Understand Betrayal & How to Deal With it

People don’t always do what we want or expect them to do. Some of the surprises our partners spring on us are pleasant ones, but our partners occasionally do harmful things (or fail to do desirable things) that violate the expectations we hold for close confidants. People who reveal secrets about their partners, gossip about them behind their backs, tease in hurtful ways, break important promises, fail to support their partners, spend too much time elsewhere, or simply abandon a relationship can be considered to have betrayed their partners.

A ll of these actions involve painful drops in perceived relational value. When we are victimized by intimate partners, their betrayals demonstrate that they do not value their relationships with us as much as we had believed, or else, from our point of view, they would not have behaved as they did. The sad irony is that for losses of relational value of this sort to occur, we must have (or think we have) a desired relationship that is injured; thus, casual acquaintances cannot betray us as thoroughly and hurtfully as trusted intimates can. We’re not always hurt by the ones we love, but the ones we love can hurt us in ways that no one else can.

In fact, when our feelings get hurt in everyday life, it’s usually our close friends or romantic partners who cause us distress. Those partners are rarely being intentionally malicious—which is fortunate because it’s very painful to believe that our partners intended to hurt us ( Vangelisti & Hampel, 2010)—but they often disappoint us anyway. Almost all of us have betrayed someone and have been betrayed by someone else in a close relationship at some time or another. 

Because caring and trust are integral aspects of intimacy, this may be surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Most of us are close in some way to more than one person, and when people try to be loyal simultaneously to several different relationships, competing demands are inescapable. And when obligations overlap, occasional violations of the norms in a given relationship may be unavoidable. If two of your close friends schedule their weddings in different cities on the same day, for instance, you’ll have to disappoint one of them, even without wanting to. Moreover, we occasionally face competing demands within a given relationship, finding ourselves unable to appropriately honor all of the responsibilities of a caring friend or lover. I once learned that the ex-wife of a good friend was now sleeping with my friend’s best friend.   Honesty and openness required that I inform my friend of his other friend’s—and, arguably, his ex-wife’s—betrayal. However, caring and compassion suggested that he not be burdened with painful, embarrassing news he could do nothing about. It was a no-win situation. Seeking to protect my friend’s feelings, I decided not to tell him about his other friend’s betrayal—but a few months later, when he learned the truth (and realized that I had known), he was hurt and disappointed that I had kept such a secret from him. Perceived betrayals sometimes occur when people have the best intentions but simply cannot honor all of the overlapping and competing demands that intimacy and interdependency may make.

Individual Differences in Betrayal

Nevertheless, some of us betray our partners more often than others do. Using the Interpersonal Betrayal Scale in Table 10.2, Warren Jones found that betrayal is more frequent among college students majoring in the social sciences, education, business, and the humanities than among those studying the physical sciences, engineering, and other technical fields. More importantly, those who report repeated betrayals of others tend to be unhappy and maladjusted. Betrayers tend to be resentful, vengeful, and suspicious people. Overall, betrayers do not trust others much, perhaps because they wrongly attribute to others the same motives, they recognize in themselves (Couch & Jones, 1997). 

Men and women do not differ in their tendencies to betray others, but they do differ in the targets of their most frequent betrayals. Men are more likely than women to betray their romantic partners and business associates, whereas women betray their friends and family members more often than men do. Whether one is at particular risk for betrayal from a man or woman seems to depend on the part one plays in his or her life.

The Two Sides to Every Betrayal 

People who betray their partners usually underestimate the harm they do. It’s normal for people to be self-serving when they consider their actions, but when it comes to betrayal, this tendency leads people to excuse and minimize actions that their partners may find quite harmful. People who betray often consider their behavior to be innocuous, and they are quick to describe mitigating circumstances that vindicate their actions. However, their victims rarely share those views. Those who are betrayed routinely judge the transgression to be more severe than the betrayers do. 

These two different perspectives lead to disparate perceptions of the harm that is done. People who are betrayed almost never believe that such events have no effect on their relationships; 93 percent of the time, they feel that a betrayal damages the partnership, leading to lower satisfaction and lingering suspicion and doubt (Jones & Burdette, 1994). In contrast, the perpetrators acknowledge that their behavior was harmful only about half the time. They even think that the relationship has improved as a result of their transgression in one of every five cases. Such judgments are clearly ill advised. We may feel better believing that our occasional betrayals are relatively benign, but it may be smarter to face the facts: Betrayals almost always have negative, and sometimes lasting, effects on a relationship. Indeed, they are routinely the central complaint of spouses seeking therapy or a divorce.

Why Revenge Isn’t Such a Good Idea

When they’ve been wronged, victims of both sexes may feel that they want to get some payback and exact a little revenge, but that’s ordinarily a destructive motive and a bad idea, for several reasons. A first problem with revenge stems from the different perspectives of perpetrator and victim, who rarely agree on the amount of retribution that’s just: When victims inflict reciprocal injury that seems to them to be equal to the harm they suffered, their retribution seems excessive to the original perpetrators (who are now the new victims). And if I seem to you to have been meaner to you than you were to me, you then need to hurt me again to balance the scales, and a cycle of vengefulness continues. We also tend to excuse actions of our own that we judge to be blameworthy in others. Self-serving perceptions like these were evident in a remarkable study of dozens of Dutch couples in which both partners had cheated, having extradyadic sex: Almost everybody thought that their faithlessness had been relatively innocuous and meaningless but that their partner’s infidelity had been a gross betrayal. If it’s okay when I do it but wrong when you do it, revenge is impossible to calibrate so that genuine justice is served.

A second problem is that we routinely expect revenge to be more satisfying than it turns out to be. When you nurse a grudge, rehearsing an injury and plotting your revenge, you keep your wounds fresh and delay any healing. As it turns out, those who are given an opportunity for revenge stay distressed and surly longer than those who are wronged but then just have to move on and get over it. In addition, retaliation is usually fulfilling only when those who have wronged us connect the dots, understand why they’re now being harmed, and see the error of their ways; revenge is actually less satisfying than doing nothing at all when the original perpetrator fails to see that he or she had it coming. And how often does your partner say, “Yes, dear, you’re right, I see that I deserved that because of my prior misbehavior”?

Finally, people who are prone to vengeance tend to be pretty sour folks who are high in neuroticism, low in agreeableness, and generally less happy with life than those of us who are less vengeful. They’re greedy and manipulative, too, so they’re not a fun bunch. So, when partners have been betrayed, they do sometimes take hurtful action by, for instance, destroying old letters and gifts, pursuing other relationships, and defaming their partners to others. But spite is costly, both to one’s partnership and to oneself. So, let’s end our look at painful stresses and strains by considering the alternative: the healing process that can help a relationship survive a partner’s wrongdoi

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