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Home > Relationships > Trust Issues

The Many Levels of Betrayal

By Joyce and Barry Vissell, reprinted with permission

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When you hear the word "betrayal," you probably think of a very serious event. You may think of a major breech of trust, like when your next-door neighbor swindled your parents out of a lot of money and then left town. In the realm of love relationships, betrayal often brings to mind an extramarital affair.

Yet betrayal has many levels. A minor betrayal is still a betrayal. It can hurt a lot. Here's are some examples:

Russ needed to stay late at his office to catch up. He knew Denise always wanted to know when he would be late, but this time he forgot to call her. Two hours later when he came home, he was surprised by the intensity of Denise's upset. She had been very worried about Russ' safety. They had an agreement. He forgot. And she felt hurt and angry.

To Russ, forgetting to call Denise was a little thing. But to Denise, this was more than forgetting. It was the breaking of a very important agreement, and this equals betrayal.

Ellen and Bill had an agreement to not "bad mouth" each other to family members or friends. One night they had an argument. Bill stomped out of the room and refused to talk with her. Ten minutes later, the phone rang. It was Ellen's mother. In her upset and need for communication, she told her mother some of what had happened, including some of the negative words Bill had spoken to her. When Bill later returned and was ready to work things out, she told him about her conversation with her mother. Bill felt deeply hurt and angry - and betrayed.

Again, to Ellen, she had no awareness that she may have been betraying Bill. And certainly she had no intention of doing this. Yet to speak negatively to her mother about Bill (even in her sadness and need for understanding) was a betrayal. It would not have been a betrayal to share the same material with a professional therapist in a session.

Then there are more serious betrayals, yet people often don't recognize them as such.

Tim agreed to give up smoking cigarettes. Norma had finally made it clear how upsetting his habit was for her. After one successful month of abstinence, Tim could no longer resist the temptation. He started smoking again. But he kept it a secret from Norma. He couldn't bear her disappointment. However, four months later she woke up in the middle of the night, looked out the window and saw Tim smoking on their back porch. When she confronted him, he admitted to sneaking cigarettes for four months. She felt so deceived and betrayed that she sought professional help the next morning.

At their therapy appointment, Tim had trouble seeing his actions as a more serious betrayal. He felt his actions lacked integrity, but with the help of the therapist, he could hear Norma's pain of betrayal. She felt that his secretive smoking was like he was having an affair, but the "other woman" was tobacco.

The most serious betrayals besides extra-marital affairs can include all the various addictions (alcohol, drugs, yes even food and workaholism), other major breeches in trust like serious lies, or withheld truths about a partner's past. Remember, sometimes emotional affairs with someone outside the relationship can be just as painful as sexual affairs. We have seen people feel seriously betrayed by their partner's intimate connections on the Internet. Many people fall into the trap of thinking that they are not having an affair if they are not having sex with another person. More than sex, it's the exclusivity and secrecy of the relationship that causes feelings of betrayal. To know that your partner is sharing an intimate spiritual/emotional connection with someone else, can be extremely painful.

How do you heal betrayal?

The first step is naming it, acknowledging that it happened rather than pretending it didn't. It needs to be admitted, rather than rationalized or defended it in any way. Remember, there are many levels of betrayal.

Next, the feelings need to be expressed, not explained—by both parties. There may be fear, anger, hurt, sadness, grief, even rage. This may need to be done in a supervised setting with a professional.

The betrayer (we know this may sound a bit harsh) needs to sincerely apologize for the actions that caused pain in his or her partner.

Finally, both partners need to take responsibility for their own part in the dynamics of the relationship that led up to the betrayal. Remember, all of relationship is a dance between two partners. Both contribute to the love, the harmony, and the dysfunction. Each partner brings into the relationship their own baggage from the past, and must take responsibility for these issues.

In Light in the Mirror,* in a section called "One-Sided Blame," Joyce and I wrote about a sexual affair I had with another woman. After first blaming me and feeling like an innocent victim, she eventually realized her contribution. In her devotion to me, she had been neglecting herself. She had been in some ways loving me more than herself. This led to a major shift and healing in our relationship. Joyce began to turn her total devotion to me into devotion to her own inner God-Self, to honor her own beauty, strength and abilities. Because of this, I was able to more deeply love and respect her, and our relationship could really take off.

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© Copyright The Shared Heart Foundation, Reprinted with permission

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