The older we get, the more likely we are to have been betrayed in the past. Particularly when betrayal comes early in life, and certainly when it happens repeatedly, it haunts us. We work frantically to prevent a recurrence. This is where distrust begins.
Betrayal happens when someone else’s unpredictable behavior violates our expectations and causes a painful loss. It can take many forms. There’s verbal and physical abuse, which destroys trust and shows disrespect. Then there’s cheating, which breaks the vow of loyalty.
When people divorce, one of them is alleging a breach of warranty. The spouse who relied on the marriage vows often feels betrayed. Theft and rape disregard personal boundaries, particularly when the culprits are people we know.
When a trusted confidant makes private information public, both trust and privacy go by the board. Adoption, from a child’s point of view, means abandonment—a huge betrayal by parents at the start of life.
In the effort to steer clear of further betrayals, some people are perpetually vigilant in relationships. They compulsively check their partner’s cell phone. They constantly call or text. Where are you? What are you doing? When are you coming back?
They fearfully scrutinize credit card statements and online logs of text messages. Is there suspicious activity? Could he or she be hiding something? Of course there is no surefire way to monitor another adult 24/7.
There is always a gray area, lingering doubt. The constant uncertainty frays the watcher’s nerves. And if the person being tracked is a spouse, lover, or partner, over time the surveillance kills the relationship.
Paradoxically, people who have experienced traumatic betrayals sometimes try to break out of the pattern with a bold move. On impulse, they invest heavily in a new friend or lover right away, without pausing to consider. Desperate for a sense of security, they want to nail down the relationship immediately, dispel ghosts of the past, and eliminate the nagging anxiety.
These are the folks who want to go to bed right away to cement the deal. Some of them tell you the worst parts of their life stories on the first date. In their haste they bring about the very result they are most eager to prevent: abandonment. If you walk away at the outset, they sometimes think, the disappointment won’t hurt so much.
But in any relationship, trust must be allowed to develop gradually. When a potential romantic partner is in a hurry to get serious, that’s a red flag. If a long-term relationship is so very important, what’s the rush?
Before extending trust, you want to notice how the other person treats you and others, including him- or herself. Your trusted friend or lover should be polite, considerate, and alert to your preferences. Like-minded people flock together, so see how this person’s friends and family act.
Look for someone who voices anger appropriately, expressing the feelings but without saying anything deliberately hurtful and without acting destructive. This person respects your physical or mental space and your privacy. He or she has clear values, behaves responsibly with other people, and is careful with money and property.
Extend trust bit by bit. Try making a simple request. “Please call me a day or two ahead to make plans. I usually map my week out in advance.” Or just say what you need. “I’m allergic to cats.” Then see whether the other person heeds your words. Once he or she has passed the first test, offer more opportunities to win your trust.
Be careful about sharing personal information, whether it’s financial stuff, photos, family secrets, or your darkest feelings about events past and present. Once your stuff is out in the world, it’s out of your control and could go anywhere.
Notice your comfort level before making disclosures. If you are starting a relationship, keep the confidences relatively comparable on both sides. Don’t mention your rape until the other person has provided deeply personal information or seems ready to do so.
Satisfy yourself that the other person handles conflict appropriately by talking it through and listening rather than by ignoring your words and becoming nasty or spiteful. Nothing is worse than sharing personal doubts and fears with someone you care about only to have the information used later to mock, insult, or hurt you.
When initial trust has developed, reach an agreement that covers basic expectations. If it’s a romantic relationship, is it okay to date other people? What kinds of contact with exes are okay? Know what privacy means to each of you.
Both parties should promise up front to send a signal before abandoning ship. Include any other important requirements you have. Then, when there’s a breach, you can say, “I thought we agreed that neither of us would do that!”
The longer you know someone, the better you can tell how he or she is likely to behave. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least three months before sleeping with a person, since it takes at least that amount of time to form a valid first impression.
If you hop into bed sooner, you may find it hard to extricate yourself when the other person exhibits characteristics that are deal breakers. You want someone relatively predictable, someone whose hang-ups you can live with.
Never trust anyone completely. Your first job is to take care of yourself. You must always have a Plan B. If you are totally dependent on the other person, you will feel lost if he or she is hit by a truck.
Don’t expect unconditional love, and don’t agree to provide it. That’s reserved for parents and children. If you have just tied the knot with an ax murderer and you find a sharp ax in the closet, you’d be a fool to stick around. Your first duty is always to yourself.
People accused of betrayal often blame others and voice insults and accusations. They justify and defend themselves to ease their own anxiety. Empathy would require them to acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Many people can’t do this because they don’t accept their own.
Betrayals sometimes exert an effect that the other person wanted but didn’t know how to achieve otherwise. Someone who can’t stand to get emotionally close will create more distance to feel safe. He or she may push you away by cheating or by insulting or pathologizing you: “You’re sick. You need help!”
Someone who dismisses others as “disturbed” is resorting to a cheap putdown and also displaying a lack of empathy. To understand why someone might have acted a certain way, you need only to imagine yourself in their shoes. Mental health issues, even when there’s a bona fide diagnosis, do not justify disrespect.
In the wake of betrayal, what relationship do you want? If you can’t mend it, can you process the problem and go your separate ways in peace? Cutoffs take a heavy emotional toll on all parties.
I remember reading somewhere that neighborhoods in China have local councils that hear interpersonal grievances and help the parties concerned work things out. The focus is on restoration rather than fault finding or punishment.
To move forward, apologies are sometimes needed on both sides. It’s important to acknowledge wrongdoing, voice heartfelt remorse, offer assurance of different behavior in the future, and be willing to make amends. Forgiveness usually benefits the forgiver more than the forgiven.
The benefits of saying “I screwed up” can be huge. The young children in foster care with whom I used to work were always dazzled when I acknowledged having made a mistake. If I could say, “I was wrong and you were right,” my credibility as a therapist skyrocketed.
Mostly I have written here about betrayal in the interpersonal context, but we shouldn’t overlook other possibilities. The employer who falsely accuses a devoted long-term worker without making a full and proper investigation violates the employee’s expectation of fair treatment. In nations where genocide has occurred, the government slaughtered people when it failed to protect them.
In our American society we are inherently mistrustful. Eager to avoid risk, we assume that rumor (or the allegation that a crime has been committed) is true until proven otherwise. Our legal system declares that we do the opposite, but how do things work in the real world?
Life is not about cutting off the people who have hurt us. It is about making peace, renewing connections, and restoring relationships despite the inevitable injuries. We must all somehow live in this world together. Watch this wonderful video to see how animals help heal people (and vice versa) when it comes to faith and trust.
Sister Helen Prejean, a passionate advocate for abolition of the death penalty, has wonderfully said that everyone is more than the worst thing they have done in their lives. Surely we should view this statement as applying not just to murder but to less extreme forms of betrayal.
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