


Phillips, A. (2012) ‘Judas’ Gift’ in London Review of Books 34, 1.

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