The natural anxiety that occurs after any form of intimate betrayal greatly amplifies sensitivity to hurt, sometimes to the point where disappointment feels like betrayal.
Many of my divorced clients begin treatment feeling anxious, depressed, and completely unable to trust the people closest to them. Nevertheless, they seem convinced that the mere passage of time has healed the wounds of their past betrayals. Their presenting complaints are mostly about disappointments in their current relationships – intimate and otherwise - that explode with the emotional intensity of betrayal. Here are a few examples:
• Phil broke up with his new girlfriend (his second serious relationship after his ex betrayed him) because she was uncomfortable going to church with him, even though she told him from the start that she wasn’t religious.
• Keisha fought with her new husband because he noticed other women in the grocery store, knowing that her ex had been unfaithful to her.
• Tyrone left his new wife because she was “skeptical about everything” he said to her, although he admitted that she was not emotionally abusive like his ex.
• Shocked and appalled when her elderly mother forgot her birthday, Elizabeth broke off all contact, just before the woman’s untimely death.
• Geneen had lost all her former friends because she believed they weren’t “available” to her whenever she needed them after he ex’s betrayal.
It’s easy to say that these folks simply had not recovered from intimate betrayals of the past, and of course that’s true. But there’s a particular reason for the constant distrust in their current relationships. They misinterpret the anxiety signals that occur with - or immediately before - feelings of disappointment. Instead of a mere signal of imminent change, the sudden rise in anxiety, though relatively minor, seems to signal disaster. The resulting surge of adrenalin amplifies the disappointment and makes it seem like trust-destroying betrayal.
Most of my clients, including all those mentioned above, learn early in treatment that disappointment is part of ordinary living and not at all the same as betrayal. Disappointment is inevitable in relationships. As frail human beings subject to forgetfulness, occasional insensitivity, and absorption in our own defenses against hurt, we are bound to disappoint each other. I like to put it this way: Disappointment is about the way the house looks at a given moment; betrayal is a gaping crack in the foundation. We cannot assume that displaced furniture signals a crack in the foundation, just as we cannot improve the foundation by rearranging the furniture. Some disappointments can be negotiated, corrected, or compromised; others must be accepted and tolerated, if the relationship is otherwise viable and important to you. In contrast, betrayal is non-negotiable, intolerable, and should never be accepted without significant relationship repair.
The following is a guide for keeping disappointment, which is really about frustrated preferences, distinct from betrayal, so that one never feels like the other.
We trust loved ones to not intentionally hurt us. We prefer that loved ones never hurt us, even unintentionally.
We trust loved ones to accept and value us for who we are. We prefer that loved ones share all our values, tastes, and preferences.
We trust loved ones to keep our best interests at heart (in balance with the best interests of other family members). We prefer that loved ones put our interests first in all things.
We trust loved ones to respect us. We prefer that loved ones idealize us and never hint of displeasure or disappointment.
We trust loved ones to support us in times of need. We prefer that loved ones think – and say often – that we’re smart, attractive, talented, good workers, successful, etc.
We trust loved ones to care about our pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and distress and offer to help. We prefer that loved ones eliminate our pain, vulnerability, discomfort, i.e., regulate our negative emotions.
We trust loved ones to want us to be happy. We prefer that loved ones make us happy.
Preferences may well be important to you an may even be deal-breakers for certain relationships. Just know that preferences are subject to disappointment (and subject to reciprocation, meaning that you’re unlikely to get more than you give). Disappointment is inevitable in human relationships; betrayal should never occur. We have to keep them distinct if we hope to achieve any kind of satisfaction in close relationships.
Disappointment and Negotiation
You can match any two people on the planet – even identical twins – and they will have conflicts of preferences that have to be negotiated, if they want a close relationship with each other. To maintain viable relationships, we must be able to negotiate when disappointed, which means regulating any anxiety that is misinterpreted as betrayal. We have to be able to say to ourselves and to our loved ones at the outset of negotiation:
“I’m disappointed, but I’m okay.”
If we can feel this and show it to loved ones, negotiation is about simple behavior choices that pose no threat to trust, compassion, or love.