Book Smart column: Tales of betrayal

Nancy Harris
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"Magic Lessons," "With or Without You," "The Girl on the Train"

Betrayal is a theme that runs deep in literature because it is one of the most common and painful interpersonal experiences. Betrayal can happen not only in romantic relationships, but in friendships, work relationships, and even in business dealings. Betrayal in all these situations involves one similar key element: You gave your trust to someone and they violated it.

There are many good reasons to be deeply upset at someone who violates your trust, and no doubt, the more intimate the relationship the deeper the hurt inflicted. Psychologists suggest that one factor that may lie at the heart of an intense emotional reaction to betrayal is that you are left with the sense that you are not valued by a friend or partner. Betrayal by someone who knows you well implies that the person doesn’t value you or the relationship you share. Particularly in a romantic relationship or a marriage, betrayal hurts in large part because it destroys your self-esteem. You assume that you must be lacking in some fundamental way because your partner chose to enter a relationship with someone else.

Some psychologists argue, however, that the most corrosive aspect of betrayal occurs is the recognition that the person we love has stopped caring, stopped investing in us, and given up fighting and working to maintain the relationship. This disengagement triggers not only shame, but deep fears about being abandoned, being unworthy and being unlovable.

The discovery that there have been repeated incidences of lying, secrets, breaking confidences, and planned manipulation often leaves someone in a state of emotional chaos. In part, our partner has made decisions that took away our control - they have taken actions that allow us no say in the direction of our lives.

More fundamentally, betrayal in an intimate relationship actively yanks our sense of security out from under us. It is a disturbing reality to discover that the person we believed to be emotionally safest with, failed to keep their promise to protect our well-being and to never intentionally hurt us. They violated the rules you thought you were both living by. Betrayal is so painful because it strikes at the core of one’s life - often the base you have chosen to build your life. And when your core is threatened, it is normal to experience disorientation, confusion, obsessive rumination, anguish, shame, grief, loss, anger and even intense somatic ailments. In short, the after-effects of betrayal resemble the psychological impact akin to PTSD that are common among trauma and disaster victims.

The powerful novels below do a marvelous job of highlighting the many paths that lead to intimate betrayal. They also superbly illustrate the human response to disloyalty, which ranges from self-punishment to revenge and in some cases, even regeneration of confidence and catalyst for positive change.

“With or Without You” by Caroline Leavitt is an intensely poignant, stirring novel that you won’t want to put down. A smart domestic drama about love, friendship, betrayal and resilience.

The story focuses on the long time relationship between Simon and Stella. Stella, a nurse, loves her work but has put her needs and desires on hold to preserve and nurture her relationship with Simon, a musician, constantly waiting for his next big break. But when Stella unexpectedly falls ill and into a coma, Simon must struggle to do what is right. When Stella awakes after her brush with death, the whole terrain has changed. Simon has formed an intense emotional bond with Stella’s best friend Libby and she is not exactly the same person she once was. With life gone awry, will Stella find the strength to find herself a new path, or will she become permanently mired in hurt and anger?

“Magic Lessons” by Alice Hoffman is a powerful, propulsive, and utterly unforgettable novel about how men and history treat fiercely independent women.

Maria Owens starts life as an abandoned baby in a snowy field in rural England in the 1600s. She is adopted by Hannah Owens who teaches the girl to read and write as well as everything she knows about magic, healing and love. The key lesson Hannah imparts is to make sure you fall in love with someone who will love you back. But as life would have it, young Maria falls for John Hathorne, a distinguished and successful looking older man from Salem who abandons her. A young pregnant Maria follows John back to Salem and discovers the painful truth about him, and more importantly how single, courageous, educated and intelligent women are treated in the 17th century. Will the magical arts be enough to save Maria and the Owens bloodline from such treachery? You can find out when the book releases Oct. 6.

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins is a twist-filled, fun, addictive psychological thriller that brings domestic disloyalty to dizzying new heights.

Rachel Watson rides the train every day to and from London and catches a glimpse of a seemingly perfect young couple, whom she imagines has a perfect life. She used to live just a few doors down from them and was married to Tom until her drinking and unhappiness led to divorce. One day, Rachel witnesses something shocking unfold in her neighbors’ yard and then the young wife goes missing. Rachel feels compelled to share what she believes she knows with the authorities and becomes hopelessly entangled in the messy affair. Add Rachel’s drinking, blackouts, self-loathing, obsessive behavior, and two angry husbands and you have the perfect makings of a dark and unsettling jigsaw puzzle.

Book Smart is a monthly column by Nancy Harris of Scituate, a practicing psychologist and a former instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.