Sarah and her husband were anchored in a remote harbour – more than a year into their round-the-world sailing voyage, and decades into their relationship – when she read a message on his tablet that made her collapse to the floor of their boat. It was from a man on a gay pornography website. Others like it revealed six years of betrayal by her husband, including a long-term relationship with a married man.
Sarah was one of many Guardian readers who responded to our invitation to share experiences of betrayal. Although every respondent’s circumstances were unique, and they were of different nationalities, backgrounds, ages and sexualities, there was one thing that linked all their experiences: mind-shattering suffering. I could understand why in his Inferno Dante reserved his ninth and deepest circle of hell for those who committed treachery. Avishai Margalit, the philosopher and author of On Betrayal, tells me that whether we are reading Dante or the Bible, Shakespearean tragedy, Greek mythology or Guardian readers’ stories, we can empathise with the pain of someone betrayed. It endures across time and space, culture and history.
James, 75, remembers clearly how it felt to be betrayed 40 years ago. He and his partner had decided to leave Glasgow. He bought a house in both their names and left his job and friends to start a new life with her, on the understanding that she would soon join him. But she never did move in. After five years in a long-distance relationship, he discovered that she was having an affair. He confronted her and “she turned up with a removal van, took her belongings and disappeared”, he says.
The consequences of this were severe for James. His self-esteem plummeted as he struggled to focus, his thoughts constantly returning to his former partner and the questions left unanswered. He experienced insomnia and depression, and withdrew into himself. On several occasions, he considered suicide.
What helped, he says, was routine: going to work, doing the washing, the cleaning, the ironing, and, “in better weather, being out in the garden with your hands in the soil”. He confided in a handful of trusted friends, “without overburdening them”. He learned to drive. “Strangely enough, something simple like that gave me a lot more flexibility, and boosted my confidence. It was a practical, constructive thing that really helped,” he says. After 18 months, he signed up for a walking holiday in Europe. “When you join a group of strangers in a different country, it gives you a kind of freedom. You are unknown, so you can, to a degree, reinvent yourself if you want to.”
Four years after the betrayal that left him so broken, James met a woman who became a friend, then partner. Trust came incrementally; at first he was guarded, assuming she would “move on”, he says. But she didn’t. “She has a remarkably open personality, very kind and considerate. Through the practicalities of seeing her in operation, through giving her time, I came to understand what kind of person she is. You learn to trust someone because of your direct experiences with them.” Sixteen years in, he proposed. They’ve now been together for 35 years.
What James says about trust developing through experience is true not just for adults with partners, but also for infants and parents, says Catriona Wrottesley, a couples psychoanalytic psychotherapist at Tavistock Relationships London. “In order to trust, you have to have an experience that gives you the knowledge that it’s safe to trust,” she says. It is built by the repeated everyday experience of being fed, held and comforted, and, crucially, of not being abused. This epistemic trust – trust gained through knowledge and the validation of experience – “sounds ordinary, but it’s very special. It’s built up in a safe attachment relationship,” she says. To have your trust broken and exploited, whether in infancy, adulthood or both, she says, “is shattering. It doesn’t matter at what age that happens, that switch from being safe to being unsafe, the loss of a predictable, ongoing and continuous sense of the other, is quite traumatic. And that happens in couple relationships where there’s been a betrayal.”
It was shattering for Saskia, who is in her 40s. “I have no idea how I would begin to trust again,” she says. “I wonder if I would worry about what lies hidden in his phone; whether I would believe declarations of love. Sometimes, I think: you’re safer on your own.”
Three years ago, she looked at her partner’s laptop: “I found loads and loads of messages. So many messages to so many women, in different countries. They were so explicit. Videos, images – his images and their images. Very sexual messages. And I read them all.” There was evidence of physical encounters, too. She ended the relationship and moved out, but he continued contacting her, and her resolve buckled under the weight of the feelings she still had. “When someone does that to you, the love doesn’t stop,” she says. “There’s a whole load of anger – but the other feelings don’t stop.”
Months passed, and, after discussing what went wrong and the importance of transparency, she agreed to try again. At first, “it was lovely”. But not for long. “I was highly suspicious. I couldn’t trust him. Every time there was a little buzz of a message, I jumped, I looked. And he felt spied on – and I understand why, I was kind of spying on him. It was horrible.” One day, he asked her to fix his tablet, and she saw another message; he denied it existed. She threw all her possessions in a van, drove to her sister’s and blocked him from contacting her.
Saskia cries freely during our interview, and in her determination to persevere, I can hear they are tears of pain, but also of relief that she is being heard; that this entanglement with him is in the past and that, although it still hurts, she can bear it. Nevertheless, she says, “I’m clearly not in any position to even consider a relationship yet. I’m focusing on me.”
Her revenge fantasies, like slashing his tyres, have become less compelling as she is occupied with a creative project. Her voice lifts as she talks about the charity she is starting, which she has been dreaming about for a decade. As she tells of the skills she is learning that she never thought within her capacity, Wrottesley’s words come to mind: “Seeing the betrayer as a complete bastard may be satisfying and necessary for a while, but, longer term, it leaves you rather stuck, and you end up carrying the wound inside you rather than being able to recover. There’s something important about trusting your own capacity to change, to trust that something may be transformed – that something new, that you don’t yet know about, might emerge.”
Olivia was a fresher at university when she met the “really charming, really extroverted” man who would betray her. They had been together a few months when, while using his tablet, his browser opened on a dating website, with his username and password in the login. She confronted him. He claimed it was from when he was single; she pointed out it was a new tablet; he blamed the password keychain, and said it was all in her mind. She now knows what was happening: “He gaslit me,” she says. “I was a teenager, and I didn’t have a word for it. But that’s what it was.” This act of psychological manipulation, lying to make Olivia turn the focus of her mistrust on to her own mind and away from him, where it was warranted, was as effective as it was noxious. She says: “I didn’t have that trust in myself to say: ‘You know what? You’re full of shit, you’re lying.’ So I stayed with him.”
Olivia finished her degree, and they left the city centre for the suburbs. She says, “We had decent jobs, we saw our friends. Our relationship wasn’t the best, but it was fine.” She always felt suspicious that “something wasn’t right”. Eight years in, she trusted her own sense of mistrust and read his messages, which were suggestive of infidelity. “It was so nasty. He laughed in my face. He said: ‘You’re mental, you’re crazy,’ – all these awful, stigmatising, gaslighting words.” She went to stay with her aunt for a few days.
While there, she discovered he had been using the infidelity dating site Ashley Madison and was having an affair with a married woman. At that moment, Olivia experienced an unexpected sense of calm: “All of my fears and anxieties melted. It was a weird moment of peace. I had been gaslit for so long that I didn’t trust myself, but I had proof. After years and years, I finally had the truth.”
She moved in with her aunt, and started therapy. Over the next year, she noticed how much she had been avoiding her feelings – including doubts about her relationship. “One of the powerful things I’ve learned in therapy is how to sit with my emotions. I actually find them really interesting now,” she says. She stayed single for over a year. She is loth to give advice to others, but, for her, this was crucial: “It’s hard because a partner makes you happy. But after a betrayal, you don’t pick your partner correctly. You need to allow yourself to be unhappy for a while because you’ll learn a lot about yourself, and what you think you want in a partner might not be what you actually want.”
“The trust issues that I had were in myself,” says Olivia. “I knew, deep down, that the relationship wasn’t right, but I was scared to leave because I had never been single. I didn’t know how to be an adult or how to be a woman on my own.” That is what she has learned over the past year. Going to view the flat she now lives in, she says: “I just knew, I had this gut instinct.” This time, she followed it. She describes picking the bed for her new home, choosing a sofa, rebuilding her confidence with every choice she trusted herself to make. The sign that she can trust again does not lie in the fact that she has a new partner who she loves, who is her best friend, who she trusts “a hundred thousand million percent” – but in what she says next: “If he was ever unhappy enough to want to cheat, I feel I would recognise the signs and be tough enough to do something.”
Margalit says the defining feature of betrayal is not the suffering inflicted on its victims, nor the damage it does to their sense of trust. “It is the injury to the relationship that makes it betrayal,” he says: the ungluing of the “thick relation” that binds partner to partner. It empties the relationship of all its meaning. And when it comes to repairing that? “That’s a really tricky one,” he says.
For Sarah, who discovered her husband’s betrayal on their boat halfway through circumnavigating the world – “really tricky” is an understatement. They had spent their life savings on this trip and she had just turned 65 when she discovered that the man she trusted with her life – a must on a two-person sailing trip – had broken his vows.
At that point, fearing she might push her husband off the boat, Sarah rowed the inflatable dinghy ashore and checked into a hotel. She called her closest friends every day and swam lengths in the hotel pool. She decided they would sail their boat, together, to a safe boatyard, then fly home to begin couples therapy – but not before going on a long-anticipated wildlife river trip. Against a backdrop of wild orangutans and magical birdlife, a new kind of communication opened up between them. “We spent a phenomenal amount of time talking, more than we had ever done – honest, out there in the open, talking,” she says.
After intensive couples counselling, they spent some time apart. For the first time in her adult life, she was alone. She says: “It gave me the time to look at all this without my husband beside me. I thought about being alone – and, yes, I definitely could do that. Or, I could be back with my sailing partner, doing what I love.” They decided to fly back to their boat and sail it home together.
At first, Sarah monitored all her husband’s devices, something he accepted. She describes “a wound that was festering. Then it would start to heal, then fester a bit more, then heal again. And now there’s just a scar. But there’s still a scar, you can see it.” The messy truth is that their relationship is irrevocably damaged. A decade on, they do not have sex – with anyone. That side of the marriage, of themselves, has been “cauterised”. She feels sad that her husband, who secretly always felt he was gay, did not “step forward with his sexuality and lead that life in a full way”. But she recognises that that was and is his choice; they have each made their choice. “We’re the kind of people who would go into a bookstore, each go our own way, and end up at the counter with the same book in our hands. We decided that the life we have together is better than the lives we would have apart,” she says.
Hearing these stories may make us want to stay single for ever or lock up our partners – and their devices – to protect ourselves from the possibility of betrayal. But if there is no possibility of betrayal, there can be no possibility of trust. This is what Wrottesley calls “the creative aspects of uncertainty”. Uncertainty and unpredictability do not only lead to trauma; they are also “valuable allies”, she says. “They mean that something good may emerge at some future point in life, in a way that you could never have brought about through your own agency and control. But only if you can remain open.”
Names and some details, including ages and locations, have been changed to protect identities.