Why does betrayal hurt us so deeply? Is it because someone you trusted has let you down? Or perhaps a person in power you believed in has lied? What is it about betrayal we find so difficult to forgive? Evolution may hold the answer, as our early ancestors depended on trust and loyalty from other tribes as a matter of survival. In the 21st century, however, there are psychological reasons for betrayal, as we are deceived by the people we trust and love.
“This type of trauma usually relates to primary attachment figures like a parent, caregiver, or other important relationship from childhood. In adulthood, it tends to repeat among romantic partners,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist.
Trust is rooted in our psyche and given to those we hold in high esteem, so when someone is disloyal, we feel it profoundly. Studies show that betrayal can lead to shock, anger, grief, and, in some cases, are responsible for anxiety, OCD and PTSD. If betrayal feels so brutal, why are people disloyal? What are the psychological reasons for betrayal, and are there warning signs?
When people in power betray us, it is usually because they believe rules only apply to the ‘little people’; you and me, in other words. Management, CEOs, and even politicians think they are exempt from the rules or they are too important, so the rules don’t apply to them.
For some people, betrayal is simply a means to an end. There are lots of psychological reasons for betrayal, but there are also types of people more likely to betray you. Narcissists will think nothing of betraying you if someone better comes along. Psychopaths and sociopaths betray us all the time. They have no remorse, and no compunction to tell the truth. These kinds of people use betrayal as a tool to get what they want.
When we betray someone’s trust, we put our needs before theirs. For example, a cheating partner will put their pleasure above the anguish of their loved one. A drug addict may lie and steal to feed their habit. They don’t think of the consequences of their actions, only their selfish needs.
Betrayal comes in the form of lies or omission. A friend can say they are busy one weekend and blow you off, only for you to see them enjoying a night out on social media. They may not want to hurt your feelings and think that lying or leaving out the truth is easier than confronting you with the truth.
Often, we place our love and trust in people that don’t feel the same way. We expect a certain level of empathy and when we are betrayed, it can show us where we stand in this person’s list of priorities. It is difficult to accept that we are not as important as we thought, but actually, it’s a good wake-up call.
I had a ‘friend’ who turned all my friends against me. To my face, she was loyal and a good friend, but behind the scenes, she would badmouth me to friends, colleagues, and even family. I believe she was so insecure about her relationships she had to trash mine to elevate herself. People with a strong, established sense of self don’t have to betray others to feel good about themselves.
Sometimes the psychological reasons for betrayal are simple; the person is jealous of you and sabotages your dreams and goals. Perhaps you are doing well at work, and this person is falling behind. What better way to take the attention off their failing efforts than to wreck your chances of success?
Unless the person in question is a stone-cold psychopath, they are likely to be affected by the betrayal. It’s natural to assume, therefore, that their behaviour will be different. Are they short-tempered or in a bad mood all the time? Or have they gone in the opposite direction and started flattering you or bringing you gifts? Look out for any change in their normal behaviour; it could be a sign.
Does the laptop slam shut when you enter the room? Is the person answering calls in the garden where you cannot hear them? Are they frequently arriving home late from work, whereas before they were a stickler for clocking off at 5? Do they say one thing one day and change their story the next? Do they stop talking when you enter the office or break room?
If someone close to you, such as a co-worker or family member, has betrayed you, they’ll want to stay away. They may feel guilty for what they have done, or they might not trust themselves to let something slip. Perhaps they are worried they will get found out and don’t want a confrontation with you, so you will get the silent treatment.
All relationships are based on trust. It doesn’t matter what the psychological reasons for betrayal are; betrayal affects us profoundly. Enemies cannot betray us because we haven’t opened our hearts or our lives to them. Only someone we trust can betray us. Perhaps understanding why people betray others can help us move forward and even away if need be in the future.