Disappointment vs. Betrayal

Betrayal is intolerable; disappointment is inevitable and negotiable.

Posted Mar 18, 2020

The natural anxiety that occurs after any form of intimate betrayal 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. Their presenting complaints are mostly about disappointments in their current relationships – intimate and otherwise – that explode with the emotional intensity of 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 distrust in their current relationships. They misinterpret the anxiety signals that occur with their feelings of disappointment. The sudden rise in anxiety, though relatively minor, seems to signal disaster. The resulting surge of adrenaline amplifies the disappointment and makes it seem like trust-destroying betrayal.

My clients 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 deep 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 unacceptable without significant relationship repair.

The following is a guide for keeping disappointment, which is really about frustrated preferences, distinct from betrayal, so that one doesn't feel like the other:

We trust loved ones never to hurt us intentionally. We prefer that our loved ones never hurt us, even unintentionally.

We trust loved ones to maintain the security of the relationship through interest, compassion, trust, love, and faithful behavior. We prefer that loved ones not feel interest in or attraction to anyone else.

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,  and 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 and 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 never should occur. We need to keep them distinct if we hope to achieve satisfaction in close relationships.