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This Is Why Betrayal Hurts So Much

Research reveals the deeper wound behind the shock.

Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

You and your relationship partner committed to each other long ago. And then, one day, much to your surprise, your partner sits down next to you, looking very serious, almost somber. You feel a slight concern, but don’t think that anything could possibly be wrong with your relationship. The next words out of your partner’s mouth leave you floored: “I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and I’ve decided I’m going to leave you for X [someone you don’t even know].” Try as you might to get your partner to reconsider, it’s evident that the decision is firm and there’s nothing you can do to change it.

This revelation not only takes you by surprise but leaves you feeling a deep sense of betrayal. You’ve taken your partner’s love for granted, feeling secure in the knowledge that your relationship would endure. The question of either of you being with anyone else hasn’t crossed your mind in months, possibly years.

As you ponder the future, questions about the past begin to bubble up in your mind. Did you miss telltale signs? Were those “business” dinners really all business? What about X? Obviously your partner and this other person were planning this behind your back. As they moved closer to a decision about themselves, they also set the stage for a decision that would affect you. Having made that decision on their own, you didn’t have a chance to speak for yourself or intercede in your own fate.

Apart from romantic betrayal, friends can also betray each other. Perhaps you’ve been planning a vacation for months with a close pal. As the day of your departure got closer and closer, so did your anticipation—as well as your investment in airfare, hotels, and tour reservations. Three weeks before the trip, when you could no longer get your reservation deposits back, your friend sends you an email announcing that they've changed their mind and decided to take their vacation time with someone else. No discussion with you; just a note. You’re left holding tickets with no hope of being able either to get a refund or take the trip alone.

What's worse, you've lost a friend.

Betrayal can happen not only in a close interpersonal relationship, but in a working one as well. Imagine you’ve been a long-term co-owner of a business with two partners who were with you from Day One. It was always a given that you'd all share every aspect of the business. You are therefore shocked to learn that your partners sold their shares to an outside buyer, and that they’re leaving you to carry on without them. Not only will this mean that you’ll have to adjust to a new partner, but that they plotted this on their own, without consulting you.

Betrayal in all of these situations involves similar elements: You gave your trust to people who turned out not to be worthy of it. And people conspired against you without letting you participate in the decision. This adds a loss of control to that feeling of lost trust.

In a 2013 article, Ben-Gurion University’s Lisa Joskowicz-Jabloner and David Leiser investigated the emotional responses that people have to differing situations involving betrayal of trust. One situation involved personal acquaintances, similar to the examples I’ve described here. A second involved violation of a social norm, as when a cab driver takes you on a circuitous and expensive route rather than getting you to your destination as cheaply and directly as possible.

The online participants in Joskowic-Jabloner and Leiser’s sample read vignettes involving betrayal between people who know each other and involving betrayal between strangers. Participants rated their emotional reactions to these scenarios, and, further, what they would try to do to get relief from those negative emotions. Additionally, the researchers wondered whether betrayal might be differently experienced by people according to how much they focused on their own needs (power) and how much they felt concerned about others (benevolence).

Read the following vignettes, reproduced from this study (p. 1812), and then consider how you'd answer the questions that follow:

1. Kobi moves to a new apartment and asks his good friend to help him. On the morning of the move, his friend does not show up. When Kobi inquires about his whereabouts, his friend explains that he was out all night and needs to sleep.

  • To what degree is the friend’s behavior upsetting?
  • To what degree does Kobi regret to have trusted his friend?
  • To what degree is Kobi hurt from the behavior of his friend?
  • To what degree does Kobi feel the urge to take revenge on his friend?
  • To what degree does Kobi feel sad?
  • To what degree does Kobi feel disappointed?
  • To what degree does Kobi feel angry?

2. Ran went to the mall next to his home and did some shopping. After he came home, he discovers that in one of the shops, the shopkeeper had returned a fake $20 bill.

  • To what degree is the behavior of the shopkeeper upsetting?
  • To what degree is Ran hurt by the shopkeeper’s behavior?
  • To what degree does Ran feel sad?
  • To what degree does Ran feel disappointed?
  • To what degree does Ran feel angry?
  • To what degree does Ran feel the urge to take revenge?
  • To what degree does Ran regret trusting the shopkeeper?

As you might expect, participants experienced more intense emotions over the first scenario than the second. We feel more betrayed when a friend commits the violation (“personal domain”) than when a stranger does (“social norms domain”). In the shopkeeper example, people felt indignation and anger, and felt that these emotions would be relieved only by compensation or “hyper”-compensation (going above and beyond paying the person back). For betrayal by a friend, monetary compensation won’t relieve people’s negative emotions, and even the best efforts by the offending party only produce moderate feelings of relief.

People betraying your trust in a social norms situation, such as the shopkeeper or cab driver, can, in other words, relatively easily rectify the situation. In the personal domain, emotions are much sharper and harder to relieve. Even if the relationship isn’t a romantic one (those were not the focus of this study), betrayal by someone who knows you well implies that this person doesn’t value your relationship.

There may be many good reasons to be upset at a person close to you who violates your trust. However, it is this sense that you’re not valued that may be at the heart of your emotional reaction. Betrayal by people you care about hurts because it destroys your self-esteem. If you’re to get over this pain, which the study authors admit may be difficult, it may be a require readjusting your values. We can’t change the situations that provoke our negative emotions, but by redefining the way we view them, we can eventually find fulfillment in changing our emotional responses.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.


Joskowicz–Jabloner, L., & Leiser, D. (2013). Varieties of trust‐betrayal: Emotion and relief patterns in different domains. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 43(9), 1799-1813.

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