We use the word betrayal to describe the experience at the heart of broken trust. But betrayal is not just an event, it’s a process, and it unfolds in a predictable sequence of events.
Whether a betrayal is sexual, financial, emotional, or something else, most forms of betrayal follow a specific pattern. To explore the nature and pattern of betrayal, it is helpful to explore the five stages the betrayer moves through.
- Violating self-concept
- Making ourselves right
- Making the betrayed person wrong
- Turning internal excuses outward
- Making choices: Taking, or not taking, responsibility.
In this post, we are going to explore the first two stages of betrayal: violating self-concept and making ourselves right.
1. Violating Self-Concept
Self-concept includes the mental image, beliefs, and ideas that we hold about ourselves. It involves the values that we believe are important such as honesty, freedom, loyalty, or family, friendship, and community.
Most of us consider ourselves good people, even though we recognize that we are imperfect human beings with character defects. We view ourselves as moral and know that we would not intentionally hurt others, particularly those we hold dear.
For this reason, when we betray someone, whether through something smaller like gossiping or through something big like cheating, we instinctively protect our self-concept—denying the impact of our actions, or the violation of our own values.
Very few of us have the capacity to look ourselves in the eye and say, “Today, I’m going to do something that I believe is wrong. It’s going to devastate my spouse and children and cause negative ripples throughout our community and enormous pain and harm. I know this will happen, but I’m-a-gonna-do-it-anyway.”
2. Making Ourselves Right
The truth is that most of us are just not honest with ourselves. For most of us, violating our values and operating outside of our self-concept requires us to rationalize, justify, or minimize our behavior. We try to make ourselves right while doing the wrong thing. We can do this through the following three strategies:
- Rationalizing involves finding a reason why our behavior is not wrong, harmful, or problematic. For example, we might rationalize that “cheating is a normal human behavior, and everyone does it,” thereby believing that sexual betrayal is not actually a real violation of values and self-concept because it is “normal” and “common.”
- Justifying involves building a case for why the behavior is OK because of certain special circumstances that make it allowable. For example, “I have a very high libido and special sexual needs, so it’s alright that I get those taken care of outside of my relationship.” This gives us permission to engage in behaviors that violate our loved one’s trust.
- Minimizing involves reducing the behavior to something less than what it really is in order to also reduce its harm potential. For example, “The affair with my co-worker doesn’t mean anything, because it’s just about sex. I don’t have feelings for them,” are statements that reduce the behavior to something less harmful so that we can move forward with it.
These three strategies have this in common: they allow the individual who is engaging in betrayal to maintain their self-concept internally (in their own minds) while violating their self-concept externally (through their behaviors).
Beliefs about self—including “I’m a loving spouse, I’m a great parent, I’m loyal, I’m honest and operate with integrity”—can all remain intact when we manipulate ourselves into believing that our behaviors do not violate our value system or self-concept. This self-manipulation is at the heart of all betrayal.
Stayed tuned for the next blog post where we will look at the final three stages of betrayal.