Understanding Betrayal: Motivations, Reactions & How to Begin Recovery

What motivates humans to betray each other? What determines whether or not they will regret or even acknowledge their actions? How do humans decide when they’ve been betrayed and how can they positively address the hurt and anger that results? These are the topics we’ll dig into in this post.

Now as is so often the case in many kinds of human behaviors, the suggestion to betray someone else is first made by the subconscious or the soul. Once the idea is put out there, other elements respond, and depending on which elements are pushing for betrayal and how much internal upset there is, the person will either stifle their desire or act on it. In this post, I’ll focus on desires that get acted on, so that we can then learn about what happens inside a person after they do something disloyal.

Getting Needs Met

As a human, you have four different elements to your being: your physical body, your soul, your conscious mind, and your subconscious mind. Each of these elements has their own set of needs, and those needs range from nice extras to critical. For example, it’s a nice extra for your body to have a soft and cozy place to rest at night. But it’s critical that it gets a regular supply of food.

Your soul and your subconscious are the two alpha elements in your complex little being. But these two elements do not share the duties of taking care of you equally. As far as your subconscious is concerned, it does the majority of the work in keeping you alive and well while your soul spends much of its time standing around making unwelcome criticisms of how the subconscious is operating.

Your subconscious takes personal responsibility for meeting the needs of itself, your conscious and your body. To do this, it is constantly searching for new sources of the things these elements need. When possible, it tries to get everyone some nice extras on top of their critical needs, but it prioritizes critical needs. It also prioritizes which elements it will service first. In desperate times when there is a severe shortage of critical supplies and/or rapidly escalating stress, your subconscious will start to strategically ration what is available, taking calculated risks to keep your overall being functioning as long as possible.

Now if you’re hungry, you can go to your refrigerator for a snack. Sounds simple, right? But how do you get food to stock up that fridge in the first place? You have to work so you can earn money, and that means you have to please a human boss.

Or suppose you don’t have to stock that fridge yourself because someone else is doing it for you. But suppose that someone else considers the fridge their territory and they are claiming the power to decide when you can take resources from it.

From the perspective of your subconscious, other humans often stand between you and the things you need, and that means you have to form relationships with those humans if you’re going to have any hope of getting a share of the resources they are controlling. To make things even more complicated, many of the resources your subconscious has on it’s shopping list are things that come directly from other humans. There is no box you can open to pull out a ration of emotional affirmation, a cuddle, or a session of attentive listening: these things have to be given to you directly by a willing human being. The tricky part is that other humans have their own shopping lists and their own idea of things that they would like to get from you. Here is where negotiations begin to happen, and when negotiations between the same two people go on for a long time and a mutually beneficial relationship results, we start using labels like friend or lover to describe how valuable that person has become to us.

Now in any field of business, there are people you want to work with and people who you feel you have to work with whether you want to or not. The same is true in the complex world of emotional and psychological dealings which we call human relationships. We tend to use the term friend for people who we are choosing to deal with, while the term family is used for people who we feel morally obligated to work with whether we want to or not. In all of our relationships, there are unwritten codes of good practice that everyone is expected to abide by. Titles play a critical role in defining how much humans expect from each other. You expect more from your best friend than you do from a stranger. You feel that your father is morally obligated to supply you with a greater variety of resources than your boss is. It is your soul that decides who ought to be doing what for who and when.

Soul Beliefs

What’s the difference between a personal preference and a universal moral law? If I like blue, does that make it immoral for you to like green instead? If I feel that it is wrong to chop up another human with an ax, are you morally obligated to agree with me?

Your soul has a long list of beliefs which it is constantly revising as your life experience grows. Your soul considers some of its beliefs to be personal preferences, meaning that it does not consider it to be wrong when other humans disagree with those beliefs. But your soul has many other beliefs that it considers to be universal moral codes, and it feels quite justified in being angry at any other human who goes against those codes. For example, many souls feel that it is morally wrong for parents to favor one child over another. In Kara’s house, it’s very obvious that her parents favor her sister Stella over her. They express that favoritism by giving Stella the majority of their attention, affirmation, and support. This behavior outrages Kara’s soul who feels that her parents are acting terribly immoral. Because Kara feels her view of favoritism is a universal moral code, she views her parents as intentionally violating that code. Because of the way she views her own belief, Kara feels certain that her parents have malicious intentions towards her as they fawn over sister. Her soul is making three critical assumptions: 1) that her parents know that what they are doing is wrong, 2) that they are aware of how hurtful their actions are to her, and 3) that they are choosing do it anyway because they are evil-hearted.

Now suppose you are desperate for a box of painkillers, but you’re at the back of a long line at a chemist shop. As each customer in front of you gets help from the chemist, you’re anxiously watching to see if they are buying one of the few boxes of painkillers that are left on the shelf. Every time you see the chemist pick up one of those boxes and give it to someone else, your stress levels rise and you feel more upset. In this case, it is your subconscious that is stressing, not your soul. Your soul doesn’t feel it is immoral for other people to buy painkillers, and your soul understands that it is fair for those standing in the line ahead of you to get served first. But the fact that nothing immoral is happening doesn’t stop your stress levels from escalating because you really do need those pills.

This chemist scenario demonstrates how your subconscious can become very upset by how resources are being allocated even when nothing immoral is going on. Your subconscious doesn’t care about morality; it’s focused on getting needs met.

Now Kara’s distress over her home life has two aspects to it. First, her soul is very upset by the way the attention is being doled out because it feels her parents are treating her very unfairly. But while her soul is focusing on the moral aspects of the situation, Kara’s subconscious is focused on the issue of limited supplies. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, and as Kara’s father goes out the door to spend hours of time cheering her sister on at Stella’s swimming competition, it’s quite obvious that Kara’s chances of getting any of her father’s attention that day are dwindling fast. This is when her subconscious will become very upset by what’s happening: because it sees that limited resources keep being heaped onto her sister while Kara is always being given the message of “Sorry, but we’re out of stock.” Morality aside, this form of distribution is forcing Kara into a position of feeling emotionally starved, and that is what is stressing out her mind.

Now on a conscious level, Kara hates her parents and her sister. In humans, hate is a cover for pain and fear. When Kara thinks “I hate them all”, that’s her conscious mind verbalizing messages it is receiving from both her soul and her subconscious. In Kara’s situation, two of her elements are feeling very upset by what is happening to her. Both her soul and her subconscious feel that a bad thing is happening, even though they are focused on different aspects of what that bad thing is.

Now when your subconscious and soul are presented with problems, they immediately start searching for solutions. Kara’s subconscious wants to get its hands on more of the critical resources that are being passed out in the home and it really doesn’t give a toss about how it goes about doing that. Your subconscious has no qualms about doing immoral things to get its needs met. And remember: your subconscious is not only looking out for itself, but for your body and conscious as well, so it is carrying a very heavy burden of responsibility.

While Kara’s subconscious is trying to think up ways that it can force her parents to give her more of their attention, her soul wants to see the wrongdoers punished. Kara’s soul views her parents and her sister as equally guilty parties in this “let’s all snub Kara” game. But as much as she hates her parents, she still needs things from them, whereas she feels like her relationship with her sister is expendable. This difference in value causes Kara’s soul to focus its thirst for revenge on Stella. Her soul now teams up with her subconscious, saying, “Hey, I’ll help you get what you need from my parents, but let’s do it in a way that hurts Stella.”

Now Stella has a boyfriend named Nick. Stella’s father isn’t thrilled with Nick, as he thinks the kid is a bit of a player. Kara knows that Nick is a player, and she decides to use that to her advantage. One day at school, Kara puts major moves on Nick, gets him to make out with her in a secluded spot on campus, and then tells him a bunch of lies about Stella badmouthing him to her friends. Nick gets mad and decides to dump Stella, but Kara convinces him to let her break the bad news to her sister. She also gets Nick to block Stella on his phone so that she can’t communicate with him.

The next day is Stella’s birthday party and she was really looking forward to Nick coming. Stella has a major crush on Nick and thinks he just might be the one. When Nick doesn’t show up and doesn’t answer any of her calls or texts, she runs to her room to cry and pout. When her parents try to talk to her, she screams at them to go away and leave her alone. Meanwhile, Kara plays innocent and agrees with her father when he says that he knew Nick was no good. With Stella off in her sulk, Kara finally gets her parents’ attention to herself, and she basks in it. They have lunch together, they play a game together, and she even gets to go on a trip to the store with her father all by herself. During the car ride over, she tells him about some issues she’s been struggling with and feels like he’s finally showing interest in her life for a change.

Now from Stella’s perspective, Kara is a treacherous rat for making out with her boyfriend, telling horrible lies about her, breaking her heart, and ruining her birthday. But is Kara going to be sorry for what she did?

The Betrayer’s Perspective

There are countless ways to betray another human, yet the traitor and the victim don’t always agree about what happened. As far as Kara is concerned, Stella betrayed her first and countless times by basking in their parents’ favoritism and constantly gloating over her special position. Kara views her own shenanigans with Stella’s boyfriend as one teensy moment of payback which was long overdue and doesn’t even begin to balance out the scales of justice.

Moral guilt over betraying someone is a soul response. Your subconscious doesn’t care about morality. In times of crisis, when you see humans trampling on each other to get their hands on limited supplies of food and medicine, that’s a case of stressed out minds temporarily overriding body and soul to get their own agendas done. In such moments, minds couldn’t care less about who they are stepping on or about who is going to go without because they’ve taken more than their “fair share” of rations. Whenever we start talking about what’s fair, we’re talking about morality, and that’s a soul thing.

Now after the panic subsides and all of those trampling humans have time to think about the way they acted when their subconsciouses seized control, some of them will feel ashamed of the way they behaved, but others won’t. It all depends on how their souls assess the morality of the situation.

In Kara’s case, she does not feel bad about what she did to her sister. Instead, she feels morally justified to do that and a whole lot more. Until Kara’s soul changes its prior assessment of her parents’ and sister’s behavior, she will not feel guilty about how she responded to their treatment of her.

Now when souls do make drastic changes to their initial assessments of a situation, intense guilt can result. For example, when Wendy goes to give her presentation at school only to find that her report is missing from her bag, she is certain that her brother has intentionally sabotaged her big day. She’s furious, and when she gets home, she immediately smashes the science project that he spent days working on. She then goes into her room and is horrified to discover her report sitting on her desk where she left it the night before. Suddenly her soul realizes that it has made a major error in how it assessed her brother’s actions. He didn’t really sabotage her after all, yet now she has done a terrible thing to him. Wendy’s soul now feels immense guilt over what she did and very stressed that she can’t quickly undo it.

As we can see with Wendy’s situation, sometimes our souls are entirely wrong in the conclusions they make. Wendy assumed that her brother stole her report when he really didn’t. When the focus is on actions, determining who did or didn’t do something can be rather straightforward. But when it’s motivations that we’re upset about, things get a lot murkier.

One of the main reasons Kara’s soul feels so justified in trashing her sister is that it is assuming her sister has malicious intentions towards Kara. All of this time, while Kara has watched Stella basking in their parents’ attention, Kara has assumed that Stella was inwardly thinking “Ha ha, Kara, sucks to be you.” But what if Stella wasn’t thinking like this at all? And what if Kara’s parents weren’t trying to snub her either? Unfortunately, it’s extremely common for humans to make wrong assumptions about each other’s motivations. Once we decide that someone is acting immoral towards us, our souls can easily justify us doing the same back to them. It’s also common for angry souls to reject claims of innocence once they view someone in a negative light.

The Impact of Trauma

When she was young, Rachel was molested by a male cousin. She never told anyone what happened to her, but the experience deeply traumatized her. Twenty years later, adult Rachel is on a date with a man when the man touches her in a way that she interprets as an attempt to molest. Her date was not trying to molest her, but Rachel does not believe his claims of innocence. Her traumatized state plays a big factor in her refusal to accept his version of events because when we are traumatized, we start viewing other people’s actions through a negative filter, and we start expecting bad things to happen to us. Rachel’s molestation experience caused her to develop a deep distrust of men in general, and to actively look for signs that a man is trying to be physically inappropriate with her.

When you start looking very hard for something that you believe is almost certain to occur, you become very likely to imagine that it is happening when it really isn’t. It’s rather like the way that women who already believe all men are chauvinistic pigs will automatically take offense at a man opening the door for them. What is intended as a kind act, is interpreted as a condescending act due to beliefs that exist within the traumatized women (see Help for Men: Understanding the Growing Hostility Towards Straight White Males).

Trauma greatly impacts when we feel justified in betraying others and how we respond to being betrayed. Being in a traumatized state (either psychological, spiritual, or both) increases our chances of seeing betrayal where none exists, and it reduces our willingness to really listen to the other person’s perspective.

No matter how many times Stella insists that she meant her sister no harm, Kara doesn’t believe her. No matter how many times Kara’s parents insist that they don’t favor one daughter over another, Kara doesn’t believe them. Until Kara’s soul becomes receptive to the idea that she might be misinterpreting her family member’s motivations towards her, she will continue to feel deeply wounded by their actions and justified in doing malicious things to them.

Conflicting Elements

Now sometimes the soul does not sign off on treacherous actions, but instead totally opposes them. Aaron is a married man who is feeling extremely frustrated by his wife’s refusal to have sex. She keeps saying that she just can’t get in the mood, and meanwhile Aaron’s need for sexual interaction is reaching desperate levels.

Now sex is a natural need for humans, and men are biologically wired to need more frequent release than women. But while sex seems like a body thing, it’s primarily a psychological activity, with the subconscious part of your mind dictating what kinds of sexual interactions you want and how often you want them. When the need for sexual release is being driven by physiological factors (meaning that the main push is coming from the body), it’s usually possible to relieve that physical tension through self-arousal when your partner isn’t available. But when the need for sex is coming from the mind, it can be impossible to meet your mind’s needs without a partner’s help. In Aaron’s case, he is dealing with a psychological need for sexual interaction which is only going to be satisfied by having sex with an actual woman. As his wife keeps stalling him, it is his subconscious that is becoming desperate to get one of its critical needs met. Your subconscious doesn’t care about morality. It is your soul that views infidelity as a terrible thing. Your subconscious is focused on keeping critical needs met so that you can continue to function as well as possible in the day to day.

Now Aaron is a moral man, and his soul thinks that cheating on a spouse is gutter low. But as Aaron’s subconscious becomes desperate for sexual interactions with another woman, his subconscious starts pushing for his soul to back down and let it get the relief it needs from someone other than Aaron’s wife. A fierce internal debate begins and continues to rage on until one evening Aaron’s secretary gives him a clear invitation and his subconscious leaps upon it. The next thing he knows, he’s having full on sex with the woman in his office at work. In the heat of the moment, Aaron is aware of his soul expressing its horror over what he’s doing somewhere in the background, but his subconscious is completely overriding him and it feels like his body is running on some kind of autopilot. After the deed is done and Aaron’s mind stops overriding his system, his soul immediately unleashes its rage over what he’s done. Aaron now feels morally terrible for betraying his wife. But in the midst of his self-loathing thoughts, part of him is thinking, “She deserved it though. She set me up by cutting me off for so long.” This is Aaron’s subconscious, defending its system takeover.

Now suppose Aaron tells his wife what he did in an attempt to ease his own overwhelming guilt. How will he explain his motivations? It depends on which of his elements does the talking. When traitors confess to their victims, they often give a very biased view of their actions. When guilt-ridden souls do most of the talking, the traitor often describes himself in an unfairly dark light, and this encourages the victim to respond with inappropriate levels of anger. Yes, it’s wrong for spouses to have sex with other people. But humans always have logical reasons for what they do, and before you can respond to any kind of betrayal appropriately, you need to try to understand what the traitor’s reasons were. Often the person who has done the wounding deed can’t connect with their own motivations without some prodding questions. Other times offenders feel unable to voice the full complexity of their reasons because they feel their victims either won’t listen or will just use the information against them.

In my line of work, I talk to people who have done all kinds of nasty things to other people. But in counseling sessions, I help people see the whole complex picture of why they do what they do instead of just passing judgment on themselves based on a few facts. Judgments change dramatically when you consider all of the facts. It’s amazing how much easier it is to connect with mercy and compassion when you gain more information about what actually happened and are willing to consider another person’s perspective, pain, and fears as valid as your own. This is a critical point to understand when you are trying to recover from your own act of betrayal.

If our friend Aaron refuses to acknowledge how desperate he was at the time he cheated, he is going to get stalled in self-loathing and be prone to accepting all kinds of abuse from his furious wife. In cases where your soul was screaming at you not to do whatever you did before you even did it, it is vital that you understand that regardless of its noble intentions, your soul has very limited control over your behaviors. If your subconscious feels there is some critical need going unmet for too long either in itself, your body, or your conscious, it will act to try and get that need met. Your subconscious also has the power to temporarily override your body and literally force you to do things that your soul doesn’t want to do. Understanding this doesn’t change the immorality of your actions, but it does change how you should respond to yourself afterwards. We can all see the cruel futility of whipping a thirsty horse for walking towards a trough of water. In the same way, it is not right to brutally punish another human for his actions without taking into account his needs and problems at the time he acted.

Help for Victims

Whether you are the traitor or the victim of betrayal, healing is needed. In the example of Aaron, I explained how important it is for traitors to understand their own complex motivations for doing what they do so they don’t get stuck in self-loathing. But what about victims? When someone you trusted royally sticks it to you, how do you begin to recover from the aftermath of pain and fear?

EXERCISE #1: CONSIDERING BOTH SIDES OF THE STORY

There are some writing exercises that can be useful here. The first is to test your understanding of what happened by writing out two paragraphs: one explaining your view of what happened, and the other attempting to explain from your antagonist’s point of view. Bear in mind that humans are naturally self-focused, and your antagonist will have had self-serving reasons for doing what they did. Identifying those reasons can help take some of the sting out of what they did because these things are never as personal as they feel. Just as Kara’s vicious actions towards her sister were primarily done to ease her own pain at feeling unloved and inferior, your antagonist would have been trying to help themselves by doing whatever they did. Often the personal problems that traitors are trying to solve have nothing to do with their victims. Aaron’s wife had nothing to do with shaping Aaron’s view of sex. His need for certain kinds of sexual interactions was already in place long before he met her. Seeing your antagonist as a complex person with their own problems (instead of as someone whose entire focus is on sticking it to you) is always a helpful step in the healing process.

When you do a good job of capturing your antagonist’s motivations, you’ll be able to read through that paragraph and see the rationality of why they did what they did. If done well, your paragraph should sound like a convincing defense of your antagonist’s actions. If you are brutally honest, you should also be able to imagine how it would be possible for you to also act as they did if you were in their same place. By the time we reduce human behavior down to its basic elements of pain, fear, resources, and need, we find that we have a lot more in common with each other than we thought. While the style of behavior can differ, the basic motivations of wanting revenge, seeking justice, craving attention or easing of pain are things that we can all identify with.

The purpose of the first exercise is to humanize your attacker, and to erode the false assumption that they are very different than you are. Pretending that humans are radically different from each other is a game that souls play with themselves in order to justify merciless acts and attitudes. If I first talk myself into viewing another person as subhuman, I will find it easier to be cruel to him before my soul protests. When other people hurt us deeply, there is a strong temptation to dehumanize them and tell ourselves that they are innately inferior. We do this in order to give ourselves moral room to be cruel and seek revenge. Yet as tempting as revenge can seem, it never works out the way we want it to. While you can’t help reacting with true hatred in the early stages of being wounded, the wise move is to try to reduce the intensity of that hatred as soon as possible. Encouraging it to intensify by pretending that your enemy is less than human only ends up hurting you more in the long run.

EXERCISE #2: EXAMINING YOUR OWN REACTIONS

How you react to something today is going to be heavily influenced by things you’ve experienced in the past. Taking the time to acknowledge which past experiences likely influenced the way you responded to being betrayed is a very useful exercise because it helps you see that your reactions to this person who hurt you are being amplified by people who came before them. To get started with this list exercise, ask yourself, “Have I ever experienced this kind of betrayal before? Does this experience bring up any painful memories for me?”

After being viciously betrayed by her sister Kara, Stella becomes very guarded in her peer friendships. When her good friend Donna blabs highly sensitive information without Stella’s permission, Stella’s fury is amplified by her experiences with her sister. Stella still has a lot of unresolved pain because of the nasty games Kara has played (and continues to play) in Stella’s life. Because of her feelings about Kara, Stella isn’t willing to give Donna another chance, even though Donna has been a faithful friend for many years. By doing this second writing exercise, Stella gives herself the chance to face how much her reaction to Donna is being influenced by her ongoing frustration with Kara. Once she faces this, she has the chance to reconsider her decision to cut Donna out of her life. After all, Donna has been a good friend and she swears that the whole betrayal was an accident.

Until you acknowledge how much the past is affecting your present feelings, perspectives, beliefs, and behaviors, you are prone to making judgments that you will regret in the future. No human is perfect, and if we are too hasty to treat offenses as unforgivable, we can back ourselves into a corner of social isolation.

EXERCISE #3: ADJUSTING YOUR BOUNDARIES

In this third exercise, it’s time to look at how you have reacted to being betrayed, and see if you can improve your boundaries. Stella’s immediate reaction to Donna was to cut her out of her life and sever all contact. But after trying to see things from Donna’s perspective and acknowledging how much her own baggage has influenced her reaction, Stella decides that the boundaries she’s drawn are too harsh. She then scales them back by unblocking Donna’s number and sending her an apologetic text. The two women have a heart to heart conversation in which they talk once again about what happened, and then they decide that they are ready to move on as friends and try to put the incident behind them.

In Stella’s case, she decided her boundaries were too harsh. You might come to the same conclusion about the boundaries you’ve drawn, or you might decide that your boundaries aren’t strong enough.

After giving his childhood friend many chances to “start fresh” with him, Juan finally decides he’s had enough of Marco’s shenanigans. Marco has violated Juan’s trust on many occasions, and even though Juan has tried to adjust his boundaries to share less sensitive information with Marco, Marco still finds ways to stick it to Juan. Marco’s latest attempts to flirt with Juan’s wife are the last straw and Juan tells his wife that he wants them to cut Marco out of their lives. After listening to his reasons and his history with Marco, Juan’s wife agrees to support him in banning Marco from having any contact with them.

Once we move past casual acquaintances into the arena of friends and lovers, trust becomes a critical part of the relationship. Trust that is lost can often be recovered in time, but in some cases trust becomes broken beyond repair, at which point the relationship needs to end. When we feel betrayed by someone, we feel unsafe in our relationships with them. As a general rule, you should severely limit how much access unsafe relationship partners have to you. That means not sharing any sensitive information with them, greatly limiting how much public information you share with them, and reducing your contact with them as much as possible. (For in-depth help on managing your relationships, see my book What’s Wrong With My Relationships?)

Conclusion

Conflicts give us valuable opportunities to mature, and the more hurt we are, the more potential there is for personal growth. Whether we are the ones doing the hurting or the ones being hurt, there are valuable lessons to be learned, and many of those lessons can be unearthed by simply taking the time to stop and reflect on what happened. Talking to someone who is a neutral party can also be a helpful way to gain insights that we might be missing. Remember that the sooner you get started with processing your pain in positive ways, the quicker you’ll be released from it. As devastating as betrayal feels at the time, it’s one of those experiences that can actually help us become better at relating to other people, and less prone to setting unrealistic expectations for our relationship partners.

There’s no getting away from the fact that humans are complex little creatures who can be very difficult to deal with at times, so are they really worth the bother? Absolutely yes. There are no other creatures in this world that can even come close to satisfying you the way that your fellow humans can. Don’t write off the whole group just because a few individuals bitterly disappoint you. For every human who lets you down, there are many others who could inspire, help and bless you in ways that you can’t even imagine.

This post was written in response to a request.

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