WHY YOU SHOULD EXPECT YOUR PARTNER TO BETRAY YOU

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? 

 

 

 

PUTTING RELATIONSHIP NEEDS FIRST

As a couples therapist, I tend to think a lot about why relationships have problems. Why do we struggle so with the one person we love the most? It doesn’t help that the very way we, as a culture, participate in relationships changes over time. Relationships do not serve the exact same purpose that they served in 1950. Or 1960 or 1980. And yet people often go into relationship as if nothing has changed.

What is the outcome of this? From what I have observed, relationships suffer. And when relationships suffer, so do the individuals who are in the relationships.

There must be a way out of this! Fortunately, there is, though it can be difficult to act on. Before we get into the way out, let’s first look at what has changed, and why these changes are not necessarily bad news.

CONFLICT IS INEVITABLE, AND THAT IS NOT A BAD THING: They say that “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. What? Isn’t a relationship supposed to take you away from pain and suffering and give you peace and happiness “until death do we part”? Well, it all depends on what stories you were told about relationships and marriage, but if you are like most of us, very few of the stories we are told actually do us any good when it comes to actually being in a relationship. Where do we get these stories from?

Up until the late 60’s or so, the purpose of marriage was fairly clear-cut in society: to settle down and raise a family with someone you love. However, this was a change from what came before it. Earlier versions of marriage prioritized the protection of property or the strengthening of a family name over settling down or falling in love. Couples raised families to pass on the family name and property, if there was any, and they often married because that was the best way to survive life. Couples had kids so there were extra working hands, even if there was no property to hand down.

Today, though those templates continue to exist in the world, they have been largely superseded by the needs of “modern” couples. Those needs are a combination of needs from the past, as well as current expectations, which can vary from couple to couple. To put it bluntly, marriage and relationship has changed more than most of us want to admit, and they continue to evolve as I write this.

So what are the needs of modern couples? And why should they come before the needs of the individuals? Who gets to decide what these relationship needs are, and how they will be met? And what happens when they are neglected or de-prioritized?

Well, what happens is these couples often end up in my office , wondering how to get their relationship “back on track”. But before we can even start doing that, I have to first find out what their track even looks like. You know what? They often don’t know themselves.

WHY SHOULD YOU PUT THE RELATIONSHIP NEEDS FIRST? When couples get together, they often imagine a relationship based on either what is familiar from their own family, or from what they have seen in the outside world or in the media. While there is nothing wrong with this frame of reference, it is often not “thick enough” to hold all the complexities that show up in the actual relationship.

When the relationship we have no longer matches the relationship we imagined, it becomes less of a safe place and more of a threat. What we know about the brain when it senses a threat is that it focuses attention on how to protect the homeland–in other words, we care more about our own well-being than another’s. We take care of our individual needs and abandon the needs of our partner and the relationship. We do this to survive.

While this strategy works fine if we are facing an actual threat, it works against us when the “threat” is our partner being upset about something we did or said. Abandoning the relationship to focus on our needs gives our partner the message that we will not be there for them when the going gets tough, which in turn reinforces the relationship not being a safe place.  Just think about it–if the captain of the ship abandons the ship, not only is the ship doomed, but so are all the passengers!

So what to do? I suggest leaning into the relationship. This is not the same thing as agreeing with your partner’s accusations of allowing yourself to be abused. Instead it means that you remember that when one of you is in trouble, both of you are in trouble, and both of you are required to return the relationship to safety.

This is not my idea. I heard about it from Stan Tatkin, the renowned author and couples therapist up in Agoura Hills, CA. I took a workshop where he talked about how the needs of the relationship must always come first, before the needs of the individual. By making this commitment and choice, a couple can more successfully navigate disagreements and conflicts, because they will recognize that when the relationship (both of them) does well, each of them (as individuals) also do well.

There is a saying that when the relationship wins, both partners win, but when one individual wins and the other loses, everybody loses. This is because when you go for the individual need over the relationship need, it is the same as cutting off your nose to spite your face! You are one half of the relationship, so why would you abandon part of yourself? If one part of you is hurting, don’t you attend to it?

Couples who prioritize the relationship needs over individual needs experience more connection and safety in their relationships. So let’s explore how to actually do this in your relationship when push comes to shove.

HOW TO DO THIS SUCCESSFULLY: First and foremost, don’t wait until push comes to shove! Although it is possible for a couple to come back from a severe breach in trust or connection, it can be more difficult for those who do not have a strong shared foundation in their relationship. What does this foundation look like?

John Gottman’s work over the last several decades has highlighted the importance for couples to act as a team. This does not mean giving up your individuality–on the contrary–being part of a secure team often helps one to thrive in their individual lives. Gottman calls the process of creating a relationship team the Sound Relationship House, where the first floor is about getting to know your partner’s inner world.

When a couple has a strong first floor of their Relationship House, they can move up floors in order to create shared meaning and explore each others’ dreams.

But individual dreams are not the only dreams that need to be attended to. Successful couples work to build shared dreams and shared purpose. Dr. Stan Tatkin writes and talks about this in his work, as I wrote earlier. In order to do this, couples need to actually come up with shared dreams and purpose, because they don’t create themselves, unless you part of a community that gives them to you!

In my therapy office, when couples tell me that they want to build a stronger relationship, I will sometimes reply provocatively by asking, “Why?” The goal of that question is to find out what is the “purpose” of them being together.  Couples get together mostly because of mutual attraction initially, but beyond sex, what is the reason for creating a relationship with this person?

Shared dreams and purpose come from a couples shared values–what is important to you? Some of these things are non-negotiable, and some are negotiable, but when committed to together, they create a shared dream that is worth fighting for. This dream is what will influence couples to resist the pull to criticize, withdraw, shutdown, or attack when conflict arises. This dream will be the motivation to strengthen your connection to one another.

A shared dream comes with needs to keep it alive, and when these needs come first, there is a better chance that in any conflict, the relationship will win rather than one individual or the  other.

***

Sometimes it can feel like being in a relationship involves too much to keep track of. But the good news is that when you make a habit of keeping track of it, it becomes the air you breathe. The effort you put in is a conscious choice, but it begins to feel natural and vital, especially when you reap the benefits of these efforts.

Putting the needs of the relationship first ensures that you have a partner working with you to protect and nurture the relationship–you are not a lone ranger. As you both work to support and prioritize the relationship, you may find that the relationship in turn supports you in your individual development. Having something bigger than you–the two of you–gives you something to defend without turning against your partner. When you put the relationship needs first, you will both be fighting for the relationship, yourself, and each other. It is a win-win!

THREE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES WITH COUPLES THERAPY

Premium Photo | Choosing a path. the junction, three forest roads converge  into one.

My last article was about how relationships are the hardest thing you will ever do, and I outlined some of the main reasons for this. In this article I want to present the ways couples therapy can help with these difficulties by discussing three possible outcomes of the work. I hope this exploration will demystify some of the “mystery”, helping readers to understand that the success of couples therapy has more to do with the couple seeking it than the therapist administering it. This is not an attempt to make a couple responsible for any failure of couples therapy, but rather to emphasize their role in its success–to up their skin in game, so to speak. 

There was a time when couples therapy was seen as the last resort for a broken marriage. Today, there continues to be more of a stigma toward couples work than individual work. Fortunately, that perception is changing over time, with many couples now seeking assistance at the beginning of their relationships, as a way to avoid issues down the road. 

However, there continue to be misconceptions about what couples therapy can actually do. What it can’t do is: 

  • “fix” your relationship
  • decide for you if you should stay together or break up (though it may help you to make a decision about this)
  • improve the sex (or re-start it) in your relationship if neither partner is willing to make some changes

Simply put, the work of a couples therapist is to help couples have difficult conversations. The main difficult conversations that couples struggle to have often concern sex, money, parenting, and respect. These conversations can be difficult to have because having them requires that we set aside defensiveness and criticism, and examine what we are willing to “give up” so that the relationship, not the individual, can “win”. This can be very challenging if a couple have opposing values in these areas, but it is not impossible! 

So let’s look at what can happen when a couple comes into therapy for help with their difficult conversations. What are the possible outcomes?

NOTHING CHANGES: Let’s start with the bad news. Simply put, change requires an action, not just an intention. Many couples truly want their relationships to improve, but then find themselves running into obstacles when they try to change their behavior. Those obstacles can come from inside or outside the individuals in a relationship, and can be so discouraging that the process is stopped before it even gets going. 

However, not all is lost when obstacles show up. They can be a sign that something is moving. Obstacles are often negative beliefs that individuals have carried for years, which they have brought into the relationship with them. Negative beliefs are shameful ways of thinking about ourselves that are either handed to us by others, institutions, or culture, or conclusions that we make about ourselves based on how the world responds to us. We are not always aware of them until they show up in relationships or when we are trying to embrace change. 

Regardless of why we resist action, without it nothing will change. This is why I want to be sure that a couple is willing to take action before working with them in therapy, because without that willingness, they will be disappointed by the lack of results and take that as a sign the relationship is hopeless and should end. 

BREAK-UP OR DIVORCE: While this is an option that many choose without coming into couple therapy, it is still an option even while working together with a therapist on your relationship. However, couples who choose to break-up or divorce after a course of couples therapy are more likely to be doing so for the right reasons, whereas most other couples end their relationships by mistake

There are two primary reasons that a couple will break-up in the course of doing couples therapy:

  1. They realize that they no longer (or perhaps never did) have shared values/goals/relationship dreams, making them a poor fit who would be better served moving on from one another.
  2. They find out that there is no longer any relationship to save.

As their therapist, I never make this decision for them–but I may ask questions about what I observe in the room. It is up to the couple do decide whether they want to stay together or not. One thing I always tell them is a phrase I got from my mentor, Dr. Walter Brakelmanns, who would tell couples “I will fight for your relationship until you give me a good reason not to.” 

Many couples break-up because of “incompatibility”. I am here to tell you that this concept is a myth! Incompatibility suggests that differences in interests divide couples, and yet the reality is that many couples have long and happy marriages while having wildly dissimilar interests. Rather, it is a wide difference in values that can signal a mismatch. 

Values signify what is important to us, and some examples are: having a family, living near parents, honesty, mutual respect, spirituality, loyalty, trustworthiness. We usually have 3-5 non-flexible values, but even those are subject to change over time, so finding someone whose values match yours is no guarantee for the long run, but it can’t hurt! Values conversations are just one more way of showing interest in your partner’s inner world, and how it may change over time. 

Though relationships work best when they share key values, it is not an automatic deal-breaker with they don’t. It all comes down to respect–and the willingness to be curious about each other rather than judgmental or critical. Values can change over time, but that does not mean that a relationship has to end–it can change too. 

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The second reason that couples might break-up in couples therapy is because they come to realize that the relationship is already dead. What lets us know this? Lack of interest. 

When I notice that one partner is sharing a painful emotion or event, and I see a lack of empathic response from the other partner, I start to worry about the relationship. Lack of response can show up for many reasons, but if it is happening because the person no longer cares about how their partner is suffering, then the relationship has lost its emotional connection. There is no relationship for me to save. This happens not because one partner is a cold, uncaring person, but because they no longer care about their partner’s inner life. This can happen for a number of reasons, and often happens over a period of time. 

This will present as a couple who come in because the relationship is still alive for one, but not for the other. This can be very painful, but it is even more painful to stay in with someone who no longer has interest in you. I think it is easier to survive a break-up than a bad marriage. These couples can still do work in couples therapy, but the focus shifts from connecting them to problem-solving–what do they need to figure out in order to move on from one another?

What makes a relationship lose its connection? Well, the main causes I see are unresolved resentments that have turned into contempt, breaches of trust that are seen as “unforgivable”, lack of mutual respect and understanding, and certainly undiagnosed mental illness, domestic violence, or substance abuse. The loss can occur over a long period of time or in response to a specific breach, but it is up to each individual to choose to work toward reconnection, otherwise the relationship will start to disconnect and die. 

Couples therapy can help couples to set aside blame and reflect on the role they each had in their relationship getting to this place, while also helping to create new understanding about each other’s actions, leading to greater understanding. This understanding it the beginning of empathy, rebuilt trust, and reconnection. 

DO THE WORK: To round out our exploration of the three outcomes of couples therapy, let’s look at the optimal outcome–doing the work! The reality is that this option is really the only thing that brings about change in a couples relationship. It does not matter how brilliant or skilled the therapist is, if the couple does not take the work home and into their interactions, nothing will change. 

So what is the work? Well, in my office I first get the couples’ agreement that I can do my job–which is to guide them to having more successful difficult conversations. Sometimes that means that I need to interrupt what they are trying to say–and that can be a challenge for some. The work in this instant is for the client to regulate themselves and “set aside” whatever feelings are coming up for them in the moment. This is harder than it sounds! But without this willingness, the conversation will be derailed and nothing will change. 

Secondly, the couple has to change what they are doing at home. This can entail a whole list of things, or perhaps just a couple adjustments, but without some action towards practicing the skills at home, again, nothing will change. Couples don’t have to turn the  whole house upside down–John Gottman says that it is more important that we do “small things often” as a way to keep the engine of relationship connection running on idle, rather than having to restart it each time we need to communicate. 

Another action that can help a great deal is when the individuals pursue their own work with an individual therapist. As we reveal the vulnerabilities that each partner brought into the relationship, it is up to each partner to attend to these rather than holding the other responsible for “fixing” them. Individual therapy can be a great adjunct to couples work so that in the couples session, the focus can be on the relationship instead of the individual. 

I get some pushback from couples when I tell them that there is work involved in having a healthy relationship. I can understand why. We are raised to believe that love does not take work–that it is some sort of magic glue that sustains itself, and that is absolutely not true unless you are speaking of the love a parent has for a child. Real love take effort to sustain, because it is effort that indicates caring and interest in another, not passivity. Real love is a verb, not a noun! It is caring in action. And when couples embrace that framing of effort, they see it as a romantic gesture rather than an obligation or duty. 

The bottom line is that it works. So do the work!

***

Anytime a person wants to improve or change their life, some action and effort is required, even if that action or effort is to do less. And for those who do not know what actions to take, it is considered wise to seek out an expert for guidance and support. This is what a couples therapist can offer, but a good therapist will also assess whether or not a couple is ready and willing to do the work, in the same way a personal trainer will evaluate your commitment to an exercise program. 

Therapists can guide your progress, but the couple has to start the engine, and this is why I present these three choices to every couple that comes into my office–I want to invite them to work as hard as I will to improve their relationship. 

Which choice will you choose?