This is a question I’ve been asked repeatedly since my book, Living & Loving after Betrayal: How to Heal from Abuse, Infidelity, Deceit, and Chronic Resentment was published in September. At first I was taken aback, as it seems apparent that abuse, like infidelity, deceit, chronic resentment, and financial manipulation, is a betrayal of the implicit promise that gives us the courage to love in the first place, that the person you love and trust will care about your wellbeing and never intentionally hurt you.
The commonality of the various behaviors that constitute betrayal is more important to healing and growth than any differences among them. Recognizing the commonalities of our pain connects us to a broader swath of humanity, while focus on the superficial differences of what it feels like to be cheated on, lied to, swindled, demeaned, dismissed, mentally tormented, isolated, deprived, or physically harmed can alienate us from the self-healing capacity that resides deep within us – our ability to connect to others. Betrayal in all its forms strikes at the core of our humanity, impairing our ability to experience the healing emotions of compassion and kindness for others. Restoring our most humane values is paramount to healing all forms of betrayal and to outgrowing the residual effects they inevitably have.
The Common Assault on Attachment
What makes all forms of betrayal intolerable is the assault on the very attachment bond that holds us in close connection. Attachment bonding first emerged in humans as a survival necessity to ward off predatory threats but evolved over time to provide emotional security, support, value, meaning, and purpose.
The dynamics of emotional bonds give us enormous power over the emotional wellbeing of those who love us. Attachment power is unique - only someone you love can make you unlovable. All forms of betrayal result from misuse of the unique power inherent in attachment bonds. It is no coincidence that infidelity, deceit, and financial machinations so often accompany emotional and physical abuse. Without treatment, abusers are more committed to pursuing the adrenalin rush they get from the violation of their more humane values than using their emotional power over loved ones with the sensitivity and responsibility required of emotional bonds. They fall for what is perhaps the greatest human tragedy, from which most suffering and all evil behavior arises: trying, however vainly, to feel more powerful, when emotional vulnerability tells us to do what will make us feel more valuable.
Framing abuse as betrayal has significant advantages in the long and difficult recovery process. Most important among these is eliminating the confusion around what constitutes abuse, while raising the bar of what is intolerable in relationships.
My agency, CompassionPower, frequently receives distraught emails from abused persons wanting to know what we do in our boot camps (for chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse) to “break through” their partners’ denial of abusive behavior. These hurt and exhausted people want their partners confronted with detailed descriptions of what constitutes abusive behaviors. That’s perfectly understandable, given that most have spent years in endless arguments with their partners about the definition of abuse and whether the hurtful behavior they endure is “abusive” or just “angry” or “defensive” or “insensitive” or “a misunderstanding.” This relegates the couple to a standoff where one argues for victim status, while the other rejects the abuser handle.
Sadly lost in this pointless struggle over labels – whether or not the bad behavior qualifies as “abusive” - is the more important fact that the complaining partner is hurt. It doesn’t really matter what they call it or how they describe it; all that matters is that it hurts. And what hurts the most is that the pain comes from someone they love betraying the promise to care about their wellbeing and never intentionally hurt them.
At the end of the day, the only standard of behavior that matters in a love relationship is that it is compassionate, kind, and respectful. Anything less, whether abusive or not, is intolerable. Anything less betrays the attachment bond.
Betrayal Allows Focus on a Healing Identity
When we recognize that abuse is betrayal of the attachment bond, we free ourselves of the perceived need to validate and justify our status as victims of abuse. Validation and justification require focus on damage, harm, and pain, all of which amplify and magnify the hurt and makes us feel powerless over it. And if we seek validation from others, we fall pretty to their natural tendency to project their own experience onto ours. Liberated from the urge to validate and justify, we are free to develop a healing identity, with focus on strengths, resilience, and desire to improve our lives, all of which are necessary for healing and growth. A healing identity makes us look for ways to heal, improve, and grow, which is the only hope of getting the footprints of abuse off the heart and soul.
In the early 1990s, John Gottman and the late Neil Jacobson discovered that battered women are more likely to leave their abusive relationships once and for all, when they begin to feel contempt or disgust for their partners. Before disgust sets in, they are likely to leave and return multiple times, in what researchers refer to as “the elastic effect.” From an attachment perspective, this makes perfect sense. If they leave while still attached, there will be an emotional pull to return, which, in many cases, is more compelling than safety and financial considerations. Disgust is a detachment emotion – we figuratively throw up the loved one who had gotten under our skin. Disgust provides powerful motivation to leave and stay separated.
Since that seminal finding about contempt and disgust, the approach of many advocates, authors, and counselors has been, at least inadvertently, to stimulate disgust in abuse victims, in the hope that it would lead them to safety. The problem with disgust is that it is more likely to disrupt the natural healing process through focus on damage and weakness to justify the disgust. (We feel a need to justify it because on some level we recognize that it violates our sense of humanity, even though abusive behavior, like all forms of betrayal, deserves disgust.) Almost inevitably, disgust turns into depression, obsessions, resentment, anger, addictions, bitterness, or violence, and in many ways, makes us think as inhumanely and stereotypically as abusers.
If you have been abused, it’s crucial to identify with your deepest longing to heal, improve, and create value and meaning in your life. It is far more empowering to recognize that your attachment bond has been betrayed and that you must demand change or, if change is resisted or inadequate, leave an abusive relationship out of self-compassion and self-value, rather than contempt and disgust.