Betrayal is a chilling word, isn’t it? Because within its meaning are the concepts of both trust, and broken trust.
It’s relatively easy to trust when one is young and has not suffered much betrayal yet. This described me when I was a twenty-year-old college student and fell deeply in love with JT, a student and varsity basketball player at another college several hours away from mine. Because of our distance, in those pre-cell-phone days, our romance took place mostly through our letters. I discovered that JT had a bit of the poet in his soul. As I write in my debut memoir, Our Song: A Memoir of Love and Race , reading his first letter felt like coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. He wrote about how much he dug our night together. How he hoped it would happen again and again. That I’d turned his head around more than anyone he had ever met. It seemed he couldn’t stop talking about us.
And yet, this man betrayed me. How? It’s complicated, so let’s backtrack.
When I met JT, I was already in a relationship with another man, Will. Will was spending our junior year of college studying in England. We had agreed to remain faithful during our separation. But I broke that vow when I met JT. Why?
I realized that JT was the man I loved, and I planned to break up with Will. But he was so unhappy overseas, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So enter another betrayal: Will cured his loneliness with an English woman he met at his school. Then he did come home, but he seemed so clingy that I just couldn’t tell him about JT. So, I made the biggest mistake of my young life. I put my head in the sand. I continued to see both men.
That was a betrayal of JT, too. Eventually I learned how much he wanted me to choose him. But I didn’t realize it soon enough, and so my bad decision to continue the status quo opened the door for yet another betrayal. One of my friends decided for me: she seduced JT. She also told him that I would leave him to marry Will.
What a mess of betrayal and counter-betrayal. It broke my heart for many years to come. Did anything finally resolve my hurt? Yes and no. But time showed me what could be helpful.
Understand why it happened.
We were all very young. A 2016 study at Pennsylvania State University found that one quarter of young adults had cheated on their partners.
My boyfriend Will was gone, and I was lonely. He was far from home and lonely, too. A 2021 online survey of 7392 Americans found that 22% of partners in long-distance relationships had cheated. Thirty-two percent said they would not enter a long-distance relationship again.
People don’t have relationships in a vacuum. The ones I describe in my book took place in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, a time of great social upheaval. Young people had more sexual latitude than ever before: the safety from pregnancy provided by birth control pills; antibiotic cures for sexually transmitted infections; more women on campuses and in the workplace; and emerging notions of freedom brought by civil rights and feminist struggles. A line from the hit Stephen Stills song became a popular mantra:
“If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
If you have been betrayed, have you taken the time to think through the context within which it happened? Of course, understanding is only the first step. You can understand and still ache inside.
Recognize your own role.
For a long time, I blamed my lover and my friend for having made me so unhappy. But with maturity came some painful truths. My large responsibility, which I failed to exercise, was to end things with Will as soon as I knew that I loved JT more. It would have freed Will to find real love with someone else, and it would have freed JT and me to find out if our love could last. And my friend would not have had the leverage, JT’s fear of my leaving, to convince him to be with her.
Oh, did it hurt to realize this. That I was the primary agent of my own downfall. But it was an essential step in being able to move forward. When you’ve been betrayed, do you point the finger of blame? And as the popular saying goes, do you see the three pointing back at you?
Decide who needs to apologize and which relationship(s) is/are worth saving.
Of course, I apologized to Will. What was harder to see was that I needed to let him go. I had already lost my true love. I was young and feared being alone. So, I stayed with him for a few more years. I now see that as selfish. Ultimately, I could not stop thinking about JT. I knew I didn’t feel that way about Will, and so I ended that relationship. He eventually went on to have a happier life with a wife and children.
JT and I continued to stay in touch. I always looked forward to the occasional email or phone call from him. But I didn’t actually apologize to him for many years. When I finally did, it was cathartic. He reminded me of how much he had cared for me and said that I had nothing to apologize for. Then, in our 60’s, we actually had a chance to rekindle on a much deeper level.
Did JT owe me an apology? Perhaps. But what was more important to me was the way he shared his heart when we finally did see each other again. He told me things I had wondered about for 40 years.
And what about my friend? Eventually she did apologize—once. Yet, I decided that relationship was worth saving. My other friends did not understand it. They felt I should end things with her immediately. But I didn’t, and we went on to have decades of supportive friendship. She saw me through life’s ups and downs which included the deaths of both my parents. There was never a hint of another big betrayal. It was a series of smaller incidents much later that caused me to re-evaluate the nature of our relationship.
These were not steps but stages, and sometimes lengthy ones. But all were important to the evolution of my healing process. What would you decide about keeping someone whom you felt betrayed you? Or whom you had betrayed?
Focus on rebuilding your life and doing the things you love.
In my twenties, like a lot of people, I bounced around between numerous jobs. While working at a job that bored me, I volunteered for a sex education project and realized that I wanted to do that professionally. I went to grad school and began work in HIV/AIDS prevention. Eventually I found the best job of my life as a tenured professor of health and human sexuality at a community college. That was a long road that took a great deal of time and energy, and my focus on it paid off.
Life has so much more to offer than the narrow paths that we sometimes walk. Besides my career efforts, I also found time for music and dancing, camping, cooking for friends, and perhaps most of all, reading for pleasure.
What do you love to do, and are you doing it? What interests have you not pursued yet? I encourage you to make as much space for them in your life as you can.
Learn how to trust again, while still taking care of yourself.
After a betrayal, it’s normal to feel wary and self-protective. But hiding out at home will not bring love. After my break-ups with JT and then Will, I continued to date. Sometimes I felt like I was on the lookout to be wronged in some way, but I got better at reading the signs. I went on to have several meaningful long-term romantic relationships. I’ve also been blessed to cultivate deep and long-lasting friendships.
What do you require in a partner or a friend? What warning signs do you know to look for? No matter what, we need to be the kind of person we want our lovers to be. The expectations that we have of them must also apply to us.
Tap into your creativity.
Pursuits such as writing, art and music have the power to heal as well as to make something of beauty. I had always wanted to be a writer, but my attempts were haphazard. I published a bit in my 20’s; wrote mostly career materials in my 30’s and 40’s; and then returned more seriously to creative writing in my 50’s.
That time I cultivated a mentor to help me navigate the modern writing scene. I started to get a few things published, and then most recently, my memoir. As I wrote it, I relived the story of my great young love and its horrid series of betrayals. That finally brought my healing process full circle. Had I written about it earlier, I might have healed faster, too.
Most of us have a creative streak even if we don’t know it. What is yours? Poetry, painting, and performance are obvious ones, but maybe it’s the photographs you take, or the meals you cook. The way you decorate, the way you dance. And if you don’t know it yet, there are so many opportunities to find out. Workshops, community college classes, arts events, and the many resources in libraries can show how to bring out the best in us.
So, has my broken heart healed? I’ve said yes and no. I wish the acceptance I feel now had come much sooner. But this is not how the human heart and brain operate. We feel things deeply, and we would be unable to feel pleasure if there were no pain. A broken heart can heal, but it has cracks—a roadmap of living, just as a face will eventually bear laugh lines and frowns. So maybe my last conclusion must be:
Try to cherish everything that has enriched your life in some way and has made you the strong, beautiful, and forgiving person that you are.
Lynda Smith Hoggan, author of Our Song: A Memoir of Love and Race , has been a professional gift shop duster, bra strap counter, playground instructor, army base secretary, garment district house model, barmaid, go-go dancer, high school teacher, technical writer, sex educator, and amateur martini taster. Her writing, which includes poems and newspaper articles, sexuality columns and newsletters, academic journal articles, pages on a state website and personal essays, has appeared in Westwind: UCLA Journal of the Arts, the Los Angeles Times, Cultural Daily, and the anthology Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis. She’s a Professor Emeritus of Health and Human Sexuality at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California; her formal education includes a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Education from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and a Master’s Degree in Public Health from UCLA.