Betrayals are an unavoidable aspect of almost any close relationship. They range from the seemingly innocent flirtations with a co-worker to the not so innocent one-night stands and long-term extramarital affairs. If you’ve been the victim of a betrayal, you know the agony of feeling cheated on and used. Your world views are shattered because if you can’t trust your partner, who can you trust? Your dismay, pain, and despair can lead you to declare the relationship to be over. You throw the cheater out of your home and heart, but even then, the pain continues.
Abuse is another form of betrayal that can have long-term consequences for an individual’s adjustment. According to betrayal trauma theory, if you’ve been the victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of the person caring for you, you may repress or block the experiences from your memory in order to continue to survive. The closer you are to that abuser, the greater the degree of trauma you experience. and the higher your risk for long-term mental health problems.
In research by University of Oregon psychologist Christina Gamache Martin and colleagues (2011), college students were asked to report whether they had experienced a variety of types of traumatic events. Those who reported abuse at the hands of someone they were close to were most likely to report symptoms of depression, dissociation, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, not only was the experience of abuse important, but also the way the participants appraised, or thought about, the abuse. Feeling betrayed, ashamed, anxious, and angry as well as blaming themselves were reactions that accentuated the effect of the abuse itself on their mental health.
Betrayal in romantic relationships also involves a breach of trust and may result in similar reactions, particularly in someone who’s been abused earlier in life. However, in contrast to abuse by a parent or other close relative, betrayal in romantic relationships comes with the option to break with the partner. Infidelity was, for decades, the only acceptable legal basis for divorce outside of the Catholic faith. Indeed, the relationship triangle is one of the classic themes of everything from Shakespearian tragedies to modern-day rom-coms. These characters take real or imagined betrayal is depicted as justification for everything from murder (as in Shakespeare’s Othello) to retaliatory cheating (as in the TV show Friends).
However, does betrayal always have to mean breakup? As it turns out, many relationships do go on to heal and mend the emotional scars caused by a partner’s infidelity. University of Washington social psychologist Peggy Hannon and colleagues (2010) studied both married couples and dating partners who reported on incidents in which they were betrayed by their partners. In the study of married couples, the partners were asked to discuss a recent betrayal that they found moderately to severely upsetting. These included such incidents as overspending after agreeing to save money, discussing embarrassing topics in front of family and friends, volunteering the partner for something without asking, and not trusting the partner with people of the opposite gender. In the study of dating couples, partners kept records of times when they were both victims and perpetrators of betrayal. The betrayal incidents they reported included telling a friend an important secret, playing a trick on the partner and then lying about it, failing to help when needed, and spending time alone in a bedroom with an ex-partner. In yet a third sample of dating couples, the researchers asked participants to report on a betrayal incident that occurred in the past.
Across all three studies, Hannon and her team found support for what they call a dyadic model of victim and perpetrator interactions. For a betrayal to be successfully resolved, the perpetrator must first try to make amends to the victim. In other words, the betrayer must apologize in some form, whether explicitly saying “I’m sorry” or showing in other ways that he or she truly regrets the betrayal. Then, the ball is in the victim’s court. Accepting the apology and forgiving the partner is the next step toward healing. Forgiving the perpetrator without that first step of getting an apology isn’t enough to mend the rift. The model is called “dyadic,” then, because it involves the actions of both partners.
It’s not true, then, that “love means never having to say you’re sorry” (the famous line from Love Story). Moving beyond betrayal to resolution most definitely means, according to this research, that perpetrators take responsibility for their actions by making it clear they regret what they’ve done. Being defensive or hostile about their actions leads their partners to be less willing to forgive them. Once the victims receive the apology, they can then let go of their hurt and anger.
For betrayal to be resolved, the sequence must occur in the direction of perpetrator amends first and victim forgiveness second. As the authors concluded, “forgiveness per se is no magic bullet in the resolution of betrayal dilemmas” (p. 274).
As painful as they are at the time, betrayal incidents can even lead to improved relationships. When the perpetrator issues a sincere apology, vows never to engage in the betrayal again, and repay the debt to the victim, both partners now emerge with a better understanding of what’s important in their relationship. If the perpetrator does not do so, the victim has learned something important and now has, if not a better, at least a more realistic view of the partner.
The Hannon study also shows the value of forgiveness beyond relationship betrayals. As the authors point out, forgiveness in other settings can lead to beneficial consequences. Consider the example of an investment company’s CEO who is found to have committed fraud. By offering a sincere apology, this leads shareholders to feel less betrayed and to continue to maintain a positive view of the company. Without this apology (emphasis on “sincere”), it’s much more difficult for shareholders to experience forgiveness.
You may be wondering what happens when the betrayals are even more serious than those studied by Hannon and her associates, or what happens when the betrayals are more long-term and chronic. Thinking back on the betrayal trauma theory, remember that once again, appraisals were key to avoiding long-term mental health consequences. If you’ve been the victim of serious betrayal, your path to resolution is to reframe the betrayal in a way that doesn’t put the blame on you. An apology may help set you on that path, but if the apology isn’t forthcoming, you have to take care of your own feelings about the situation. Ultimately, as impossible as it may seem, you may actually be able to work your way toward forgiveness.
To sum up, here are the key points from the betrayal research I’ve covered here, with one message for the perpetrator and two for the victim.
Perpetrator: Say you’re sorry and then be sorry.
As we saw from the Hannon study, perpetrator apologies set the ball rolling toward victim forgiveness. However, the apology (whether you put it in words or not) must be authentic. Show that you’ve learned from the situation and don’t just vow not to do it again—don’t.
Victim: Avoid self-blame.
Interpreting serious betrayal, including abuse, as your fault can damage your mental health. Learn to adjust your appraisals until you truly believe that you are not to blame.
Victim: Practice forgiveness.
Being able to forgive the person who betrayed you will help heal not only the relationship, but also your own mental scars. In the process, you’ll also learn about the relationship—and about yourself. Your relationship values and expectations say a lot about who you are as a person. As you clarify those, you’ll gain better self-understanding.
Betrayals are perhaps the most painful aspect of long-term relationships and the most difficult to overcome. However, by viewing the path to resolution as a two-way street, both you and your relationships will benefit.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012
Hannon, P. A., Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J., & Kamashiro, M. (2010). In the wake of betrayal: Amends, forgiveness, and the resolution of betrayal. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 253-278. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01275.x
Martin, C., Cromer, L., DePrince, A. P., & Freyd, J. J. (2011). The role of cumulative trauma, betrayal, and appraisals in understanding trauma symptomatology. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, doi:10.1037/a0025686