For most of us, I suspect betrayal typically connotes a major traumatic event. A partner cheats on us. A business associate steals from us. Someone leaks confidential data to an adversary or foreign government. A corporation fails to protect our credit card data or pushes unnecessary products en masse.
In these events trust is eroded or completely gone in an instant once the truth is brought into the light. We all know that these sorts of betrayals can have horrific consequences. The good news is many of us never experience betrayal with a capital B.
Other forms of betrayal are more common, and we can see them for what they are if we are mindful and pay close attention. They can often manifest gradually. They can be quite subtle as well. If fact it’s been said that “sometimes betrayal doesn’t scream, it whispers.”
The key to understanding betrayal, in my view, is to see that it is all about trust and its impact on vulnerable and compassionate connection. And trust has two key components. We all get that it’s about veracity, the simple need to believe that what’s going on is in fact true; that when we are in relationship with some individual or group we enjoy a shared reality. The other critical aspect is that trust involves personal responsibility.
It’s easy to understand how we can betray our partner’s trust if we directly lie to him or her. It’s simple to comprehend how when we fail to do what we promised we can let down individuals or teams.
What’s often harder is to see the insidious nature of betrayal. It’s very possible for both the perpetrator and the victim to not see what’s truly going on until it is too late. These more nuanced and gradual forms of betrayal can make both parties feel unsteady, confused, maybe even a bit crazy without the identification of the root cause.
In my experience, a sense of betrayal can build up over time through an accumulation of untrustworthy and unaccountable interactions: Not being reliable and consistent in how we show up in a relationship. Avoiding or deflecting in difficult situations. Failure to speak our truth. Blaming the other person for our failings. Saying one thing and doing another. Withholding love or affection to get what we want. An inability to own our actions and truly understand how they may have hurt another person.
Too often, trust is eroded by a thousand cuts. And once lost, it can be difficult or impossible to repair.
Avoiding this type of betrayal is best assured through cultivating compassion, leaning into vulnerability, letting go of our need for control, speaking our truth openly and respectfully, and understanding at a deep level that our actions have consequences.
Once betrayal has occurred the work is even harder and the outcomes far less assured. A person who has felt the deep hurt of betrayal does not simply re-grant trust due to a few sincerely uttered “mea culpas” and a hearty “I promise to do better next time.” If only it were so.
Ultimately the trust that matters is earned back through doing the hard work to establish the confidence that what we say and do is not only true, but reliable and consistent. And that takes time and practice.
The other reality is that if we’ve betrayed someone our actions have emotionally injured them. Time is needed for healing.
There is no express lane to restoring trust.