The Silent Sins of Betrayal
Silent Sins of Betrayal
The devastation of sexual disloyalty is commonly thought of as the only breech of trust that can ruin a marriage. Other forms of betrayal can be just as damaging as an affair but often go unrecognized or minimized, including by the victim. When a couple keeps getting stuck in a miserable, unwanted existence each feels the other does not put the relationship first. They may not recognize that their trouble is some form of silent betrayal. They may puzzle over why they are discontented and engage in fighting with no end in sight. They may say that their partner has “changed”, or that they have “grown apart”, or are “no longer compatible”.
Negative comparisons are at the heart of many nonsexual disloyalties just as much as they form the core of affairs. In these cases, when a partner comes up short compared with another, the disgruntled member doesn’t cheat but instead expresses disrespect and devalues the relationship in other ways. In some cases the partner compares the other unfavorably with a situation rather than a person.
“If only I had stayed in my home state and not come to California life would be better.” Although this disrespect may foreshadow infidelity these betrayals are for many couples the end point.
Sometimes both partners are aware that one is making negative comparisons, but neither acknowledges nor recognizes the danger. Like most of us, they figure that no one is ever completely satisfied with their life. The disloyalty does not seem as bad as an affair. But research tells us it is. A committed relationship is a contract of mutual trust, respect, nurturance, and protection. Anything that violates that contract can become traitorous. While it is true that some betrayal is inevitable between partners since it is impossible to be in sync all the time, trustworthy couples find a way to correct or get past these missteps, so that betrayal does not consume their relationship.
Relationship killers are founded on two building blocks: deception (not revealing our true needs to avoid unpleasant conflict), and yearning for emotional connection that seems unavailable from the partner.
The following are some of the ways in which betrayal has been seen to play itself out in relationships. Only by confronting disloyalty in a relationship can the couple reestablish the trust in each other.
Note: The worst kind of betrayal… physical or emotional abuse will not be discussed here. If your partner is abusive, acknowledge to yourself that you do not deserve such treatment and seek help. Any kind of unwanted physical touch signals physical abuse. Emotional abuse includes social isolation, sexual coercion, extreme jealousy, public humiliation, belittling or degrading, threats of violence or other acts that induce fear, or damage to property, pets, or children.
Read over the following categories below and see if any of these situations feel familiar or trigger uneasiness. If so, you may need to face a betrayal that has the potential to be a serious threat to your marriage. It’s not about who is right or wrong. It’s not about finding new ways to condemn your partner or just give up.
It’s about looking at the truth of your relationship with a cold eye so that you may recognize a problem for what it really is, and begin the job of repairing it.
The underlying attitude here is: “I’m here for you …until someone better comes along.” Such partners may flirt, ogle, and send out other signals that they are available, even though they don’t follow through. Because they are not fully in the relationship, anything from an argument to a bad mood to work stress can diminish how much intimacy and support their partner receives. It’s not unusual for the betrayed partner to think these triggers are the actual problem (“He’s worried about his promotion, or my depression”) when in reality it is the superficiality of the commitment that fuels most conflicts.
Some couples stumble into conditional relationship when one pressures the other to either marry or cohabitate, wishing the move to deepen their connection. It is a high-risk gamble to marry when you don’t want to. It is hard for the marriage to succeed if it is an attempt to create a strong bond rather than be the result of one. The shallowness of such a marriage invariably manifests itself over time.
In some cases of conditional commitment, one partner isn’t comparing the other to someone else, but to something else. This could be revealed in the type of work one person wishes to engage, the lavishness of life style, the presence of children and so on. If agreement is not reached prior to marriage as to basic goals and values then the shared meaning system will decay. Intimate partners need to open up about what they consider the purpose and significance of their life together.
Of course, even intact long-term marriages can experience the perils of conditional commitment. Commitments can erode over time due to ordinary wear and tear of parenting, work, and insufficient time feeding your relationship. Professional help can be useful if the couple cannot seem to resurrect their pledge of loyalty on their own.
The Nonsexual Affair
It’s common for platonic friendships to develop if you work closely with someone day after day. Such relationships as a “work wife” or “work husband” can also be forged at the gym, a café, or while pursuing a hobby. These relationships are by definition nonsexual, but such friends can get to know intimate details about each other’s lives. Having an intimate work friend is not necessarily a betrayal. A simple, common sense rule might be: If you think your partner would be uncomfortable watching your interactions with this person, or be upset by the confidences you share, the closeness is dangerous. You are doing things unconsciously to hide the new relationship… from yourself. Should your partner discover an overly familiar email from this “other” the result can be as devastating as telltale lipstick or aftershave. Whether or not we can admit this involvement to ourselves confuses the issue. We are committing some form of cheating by keeping secrets.
How do you know if your partner’s shared connection with someone else is a sexless affair and not an innocent friendship? Is the friendship hidden? Are your questions about the friendships discouraged? Have you asked for it to end and hit a brick wall? Have your boundaries been disrespected (“I asked you not to go the concert with him?”) Is the friend the subject of fantasies during rough patches in the relationship? If the answer to any of these questions is yes then the friendship is too intimate.
It’s easy to see why plain old deceit would damage a relationship. Sometimes both partners are guilty of this behavior. It is particularly endemic to relationships where “winner take all” arguments dominate. Bill secretly supports his alcoholic brother while he is unemployed and attending AA. Sally takes their 7 year old to be evaluated privately for possible dyslexia, which is confirmed. They each blow up when these secrets are revealed but each lay claims of entitlement since the other would not permit such expenditures. Disclosure would only end up in a heated win/lose battle. Each person’s deceit in turn makes it difficult to focus on the problems of Bill’s brother or their own son.
Lies uttered to maintain the peace are a breach of trust. Although they are harmful over time, they don’t have to ruin a relationship. Once they are exposed the needs that prompted the lying can be worked on.
There is another kind of lying that should concern a partner. There are people who lie all the time. Chronic liars spin mistruths even when there is no apparent threat to the relationship. The liar increasingly finds it difficult to know whether he/she is lying or telling the truth. This type of problem is not the partner’s fault, nor is it due to some deeper relationship problem. It is sometimes fundamental to the person’s character. Chronic lying is a pattern established early in childhood if parents are punitive, cold, authoritarian, or dismissive of feelings. The child learns to lie to look good, escape punishment, and to control his parents. In adulthood, the tendency to lie is hard to overcome even when the threat of punishment no longer exists. Professional help can often serve to break this pattern so that a more open, honest, and intimate conversation with a partner is possible.
Coalitions Against the Partner
In a partnership there is only one side to be on…each other’s. People lose sight of this fundamental premise of marriage. Wives form coalitions with their mothers against husbands, and husbands join hands with their mothers against wives. A common example would be found where the wife doesn’t “get along” with her mother-in-law, who always seems to butt in. The husband, feeling called to mediate between the two women, betrays his wife by siding with his mother (“She’s just trying to help”, “Don’t be so sensitive”). This dynamic is the cause of the battle in the first place. The women are vying to come first in the man’s life. It is the husband’s responsibility to send his mother a clear message that his wife is in first place and will remain so.
The husband also needs to keep quiet about intimate details of his married life, in particular when conflict arises. He may need to cut back on how much time he spends with his mother if it is interfering with his marriage.
Absenteeism or Coldness
Emotional absenteeism doesn’t have to be dramatic and it often isn’t. It can be as simple as turning away on a consistent basis when a partner needs emotional support about mundane events, such as a friend standing a partner up, or giving a speech. A committed relationship requires being there for one another through both life changing traumas and everyday stresses. It also means sharing in your partner’s joy when good happens. It’s true that couples may have different needs for expressiveness. However, in a committed relationship a calibration occurs in which each learns what the other requires to feel loved, protected, and supported.
Not all cases of emotional absenteeism are solvable, however. Some people are just unable and unwilling to express warmth and emotional support. When a partner lacks empathy the relationship will founder in time, except in rare cases where both people are happiest in an emotionally distant union. Most of us will feel deep rejection if our partner doesn’t express affection.
When you enter a relationship with somebody who lacks empathy, you may assume that our partner is just reserved and will loosen up over time. Most often, he or she doesn’t. Some people have learned to cover up this feeling by imitating the emotions of others. It may take years for the partner to realize the other isn’t just the “silent type”. Eventually the coldness and pretense of caring come to be recognized as cruelty… a character flaw often intertwined with a need for power and control.
Elaine, a stay-at-home mother, would often ask Bob if he would make more an effort to do things with the family, and suggest a specific event. Bob’s reply was often some version of “No, I don’t feel like doing that. And don’t make me feel guilty about saying no. I would never ask you to do something you didn’t want to do”. The cornerstone of this position sounded altruistic, idealistic and even romantic. It was a “bargain” hard to argue with. It also meant he would be unlikely to say yes to a bid from Elaine unless there was something in it for him. With kids thrown into the mix this meant an even lower ratio of “yes’s” to “no’s”
The impact on Elaine was to feel obliged to accept that Bob would not show her much empathy and value her choices of family time. Bob, coming from his particular family, honestly felt his was a loving attitude to hold. In therapy Bob began to see that that simply saying yes to Elaine (without keeping score) provided him a reciprocity of warmth from Elaine he had seldom experienced. Saying no so often was actually depriving him of closeness. Over time he surrendered his idealism and became more emotionally present in many ways.
Emotional closeness is its own reward. Given one’s particular family background it may take a long time for the ice to thaw sufficiently to feel the warm waters of attachment. No matter what one’s beginnings in life, altruism normally grows as we allow our relationships to ripen.
Withdrawal of Sexual Interest
One hears standard advice to rev things up with tantalizing lingerie, a weekend away, massage oil, etc. These may help if distractions from work, kids, and other stresses or obligations have rendered the bedroom a “sex-free” zone. A dwindling sexual life cannot be easily jump-started if the problem is related to deeper issues.
The inevitable physical changes of aging can make both partners insecure but too embarrassed to reach out for support. There are many cases of a woman’s struggle with weight gain leading her clueless husband to insult her attractiveness. The issue here is once again negative comparisons and disrespect. The partner is not being cherished.
There are also couples with mismatched sexual drives. There is even some evidence that about 15% of couples over 45 simply stop having sex. Surprisingly, it is usually the man who loses interest. (Testosterone drives sex in both men and women but there is proportionately larger drop in hormone levels in men over time.) Many of these couples say this waning does not diminish their relationship satisfaction. However, if the withdrawal is not addressed in an honest and loving way, hurt and rejection can consume the relationship.
Whatever your partner’s communications style; direct or subtle… if he or she implies that you are inferior, you are being treated with disrespect. A loving relationship is not about the other person having the upper hand… it’s about holding hands with respect. A contemptuous and superior attitude is emotional abuse whether expressed through frequent name-calling or subtle slights. A most common example is people who always respond to a partner’s complaint by correcting their grammar or word usage. If one person tells the other how they are supposed to talk they are conveying an attitude of intellectual superiority, which diminishes the speaker and erases what they are trying to say.
Dan’s wife was never coy about her criticism of his emotional life. “Can’t you do anything but be suicidal or depressed?” she would say. “You’re just like your father and all you want is for me to be like your mother!” The intensity, frequency, and intensity of her criticisms were extraordinary by any measure. Yet she was astonished when Dan walked out the door. Kate’s style was subtler. Whenever they disagreed she would stare at him, mouth dropped, in disbelief. She would then turn to me with a look of “Have you ever in your life heard such a crazy thing?” Todd would roll his eyes when Mindy suggested they cancel the dinner plans with his friends in favor of hers when they double booked. Mindy would in turn roll her eyes when Todd began to explain why his friends were preferable to Mindy’s. This couple, deadlocked in mutual contempt as a means of exerting power in conflict situations, began to find relief upon mutual agreement to simply suppress contempt and play by fair fight rules of listening and acknowledging. Unless there is a hidden personality issue blocking one’s deserving of satisfaction, respect will ultimately win back lost closeness and felt safety to express oneself in vulnerable ways.
Respect is one of the more important but unrecognized elements in human interaction regarding man to wife and even nation to nation.
Most of us accept that life is not fair. Umpires make wrong calls (especially against the SF Giants), a lazy but manipulative co-worker gets your promotion, the person ahead of you in the grocery “express” lane has 35 items in her shopping cart, plus 15 complicated coupons. A long-term committed relationship should be a haven from injustice. This is not intended as a “pie in the sky” idea. Fairness is fundamental to love. There cannot be mutual satisfaction if one member takes advantage of the other. Of course, this happens frequently in families. Money is spent on a hunting safari but somehow that trip to visit the wife’s aging uncle in Seattle seems out of reach. It may be that they always wind up in her restaurant. Maybe that they have to see only his favorite action packed movies where much blood is spilled and big things blow up. From such petty power plays big problems arise.
Perhaps the most common unfairness concerns housework. Despite an agreement to the contrary, someone stops pulling (usually his) weight. The laundry lands on the floor, usually inches from the hamper. Dirty dishes end up in the kitchen sink rather than the dishwasher. The toilet paper roll isn’t replaced. Larry committed a dual sin by somehow managing to never use the last few sheets on the toilet roll, and never replacing the almost empty roll. He was the expert’s expert in passive/aggressive behavior. He also had no sense of fairness. This led Larry to wallow in a very lonely life. When housework creates tension the big issue isn’t the dust bowls under the couch, but the unfairness. Nothing puts a damper on romance like arriving home from a long day at work to discover a Mount Shasta of laundry with a note saying, “Went to play music”.
Another fertile ground for injustice is handling the finances, the business end of any relationship. Many couples start out agreeing to share this arduous chore, but it winds up falling on one of them. It turns out that one partner is usually better at keeping track of all the details and being on time with bill paying than another. Since creditors and banks have no empathy for late payments one person feels forced to take over the job. It is the sense of unfairness that one creates by reneging on a promise that is the problem.
When a woman decides to stay home after having children despite an agreement that she would return to work, the financial burden fall on the partner who now feels a need to work even that much harder. One person gets to spend their day with the kids while the other’s family time is reduced. Yet some people revel in being the “breadwinner”. There is no right way to divvy up the responsibilities of raising a family. Having children is such a transformative experience with so many variables that cannot be predicted; you simply can’t know what is going to work for your relationship ahead of time. If you do want to make a change in workload then you need to talk it through, especially if a substantial portion of the family income is involved.
The interdependency of long-term relationships means that sometimes partners will need to forfeit their own needs for the common good. Resentment will take root if one partner refuses to demonstrate their trustworthiness. When his first child was about to be born, Andy was reluctant to leave the house for the hospital (with his wife in labor) due to a felt need to complete a work detail. This signaled the beginning of a chronic fight pattern over whose needs came first. For the most part each person was mystified at the other’s changes in behavior. Susan knew that Andy loved the children but was bewildered at his selfish choices when asked to place her and the children first. Andy felt he had enough on his plate to justify weeklong trips with his snowboard buddies, long runs, and time spent at his friends’ favorite watering holes. The children’s births uncovered a defensive selfishness that Susan had not seen before. She encouraged him to go with her for help and he agreed. Together they found that Andy’s becoming a father triggered deep-seated needs and fears in him and these were fueling his self-centered behavior. Susan found relief from her misery of trying to juggle between the children’s’ needs and her husband’s.
Susan and Andy were like most couples who come for help approximately 7 years after the first sign of trouble registers. What this then meant was that the uncovering and reworking of the now hardened personality issues, working through the many tangled knots created out of repetitive, desperate exchanges was more difficult, more time consuming, and perilous. Their story ended happily after a protracted fight for wellness. Not all couples are so lucky or skilled enough to climb out of hole that took so long to dig.
A broken vow is as perilous to love as an intentional lie. Building a life together means agreeing on certain fundamental everyday expectations. You dream about your mutual future and make promises to each other, expressed outright or implied, that strengthen your bond. If those promises go unfulfilled or are contradicted there follows a disappointment that jeopardizes a couple’s trust in each other and consequently their future.
A common broken promise occurs around finances. Many couples marry and agree to save a certain portion of their salaries, which will someday allow them to buy a home. One person becomes over controlling and demanding about delayed gratification. The other, feeling like all the fun is being taken out of life begins to contribute less to the joint savings and wants to make their own decisions about immediate gratification. They begin to buy things on sale and rationalize away the untold departure from the original agreement. When the other finds out about it, what ensues is far rawer and uglier than if the betrayer had confronted their partner upfront. Such a broken promise makes the other feel like they don’t matter anymore and will begin a dangerous walk towards separateness.
The most serious issues that lead to broken promises concern addiction. It is almost always impossible to maintain a healthy relationship in the presence of drug abuse, alcoholism, or a dependency on gambling, sex, or pornography. An all-too- common dynamic develops in which the afflicted partner promises to “change” but doesn’t. The other partner wants to believe in the transformation and begins the subtle change of closing her eyes to what may challenge the wish to believe. Each time the addiction reappears in full transparency, the sense of betrayal deepens. Addiction is a complicated disorder with both physiological and emotional causes. The research is irrefutable: the addicted person must seek professional help if there is to be a chance at salvaging the relationship.
Betrayal vs. Whistle-blowing
A relationship is a commitment, but it shouldn’t be a muzzle. At times, expressing disapproval of your partner’s deeds can be the most loving and supportive action you can take. Blind acceptance is never a healthy strategy. It was Alexander Hamilton who said that to mistrust the government to regulate itself is an obligation of good citizenry. Likewise, sometimes it’s an act of love to hold up a mirror to your partner. We need to acknowledge that all of us are trustworthy sometimes and not others. None of us are immune to bouts of narcissism, selfishness, and poor judgment. Calling your partner on such behavior is healthy. In so doing, you are focused on your partner’s benefits, not your own. We need to rely on each other’s honesty to challenge our values, even if that means having to hear the sting of, “How could you do that?” When you are the recipient of such “corrections”, realize that our partner’s love is motivating the confrontation. It is a gift that is best received by non-defensive, close listening. Realize that the absence of such confrontation is actually more a withdrawal of support and ironically a selfish betrayal of its own. Caring for each other always circles back to mutual honesty, vulnerability, and the will to reach our arms around the other when it is most difficult to do so.
Don Crowe, PhD
October 21, 2012