The longer I do therapy with couples, the more I am shocked at the many myths we are told about how relationship and marriage works. The shock comes from my realization that most of what we were told is not true and merely sets up unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment and disillusionment.
While this may come across as bad news, I assure you that it is not! Realizing that we have received misinformation allows us to start anew and seek out more reliable sources. It also invites us to become creators of our own rules and agreements, respecting the fact that every relationship is unique in its own way, and there cannot be just one set of agreements for everyone.
In this article, I will focus on one bit of information that can be hard to swallow for most couples–the reality that your partner will betray you. But before you throw in the towel and stop reading, allow me to explain why this is not necessarily a terrible thing.
WHAT IS BETRAYAL? It is important to define terms if we are going to explore betrayal as a behavior to expect. Although there are many definitions, when betrayal happens in a relationship I describe it as “words or behaviors that break the shared relationship agreements”. These agreements should be stated explicitly and reviewed regularly, but sadly, most agreements in relationship are assumed or implied, and that is one of the problems that can lead to a betrayal.
Most people are familiar with the “big” betrayals that can happen between two people, such as infidelity (which I will talk about later), but less so with smaller, everyday betrayals that happen right under our noses. What are some examples of these small betrayals?
- looking at your phone when your partner is talking to/with you
- telling a close friend something negative about your partner that you would not tell them to their face
- intentionally lying to your partner to avoid taking responsibility for something
- not doing what you have promised your partner you would do
What are not examples of betrayal?
- fantasizing about a favorite movie star while having sex with your partner
- wanting to do something by yourself sometimes rather than a shared activity
- talking to a therapist about doubts, fears, and resentments that you have in your relationship
- wanting to have sex with someone else (but not doing it)
If you recognized any of the examples in the top list, I want to assure you that this does not make you a bad partner, it simply makes you a human one.
Way back in the 1990’s I attended a seminar where the speaker said to the audience: “We are all cheaters, liars, and thieves.” After a dramatic pause to allow the statement to sink in, she then clarified with an example: “Who here among us has never stolen a moment of someone’s time?”
The point she was making is similar to the point I want to make about betrayal–we all do it! John Gottman tells us that at any given time, we are either leaning into the relationship or out of it. But just because we momentarily turn away from the shared agreements of the relationship, this does not automatically mean we value the relationship less–instead it suggests that something in the moment is pulling us more than the relationship. In other words, everything is information! And the information you might be getting by your behavior could mean that:
- you may be lagging in attending to your individual needs, OR you are just attending to your individual needs (which is normal!)
- some of the shared agreements between you and your partner are overdue for a review, as they many not serve who you both are now
- you have underlying negative beliefs about yourself and/or others that become roadblocks to your best intentions
- nothing is wrong, you are simply being human!
How do we know if our “little betrayal” is good or bad? I suggest asking yourself what the purpose of your actions is–this will reveal your motivation. Ask: “What is the purpose of saying or doing this?”
WHAT ABOUT INFIDELITY? The most common betrayal I see in my couples clients is the “big one”: infidelity. While infidelity is often thought of as cheating, it is not always cheating! Cheating, in my book, has to include the intention to deceive, as I wrote previously in this article. The bottom line is that cheating and infidelity are not always the same thing.
While an infidelity (whether it is one time only or an ongoing affair) can certainly be a betrayal, I have noticed that it is more a betrayal of one’s own value system, rather than of their partner. As painful as this may feel, it can be unnecessary and unwise to end the relationship over it. Most of the time the betrayer has not stopped loving or wanting sex from their partner, but they may have stopped loving themselves in the relationship. Having sex with a new person can reset our own experience of ourselves very quickly in a positive way, at least until we are found out.
Couples therapy is strongly suggested in these instances so that the couple does not make rash decisions they may regret later. Esther Perel has observed in her work that the couples who do the work to move past an infidelity will report having a closer, better relationship, because they are now talking about things they were not talking about. I would add that when as a couple recovers from infidelity, they can increase the healthy differentiation between them, as ruptures of this magnitude often shake up our romantic illusions about love and allow us to move closer into Real Love.
Real Love is a state that allows for two people to become “one” while at the same time remaining “two”.
The statement above describes moving in and out of the states of closeness without rupture of fear of abandonment or envelopment. The relationship needs come before all, and both individuals thrive as long as they regularly review the needs and agreements of both the relationship and themselves as individuals.
(Read my previous article on “Putting Relationship Needs First”)
Infidelity, in the form of actual sex outside of a couple’s agreements, is best seen as an alarm bell rather than an evacuation order. By heeding that alarm, two people can often become closer as a couple and more developed as individuals. While this does not suggest a relationship needs infidelity to move onto higher ground, it does let couples know that bad news can become good news if the emotional connection is still alive and the relationship is valued. One infidelity does not automatically mean that you don’t value the relationship!
WHAT DO VALUES HAVE TO DO WITH IT? Speaking of values, it is becoming more and more clear to me that if you don’t know what drives you in life, you probably won’t get anywhere. Values are the drivers because they give us direction in life, and having direction is one way that we can regularly check if we are “betraying” our partners as well as ourselves. Dr. Nikki Rubin explains, in this article about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), that:
“Most times when we are experiencing pain or discomfort, we believe that we must rid ourselves of it before we begin to build the life we want for ourselves. Sadly, we then end up spending our time trying to fix our pain without attending to what gives us meaning, fulfillment, or contentment.”
Part of this acceptance requires the patient to identify their values. Then they can “learn to take steps to engage in behaviors that are aligned with our values—even when we are experiencing pain or discomfort.”
In this sense, betrayal is another word for moving in the opposite direction of your values, which is one way that we attempt to rid ourselves or pain or discomfort. Words and actions, if they go against your relationship values, are most often exactly this: a way to avoid the pain and discomfort of addressing changes in relationship and issues with one’s partner.
If you notice a betrayal in your relationship, it may be a sign that agreements and/or shared values decided upon in the past may not be working for one or both of you now. Those who choose to end a relationship because of one betrayal may be avoiding an opportunity to grow closer together, build a more realistic sense of trust, experience more appreciation for their time together, and have enriched individual lives.
While there are betrayals so severe that they are in essence “deal-breakers”, that is not usually the case. Most couples don’t need to break up. A regular discussion about individual and shared values in your relationship can go a long way toward preventing betrayal ruptures that are irreparable.
It can be hard to re-wire the way our brains think about love, sex, and relationship, especially if what we were taught about them made them seem easy to succeed in. But one can either hang on to ways of thinking that are familiar but no longer work, or they can “widen” their thinking so that it is helpful to who they currently are in life and relationship.
Maybe relationships are not as black or white as we were led to believe–maybe they thrive when a couple sits in the grey, the areas in-between, where real life resides. A place where betrayal is both more and less than we think it is. Is your relationship worth this exploration?