Betrayal refers to situations in which individuals (victims) believe that a relationship partner (a perpetrator) has harmed them by knowingly violating a norm governing their relationship. In this context, norms refer to expectations about how the relationship partners should treat one another. Typical betrayals might involve witnessing a romantic partner flirt with somebody else at a party or learning that a good friend has lied to you about something important. Although betrayals are especially likely to be experienced in close relationships, they can also be experienced in more casual relationships. For example, individuals may feel betrayed when a casual acquaintance spreads nasty gossip about them.
Norms vary in the degree to which they are generally accepted in a given culture versus distinctive to a particular relationship. In 21st-century American culture, for example, most individuals agree that having an extramarital affair and lying to one’s partner about it constitutes a betrayal. In contrast, other norms apply only within certain specific relationships (e.g., “We must check in with one another at least once every three hours”). Victims experience betrayal when they perceive a norm violation by the perpetrator, regardless of whether the norm is commonly accepted in the culture or distinctive to that particular relationship.
The Experience of Betrayal
Severe betrayals are among the most painful experiences individuals endure during their lifetimes, frequently resulting in negative emotions such as anger and/or sadness and in motivations to enact revenge and/or to avoid the partner. In extreme cases, betrayals can color all aspects of victims’ lives for an extended period of time, leaving them in a state of pain, confusion, and uncertainty. Even in more mild cases, betrayals are upsetting, frequently causing victims to experience impulses toward grudge and retaliation.
As a consequence of its negative effects on victims, betrayals create an interpersonal debt wherein the perpetrator owes some sort of compensation to repair the damage. Imagine that Linda and James are involved in a happy romantic relationship until James lies to Linda about something important. This betrayal temporarily alters the dynamics in their relationship: Linda becomes hurt and angry; James may well experience guilt and remorse. Both partners experience a sense that James has the primary responsibility to get the relationship back on track. In a sense, James owes Linda something, perhaps acknowledging the responsibility to “make it up” to her with gifts or other considerate gestures.
The situation is complicated, however, by perpetrators’ and victims’ tendencies to experience betrayal incidents from strikingly different perspectives. In a process termed the empathy gap, both the victim and the perpetrator engage in self-serving distortions of perspective that allow them to view themselves in the most positive light. Relative to perpetrators, victims regard perpetrator behavior as more arbitrary, incomprehensible, and gratuitous; experience greater distress; describe the transgression as more severe; attribute responsibility more to the perpetrator than to the self; and report that the transgression exerted more damaging and enduring effects on the relationship. Perpetrators experience greater guilt than victims do but also tend to regard victims’ reactions as somewhat excessive and out of line with the magnitude of the transgression.
Responding to Betrayal
Victims of betrayal are faced with a difficult decision: to act on the basis of retaliatory impulses or to overcome them in favor of more forgiving responses. Although forgiveness generally predicts enhanced relationship and personal well-being, it is typically incompatible with victims’ gut-level impulses. In addition, forgiveness cancels the interpersonal debts created by the betrayal, which is likely to benefit the relationship but also to strip the victim of a privileged status.
Research has identified many factors that promote victims’ willingness to forgive betrayals. For example, certain personality characteristics of the victim (e.g., empathy, self-control, lack of entitlement) predict tendencies toward forgiveness. Second, certain properties of the betrayal event itself (e.g., low severity, minimal implication that the perpetrator disrespects the victim, the victim’s belief that the betrayal was unintentional or uncontrollable) seem to make forgiveness easier. Third, certain characteristics of the perpetrator-victim relationship (e.g., trust in and commitment toward the perpetrator) predict the willingness to forgive betrayals. Finally, forgiveness is more likely if the perpetrator accepts responsibility for the betrayal by sincerely apologizing and making genuine efforts to atone.
A Benefit of Betrayal
Although relationships are generally better off to the degree that they have a smaller rather than a greater number of betrayal incidents, there is one substantial relationship benefit that can emerge from the experience of betrayal: Betrayals, and both partners’ behaviors in response to them, provide excellent opportunities to evaluate the partner’s motivations toward the self.
Because betrayals tend to pit the victim’s and the perpetrator’s motives against one another, they frequently provide circumstances in which individuals can evaluate the partner’s willingness to work toward the betterment of the relationship. For example, if a perpetrator of a betrayal is clearly distraught by the pain caused to the victim and atones sincerely, the victim might actually become more confident in the relationship than before the betrayal was perpetrated. Similarly, if the victim forgives the betrayal despite having every right to hold a grudge, the perpetrator learns valuable information about the victim’s devotion to the relationship. In short, although betrayals are frequently harmful to relationships, they can sometimes provide the opportunity to strengthen them.
- Rusbult, C. E., Kumashiro, M., Finkel, E. J., & Wildschut, T. (2002). The war of the roses: An interdependence analysis of betrayal and forgiveness. In P. Noller & J. A. Feeney (Eds.), Understanding marriage: Developments in the study of couple interaction (pp. 251-281). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Worthington, E. L. (2005). Handbook of forgiveness. New York: Routledge.