Betrayal is the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship amongst individuals, between organizations or between individuals and organizations. Often betrayal is the act of supporting a rival group, or it is a complete break from previously decided upon or presumed norms by one party from the others. Someone who betrays others is commonly called a traitor or betrayer. Betrayal is also a commonly used literary element and is often associated with or used as a plot twist.
Rodger L. Jackson, author of the article, The Sense and Sensibility of Betrayal: Discovering the Meaning of Treachery Through Jane Austen, writes that "there has been surprisingly little written about what we even mean by the term". In psychology, practitioners describe betrayal as the breaking of a social contract; however, critics of this approach claim that the term social contract does not accurately reflect the conditions and motivations for, and effects of, betrayal. Philosophers Judith Shklar and Peter Johnson, authors of The Ambiguities of Betrayal and Frames of Deceit respectively, contend that while no clear definition of betrayal is available, betrayal is more effectively understood through literature.
AI researcher Selmer Bringsjord made betrayal the core of a storytelling program BRUTUS. In Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity: Inside the Mind of BRUTUS, a Storytelling Machine, betrayal is defined operationally in computer language as basically as knowingly thwarting another out of something that ought to occur.
Theoretical and practical needs
Jackson explains why a clear definition is needed:
- Betrayal is both a "people" problem and a philosopher's problem. Philosophers should be able to clarify the concept of betrayal, compare and contrast it with other moral concepts, and critically assess betrayal situations. At the practical level people should be able to make honest sense of betrayal and also to temper its consequences: to handle it, not be assaulted by it. What we need is a conceptually clear account of betrayal that differentiates between genuine and merely perceived betrayal, and which also provides systematic guidance for the assessment of alleged betrayal in real life.
Ben-Yehuda's 2001 work ("Betrayals and Treason Violations of Trust and Loyalty" Westview Press) framed all forms of betrayals and treason under a unifying analytical framework using loyalty, trust and moral boundaries as explanatory tools.
Signature and consequences
An act of betrayal creates a constellation of negative behaviours, thoughts, and feelings in both its victims and its perpetrators. The interactions are complex. The victims exhibit anger and confusion, and demand atonement from the perpetrator; who in turn may experience guilt or shame, and exhibit remorse. If, after the perpetrator has exhibited remorse or apologized, the victim continues to express anger, this may in turn cause the perpetrator to become defensive, and angry in turn. Acceptance of betrayal can be exhibited if victims forego the demands of atonement and retribution; but is only demonstrated if the victims do not continue to demand apologies, repeatedly remind the perpetrator or perpetrators of the original act, or ceaselessly review the incident over and over again.
Most adults living in western democracies place trust in the state of which they are a citizen. When this trust is betrayed, at its worst, the individual can suffer psychological betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma has symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, although the element of amnesia and dissociation is likely to be greater.
The key difference between traditional post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and betrayal trauma is that the former is historically seen as being caused primarily by fear, whereas betrayal trauma is a response to extreme anger. Fear and anger are the two sides to the fight-or-flight response, and as such are our strongest and most basic psychological emotions.
Pure political betrayal trauma can be caused by situations such as wrongful arrest and conviction by the legal system of a western democracy; or by discrimination, bullying or other serious mistreatment by a state institution or powerful figure within the state.
In practice, however, it is likely that most people with symptoms of psychological trauma have elements of both fear-based PTSD and anger-based betrayal trauma, not one or the other. Certainly, in the most serious cases of PTSD, there is an element of both. For instance, the fact that a soldier is sent to war by the state is an important element in the reasons for war being a major cause of PTSD. In cases where soldiers are horrified by the actions or orders of their commanding officers, or where they are victims of friendly fire, their PTSD is likely to be worse because the element of betrayal will be that much greater. Similarly, one of the most psychologically traumatizing events in history, the Holocaust, is almost certainly so serious a case because the element of state betrayal is as great as the element of fear trauma.
In romantic relationships
John Gottman's What Makes Love Last? describes betrayal as "a noxious invader, arriving with great stealth" that undermines seemingly stable romances and lies at the heart of every failing relationship, even if the couple is unaware of it. Gottman computed a betrayal metric by calculating how unwilling each partner was to sacrifice for the other and the relationship. A consistently elevated betrayal metric served as an indicator that the couple was at risk for infidelity or another serious disloyalty. Some types of betrayal in romantic relationships include sexual infidelity, conditional commitment, a nonsexual affair, lying, forming a coalition against the partner, absenteeism or coldness, withdrawal of sexual interest, disrespect, unfairness, selfishness, and breaking promises.
Double cross is a phrase meaning to deceive by double-dealing.
It has also been suggested that the term was inspired by the practice of 18th-century British thief taker and criminal Jonathan Wild, who kept a ledger of his transactions and is said to have placed two crosses by the names of persons who had cheated him in some way. This folk etymology is almost certainly incorrect, but there is documentary evidence that the term did exist in the 19th century.
More recently, the phrase was used to refer to either of two possible situations:
- A competitor participating in the fix who has agreed to throw their game instead competes as usual, against the original intention of their collaborators – one "cross" against another.
- Two opposing parties are approached, urging them to throw the game and back the other. Both parties lose out, and the perpetrators benefit by backing a third, winning party.
This use has passed into common parlance, so that, for example, in World War II, British Military Intelligence used the Double Cross System to release captured Nazis back to Germany bearing false information.
(To "cross swords" was a term for a duel where two drawn swords made an X. So to cross someone was to take a sparring position against them.)