Betrayal in Relationships

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This piece of advice caught our attention while we were reading the Montreal Gazette a few hours ago. It was taken from Annie’s Mailbox (a sort of “Miss Manners” daily column by Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar).

“Does it bother you that Gloria flirts, or that she flirts with Bob? We’re not sure what you consider ‘heavy-duty flirting.’ When most women flirt with waiters, it consists of smiling, being charming, maybe some giggling, and we consider that harmless. If she were to run her fingers up his sleeve and make smooching noises, we’d call that ‘heavy-duty.’ If this is what Gloria is doing, tell her that it is disrespectful, makes you feel insignificant, and you’d like her to stop.”

(Montreal Gazette, December 23, 2006)

Although the man who asked for the advice never wrote the word “betrayal” in his question, it was clear that his wife’s flirting bothered him. But we had to hand it to him. His positive attitude mirrored a willingness on his part to deal with the issue immediately instead of letting it fester. Even if his wife’s flirting habit unnerved him (his word), he asked the columnists how he could get her to break the habit so that their marriage could be saved.

If we were in his wife’s shoes, we’d be genuinely thrilled that he wanted to keep the marriage alive - proof that he still loved us despite our frailties. This should convince us to take a 360-degree turn and change for the better. Why wait until he finally decides that this persistent heavy-duty flirting constitutes a betrayal of his trust? Let’s hope the situation of Bob and Gloria does not develop into that of Oliver and Barbara Rose – the husband and wife team in The War of the Roses – a must-see film for everyone considering divorce.

Dr. John Gottman, a professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and co-founder and co-director of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute said that “one of the saddest reasons a marriage dies is that neither spouse recognizes its value until it is too late.” (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 1999). So it isn’t so much the element of betrayal that causes a rupture in an otherwise happy relationship, but the unwillingness of one or both spouses to work around the betrayal, if indeed there was betrayal.

How does one define betrayal?

We’ll borrow the definition we found in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002 as offered by Doctors Eli J. Finkel of Carnegie Mellon University and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

From a general standpoint, betrayal is defined as being “unfaithful or disloyal”, “revealing something that was intended to be hidden” or to “seduce and desert” (Steinmetz). From the standpoint of close relationships, betrayal may be defined as an individual act, or a continuum of acts. Doctors Finkel et al therefore explain betrayal as a “percieved violation by a partner of an implicit or explicit relationship-relevant norm. Betrayal may be said to have occurred when the victim believes that the perpetrator has knowingly departed from the norms that are assumed to govern their relationship, thereby causing harm to the victim.”

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

Actually, it’s the mumbo-jumbo of psychology which we can probably break down into clearer components. How about this?

Let’s use the example of Bob and Gloria above and embellish it a little by weaving a bit of fiction into it: Gloria and Bob are having dinner in a restaurant. Enter a dark-haired, young and virile-looking waiter who takes their order. The eyes of the waiter and Gloria meet and stay locked for five seconds. Bob sees this “meeting of the eyes” but pretends to concentrate on the menu. Gloria and Bob give their order. Next thing we know, Gloria excuses herself and says she needs to go to the washroom. After five minutes and still no sign of Gloria, Bob fidgets and looks at his watch. That’s an awfully long time to be in the washroom. Gloria comes back after 15 minutes all flushed, a hint of contentment in her demeanor. Bob thinks she went too far. He finishes his meal in silence. They go home. He explodes in anger as soon as they get home, calling Gloria all kinds of names. He accuses her of betraying him and wants a divorce. Gloria is shocked.

It’s the classic example of “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.” But in our story above, can we put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

The Road to Forgiveness

According to Suzy Farbman who wrote Back from Betrayal (2004), the answer is a firm YES! A marriage, a family and a life do not have to end in betrayal. If our moral fiber is strong and we’re capable of showing some resiliency, Farbman says that no matter how we’re hurting, we should take that betrayal – perceived or not – and turn it into something that can renew and add vigor to the marriage.

As Farbman herself relates her own story, theirs was a marriage gone bad which was ultimately redeemed. It is a story of human foible and redemption. More importantly, however, it constituted a remarkable turning point because while it was obvious that their marriage didn’t stand a chance, both she and her husband wanted desperately for a miracle to happen.

If a marriage ends on the rocks because of a partner’s betrayal, there’s the strong possibility that it is not from a lack of love, but rather a lack of consciousness, a lack of authenticity, and a lack of forgiveness, Farbman suggests.

Life is a continuing cargo loaded with betrayals. It is really up to us to transform those betrayals into modern miracles.

“A true man has three essential elements of his personality: humor, compassion and strength. In my mind, A. Justin said it best: Every man has to have a little bit of Curley, Gandhi and Clint Eastwood in him.” (Jim Belushi, 2006)

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