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  Opinion   Columnists  25 May 2024  Shreya Sen-Handley | Betrayed? Well, you’re not alone in your pain

Shreya Sen-Handley | Betrayed? Well, you’re not alone in your pain

Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning 'Memoirs of My Body', short story collection 'Strange', and new travelogue 'Handle With Care', and a columnist and playwright. Her Twitter and Insta handle is @shreyasenhan.
Published : May 26, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 26, 2024, 11:17 am IST

Why familiar treachery hurts the most

King Richard III, portrayed above by Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Hollow Crown, was done in by both kin and historians. (Photo by arrangement)
 King Richard III, portrayed above by Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Hollow Crown, was done in by both kin and historians. (Photo by arrangement)

“Et tu, Brute?” It’s hard not to think about the worst of human nature when it constantly surrounds us. On the world stage, war, manmade disasters, genocide, display the nadir of humankind. But for those of us not facing day-to-day danger, betrayal, in its many shades, must be amongst the worst of our experiences.

But what makes it so eviscerating?

That this injury doesn’t come from those we consider shady (and therefore, sensibly avoid) is what makes its impact so devastating. Whilst ‘better the devil you know’ may be the principle on which we elect our politicians, when it comes to duplicity in our personal lives, if it has to happen at all, most of us would rather it was served up by strangers!

When our politicians promise us the earth but once elected, feather their nests instead, we aren’t especially perturbed because we didn’t ever believe them (why we still vote for them is a whole other column)!

Because betrayal isn’t betrayal unless it comes from those in whom we’ve reposed our trust. This unkindest cut of all results from being shafted at close quarters, while in a metaphorical embrace, as with Julius Caesar and his (fr)assassin Brutus. Blindsided by their double-dealing, we are left reeling not only from the pain, but the shock of the startling source of our harm.

If you’ve lived some years on this earth, you know there’s never any dearth of unkindness from strangers (and the occasional, heartwarming solidarity too). Unless there’s lasting physical or financial maiming, we can usually shrug off the malice and move on. But that’s not the case with our familiars, whose backstabbing leaves slow-to-heal emotional wounds in addition. It wouldn’t be BACKstabbing after all, unless we were ambushed by assailants we’d never have conceived of.

You might be nodding along, because which of us haven’t had our trust violated? Having recently discovered the damage done to me and my children by people we were fond of, I was shaken out of my current comfortably numb state into pondering the prevalence of this particular human cruelty.

Very human indeed, because animals don’t indulge in these games. I’m no David Attenborough (or I’d lose myself in nature and never resurface), but there seems to be more harmony amongst creatures in a pack. Red in tooth and claw maybe with those outside their herd, when it comes to the crunch (literally!), they appear to have each other’s backs. Having said that, even your loyal doggie will snatch the pizza slice dangling from your hand if you take your eyes off the doughball, and the beaten old lion thrown out of his pride by the new cock-of-the-walk, in suggesting that betrayal is a biological fact, doesn’t reassure us.

Have you heard of anyone who hasn’t been double-crossed in love? Romantic betrayals are not only a nasty rite of passage for most of us, they also form the emotional bedrock for so much of literature, cinema and song. Most love songs aren’t about love at all but the opposite – infidelity – from Gloria Gaynor to Taylor Swift! And the preponderance of books and films on romantic skullduggery sadly reflect reality. Till you hit middle-age and become inured (fingers crossed!) to treacheries of the heart, feeling as they do like youthful aberrations, but every other kind of duplicity still smarts.

When old friends let us down, or family plot behind our backs, the years provide no buffer to its ravages. The betrayal of platonic or familial love might even sting more as we age. Would King Lear have been quite so distraught but for the stage of life he was in, and that the architects of his misery were his own family? Our distress is directly proportional to the time and affection we’ve invested in our false friends.

When Richard III begged to swap his “kingdom for a horse” on the Middle-English battlefield against his scheming Tudor opponents, he must have also wished he could trade in the traitors in his ranks who stood by and let him fall to his defeat and ignominious death. Historic accounts uncovered in modern times would suggest that Richard III was not Shakespeare’s wicked construct, Tudor propaganda as it was, but a competent king who deserved neither the betrayal of colleagues and kin, nor the monstrous reputation he became saddled with.

All’s certainly not fair in love and war!

The horror stories from Partition, of once-harmonious neighbours betraying each other to baying mobs, is further proof, if it were needed, that anyone can turn on us at any time. Yet, equally, the not uncommon experience of my mother’s family, of being helped to escape one such deathtrap by an impoverished household from across the divide, whom my mother’s clan then employed and sheltered for the rest of their lives, is balm for the heart.

But must human nature be a double-edged sword? A two-sided coin that’s flipped and flipped again in this game of life, and you never know whether it’ll land in your favour or to your detriment?

If there can be counselling, and courses like anger management, that have been known to improve behaviours, can’t we have our treacherous tendencies teased out of us as well? Could we also be taught, from nursery perhaps, to be better judges of character? And why not revive laws that hold us to higher standards of conduct, like the Victorian Breach of Trust, applied not just to business but social transactions?

Whaddyasay, fellow sufferers?

Tags: betrayal, distrust, broken relationships