Revisiting Betrayal



In my role as psychotherapist, I often have the uncanny awareness that a particular issue or theme is being brought to me not only by one, but a multitude of clients in a condensed window of time.   

Recently, the theme of betrayal continues to show up in my office in a number of my clients' work.  While it's curious to note the sudden uptick of this theme in my practice, I am aware that we are also reckoning with betrayal in the cultural milieu of #metoo (the exposure of so many men's betrayals of women), mass shootings (a lack of responsiveness by our legislative parental bodies), and the constant onslaught of emotional battery from the Bully-in-Chief (a betrayal of our civic values and the office of President itself). 

A colleague recently shared an article by written by James Hillman on betrayal, which has helped me begin to create an internal frame for processing the ongoing betrayals large and small that are emblematic of our space and time in the United States.

The following are two excerpts from a longer paper in Hillman's collection Loose Ends (1975); I chose these two excerpts as the most concrete parts of the article, which otherwise contains a good deal of philosophical background.  I believe these excerpts--so potent for their experiential nearness--bring to bear crucial wisdom for our present time.  I hope they speak to you as they did to me.  


[This first excerpt focuses on what he calls “the dangers which appear after betrayal,” which are both natural self-protective reactions, and at the same time, can block one’s process of moving toward resolution of the betrayal if one gets stuck here.  Please note that italicized remarks between brackets are my own additions to provide the reader with necessary context].

The critical moment of the “great let down”, when one is crucified by one’s own trust, is a most dangerous moment of what Frances Wickes would call “choice.”  Matters may go either way for the boy who picks himself up from the floor [after being assured his father would catch him]; his resurrection hangs in the balance. He may be unable to forgive and so remain fixated in the trauma, revengeful, resentful, blind to any understanding and cut off from love. Or he may turn in the direction which I hope to sketch in the rest of my remarks.

But before we turn to the possible fruitful outcome of betrayal, let us stay awhile with the sterile choices, with the dangers which appear after betrayal.

The first of these dangers is revenge. An eye for an eye; evil for evil; pain for pain. Revenge is natural for some, coming immediately without question. If performed directly as an act of emotional truth, it may be cleansing. It may settle the score without, of course, producing any new results. Revenge does not lead to anything further, but counter-revenge and feuding. It is not psychologically productive because it merely abreacts tension. When revenge is delayed and turns into plotting, lying low and waiting your chances, it begins to smell of evil, breeding fantasies of cruelty and vindictiveness. Revenge delayed, revenge refined into indirect methods can become obsessional, narrowing the focus from the event of betrayal and its meaning to the person of the betrayer and his shadow. Therefore, Saint Thomas Aquinas justifies revenge only when it is against the larger evil and not against the perpetrator of that evil. The worst of revenge, psychologically, is its mean and petty focus, it’s shrinking effect on consciousness.

The next of these dangers, these wrong though natural turns, is the defense mechanism of denial. If one has been let down in a relationship, one is tempted to deny the value of the other person; to see, sudden and at once, the other’s shadow, a vast panoply of vicious demons which were of course simply not there in primal trust [Note: Hillman’s term for the original trust or innocence we have prior to our first betrayal]. These ugly sides of the other suddenly revealed are all compensations for…previous idealizations. The grossness of the sudden revelations indicates the previous gross unconsciousness of the anima [Jung’s term for the feminine archetype]. For we must assume that wherever there is bitter complaint over betrayal, there was a background of primal trust, of childhood’s unconscious innocence where ambivalence was repressed.

More dangerous is cynicism. Disappointment in love, with a political cause, an organization, a friend, superior, or analyst often leads to a change of attitude in the betrayed one which not only denies the value of the particular person and the relationship, but all becomes a Cheat, causes are for Saps, organizations Traps, hierarchies Evil, and analysis nothing but Prostitution, Brainwashing, and Fraud. Keep sharp; watch out. Get the other before he gets you. Go it alone. I’m alright, Jack–the veneer to hide the scars of broken trust. From broken idealism is patched together a tough philosophy of cynicism.

It is well possible that we encounter this cynicism–especially in younger people–because enough attention has not been paid to the meaning of betrayal…the betrayed one vows never to go so high again on the stairs. He remains grounded in the world of a dog, Kynis, cynical. This cynical view, because it prevents working through to a positive meaning of betrayal, forms a vicious circle, and the dog chases his own tail. Cynicism, that sneer against one’s own star, is a betrayal of one’s own ideals, a betrayal of one’s own highest ambitions as carried by the puer archetype. When he crashes, everything to do with him is rejected. This leads to the fourth, and I believe main, danger: self betrayal.

Self-betrayal is perhaps what we are really most worried about. And one of the ways it may come about is as a consequence of having been betrayed. In the situation of trust, in the embrace of love, or to a friend, or with a parent, partner, analyst, one lets something open. Something comes out that had been held in: “I never told this before in my whole life”. A confession, a poem, a love-letter, a fantastic invention or scheme, a secret, a childhood dream or fear–which holds one’s deepest values. At the moment of betrayal, these delicate and very sensitive seed-pearls become merely grit, grains of dust. The love letter becomes silly sentimental stuff, and the poem, the fear, the dream, the ambition, all reduced to something ridiculous, laughed at boorishly, explained in barnyard language as merde, just so much crap. The alchemical process is reversed: the gold turned back into feces, one’s pearls cast before swine. For the swine are not others from whom one must keep back one’s secret values, but the boorish materialistic explanations, the reductions to dumb simplicities of sex drive and milk hunger, which gobble everything up indiscriminately; one’s own pig headed insistence that the best was really the worst, the dirt into which one casts away one’s precious values.

It is a strange experience to find oneself betraying oneself, turning against one’s own experiences by giving them the negative values of the shadow and by acting against one’s own intentions and value system. In the breakup of a friendship, a partnership, marriage, love affair, or analysis, suddenly the nastiest and dirtiest appears and one finds oneself acting in the same blind and sordid way that one attributes to the other, and justifying one’s own actions with an alien value system. One is truly betrayed, handed over to an enemy within. And the swine turn and rend you.

The alienation from one’s self after betrayal is largely protective. One doesn’t want to be hurt again, and since this hurt came about through revealing just what one is, one begins not to live from that place again. So one avoids, betrays oneself, by not living one’s stage of life (a middle-aged divorcee with no one to love) or one’s sex (I’m through with men and will be just as ruthless as they) or one’s type (my feeling, or intuition, or whatever, was all wrong) or one’s vocation (psychotherapy is really a dirty business). For it was just through this trust in these fundamentals of one’s own nature that one was betrayed. So we refuse to be what we are, begin to cheat ourselves with excuses and escapes, and self betrayal becomes nothing other than Jung’s definition of neurosis uneigentlich leiden, inauthentic suffering. One no longer lives one’s own form of suffering, but through mauvaise foi; through lack of courage to be, one betrays oneself.

Besides revenge, denial, cynicism, and self betrayal, there is yet one other negative turn, one other danger, which let us call paranoid. Again it is a way of protecting oneself against ever being betrayed again, by building the perfect relationship. Such relationships demand a loyalty oath; they tolerate no security risks. “You must never let me down” is the motto. Treachery must be kept out by affirmations of trust, declarations of everlasting fidelity, proofs of devotion, sworn secrecy. There must be no flaw; betrayal must be excluded

But if betrayal is given with trust, as the opposite seed buried within it, then this paranoid demand for a relationship without the possibility of betrayal cannot really be based on trust. Rather it is a convention devised to exclude risk. As such it belongs less to love than to power. It is a retreat to a logos relationship, enforced by word, not held by love.

One cannot re-establish primal trust once one has left Eden. One now knows that promises hold only to a certain point. Life takes care of vows, fulfilling them or breaking them. And new relationships after the experience of betrayal must start from an altogether different place. The paranoid distortion of human affairs is serious indeed. When an analyst (or husband, lover, disciple, or friend) attempts to meet the requirements of a paranoid relationship, by giving assurances of loyalty, by ruling out treachery, he is moving surely away from love. For as we have seen and shall come to again, love and treachery come from the same left side.


[This second excerpt is Hillman’s understanding of what is necessary for resolution and integration of betrayal: forgiveness.  Particularly in this part, it may be helpful to understand his references to religious themes as drawing from mythological themes in various religions, as opposed to prescriptive statements from a particular religion.]

The wider context of love and necessity is given by the archetypes of myth. When the event is placed in this perspective, the pattern may become meaningful again. The very act of attempting to view it from this wider context is therapeutic. Unfortunately, the event may not disclose its meaning for a long, long time, during which it lies sealed in absurdity or festers in resentment. But the struggle for putting it within the wider context, the struggle with interpretation and integration, is the way of moving further. It seems to me that only this can lead through the steps of anima differentiation sketched so far, and even to one further step, towards one of the highest of religious feelings: forgiveness.

We must be quite clear that forgiveness is no easy matter. If the ego has been wronged, the ego cannot forgive just because it “should,” notwithstanding all the wider context of love and destiny. The ego is kept vital by its amour-propre, its pride and honor. Even where one wants to forgive, one finds one simply can’t, because forgiveness doesn’t come from the ego. I cannot directly forgive, I can only ask, or pray, that these sins be forgiven. Wanting forgiveness to come and waiting for it may be all that one can do.

Forgiveness, like humility, is only a term unless one has been fully humiliated or fully wronged. Forgiveness is meaningful only when one can neither forget nor forgive. And our dreams do not let us forget. Anyone can forget a petty matter of insult, a personal affront. But if one has been led step by step into an involvement where the substance was trust itself, bared one’s soul, and then been deeply betrayed in the sense of handed over to one’s enemies, outer or inner (those shadow values described above where chances for a new living trust have been permanently injured by paranoid defenses, self-betrayal, and cynicism), then forgiveness takes on great meaning. It may well be that betrayal has no other positive outcome but forgiveness, and that the experience of forgiveness is possible only if one has been betrayed. Such forgiveness is a forgiving which is not a forgetting, but the remembrance of wrong transformed within a wider context, or as Jung has put it, the salt of bitterness transformed to the salt of wisdom.

Just as trust had within it the seed of betrayal, so betrayal has within it the seed of forgiveness. This would be the answer to the last of our original questions: “What place has betrayal in psychological life at all”?  Neither trust nor forgiveness could be fully realized without betrayal. Betrayal is the dark side of both, giving them both meaning, making them both possible. Perhaps this tells us something about why betrayal is such a strong theme in our religions. It is perhaps the human gate to such higher religious experiences as forgiveness and reconciliation with this silent labyrinth, the creation.

But forgiveness is so difficult that it probably needs some help from the other person. I mean by this that the wrong, if not remembered by both parties – and remembered as a wrong – falls all on the betrayed. The wider context within which the tragedy occurred would seem to call for parallel feelings from both parties. They are still both in a relationship, now as betrayer and betrayed. If only the betrayed senses a wrong, while the other passes it over with rationalizations, then the betrayal is still going on – even increased. This dodging of what has really happened is, of all the sores, the most galling to the betrayed. Forgiveness comes harder; resentments grow because the betrayer is not carrying his guilt and the act is not honestly conscious. Jung has said that the meaning of our sins is that we carry them, which means not that we unload them onto others to carry for us. To carry one’s sins, one has first to recognize them, and recognize their brutality.

Psychologically, carrying a sin means simply recognizing it, remembering it. All the emotions connected with the betrayal experience in both parties – remorse and repentance in the betrayer, resentment and revenge in the betrayed – press towards the same psychological point: remembering. Resentment especially is an emotional affliction of memory which forgetting can never fully repress. So is it not better to remember a wrong than to surge between forgetting and resenting? These emotions would seem to have as their aim keeping an experience from dissolving into the unconscious. They are the salt preserving the event from decomposing. Bitterly, they force us to keep faith with sin. In other words, a paradox of betrayal is the fidelity which both betrayed and betrayer keep, after the event, to its bitterness.

And this fidelity is kept as well by the betrayer. For if I am unable to admit that I have betrayed someone, or I try to forget it, I remain stuck in unconscious brutality. Then the wider context of love and the wider context of fatefulness of my action and of the whole event is missed. Not only do I go on wronging the other, but I wrong myself, for I have cut myself off from self-forgiveness. I can become no wiser, nor have I anything with which to become reconciled.

For these reasons, I believe that forgiveness by the one probably requires atonement by the other. Atonement is in keeping with the silent behavior of the father as we have been describing him. He carries his guilt and his suffering. Though he realizes fully what he has done, he does not give account of it to the other, implying that he atones, that is, self-relates it. Atonement also implies a submission to betrayal as such, its transpersonal fateful reality. By bowing before the shame of my inability to keep my word, I am forced to admit humbly both my own personal weakness and the reality of impersonal powers.

However, let us take care that such atonement is not for one’s own peace of mind, not even for the situation.  Must it not somehow recognize the other person? I believe that this point cannot be overstated, for we live in a human world even if victims of cosmic themes like tragedy, betrayal, and fate. Betrayal may belong within a wider context and be a cosmic theme, but it is always within individual relationships, through another close person, in immediate intimacy, that these things reach us. If others are instruments of the gods in bringing us tragedy, so too are the way we atone to the gods. Conditions are transformed within the same sort of close personal situation in which they occurred. Is it enough to atone just to the gods alone? Is one then done with it? Does not tradition couple wisdom with humility? Atonement, as repentance, may not have to be expressis verbis, but it probably is more effective if it comes out in some form of contact with the other, in full recognition of the other. And, after all, isn’t just this full recognition of the other, love?

Excerpts from Hillman, James.  (1975).  Loose Ends: Primary papers in Archetypal Psychology.  Washington, D.C.: Spring Publications.