As a counselor, stories of betrayal are relayed to me regularly from the minor to the heinous: gossip, political scandals, longstanding infidelity, drinking secretly, gambling away copious amounts of money, etc… Regardless the form, there are commonalities:
- they’re clandestine, often long-term
- lies and/or denial
- the deceived abruptly discovers a split life, half of which they’ve never experienced and must now integrate
The deceived has unknowingly written a fraudulent story. The deceiver holds the complete history; no incorporation necessary. Even if the betrayer has remorse, their narrative—delusional though it may be—is sound, so they usually have an easier time moving on. They made decisions all along in keeping with their skewed sense of self and those invisible choices were within their control. As Anna Fels writes, “…after the discovery of a longstanding lie, the victims are counseled to move on…stay focused on the future. But it’s not so easy…when there’s no solid narrative ground to stand on.”
The survivors of this deceit feel an unrealistic humiliation for being duped even though they often did sense discordant things but were systematically gaslighted [see: now we’re cooking with gas(lighting) ] into believing they’d “gotten it wrong.” They’re commonly embarrassed because others knew the truth and the sufferer now feels in “exile.” Picture Elizabeth Edwards. Everything is second-guessed. What really happened?
This is why my clients who’ve experienced deception want to know the gruesome details. It’s not that they want to wallow (as others sometimes cruelly say) as much as they’re trying to reconstruct counterfeit memories, struggling to integrate this previously unknown reality.
But the miscreant? S/he’s redeemed and ready to start a new life, make better choices leaping from villain to reformed sinner. And everybody loves the reformed; movies revere them; Judeo-Christian morés press forgiveness. It gives us the righteous chance to feel good about ourselves (maybe justify our mistakes). They change! They’ve repented! Loser to winner in a single bound! To paraphrase Anna Fels, our culture has a soft spot for tales of people starting over.
But for the others who’ve systematically been lied to, the picture is much grimmer. Nobody likes a victim—even the victim. People want to align with the winner.
Addiction is all about disconnection: from Self, from family, from community. And it is fabulous when someone creeps out of the alley of self-delusion into the light of reality. They probably should be forgiven—at some point—but that point comes after accountability, amends, sincere understanding of damage done, empathy, mercy. In other words, connection. Bestowing facile forgiveness, so that we can feel saintly isn’t any more real than the brutal twaddle the deceiver pulled.
We need authenticity before forgiveness and we need to have compassion, not contempt, for the marginalized casualty who unfortunately reminds us of our inability to have control over our lives instead of affiliating with the asshat perpetrators. Maybe we worry that we could be that “loser” at some time in our lives and we despise the “victim” for that inadvertent disclosure. Betrayal shouldn’t warrant an oversimplified amnesty “connection” without ethical culpability.