The Impact of Betrayal...
Trust and goodwill are the fuel for healthy relationships. It’s very important to have confidence that family members and spouses are honest with each other. But what happens to a relationship when your relative or spouse betrays your trust? How can family members heal? How do these infidelities impact intimate relationships?
I frequently hear about husbands or wives who run up huge credit card bills or who have big gambling losses that they hide from each other. Mary, an impulse shopper, had credit cards with $10,000 balances that her husband Joe didn’t know about. One day, he found out accidentally, when he received a call from a credit card company. He was shocked. He had no idea that Mary had a secret life.
Bill was having a long-term affair with a co-worker. His wife had suspected that he was involved in a relationship, but he denied it, and she chose to believe him. He insisted that he wasn’t seeing anyone. But when the truth came out, his wife was crushed. Not just because he was having an affair, but also because he had been dishonest about it.
One thanksgiving holiday, Sarah, 25 years of age, learned from a cousin that her father wasn’t her “real” father. Her mother had an affair and became pregnant. It caused huge upheaval, and her mother had told her sister, who later told her son. Sarah was shattered when she heard the story from her cousin.
An article in the New York Times, October 5, 2013, titled "Great Betrayals" by Anna Fels discusses some of the long-term effects of great betrayals. It’s sad for everyone. She notes that the individuals who do the betraying often have an easier time moving on. Filled with shame and regret, they knew what they were doing, even though they made poor choices. They can move forward and re-invent themselves as more honest individuals. They can start anew. Anna Fels notes that our culture “has a soft spot for the prodigal sons and daughters who set about repairing their ways…Talk shows thrive on these tales…it’s never too late to start anew.”
Frequently, I hear their impatience with the victims of their betrayal. Why can’t they move on? Why can’t they let go of the past? Why can’t they live today? “I’m sorry!” they say, “I didn’t mean to hurt you so badly. It will never happen again.” Why doesn’t their partner believe them? Especially, when they are so certain that they will never make these bad choices again.
But it’s so much more difficult for the victims of betrayal. They blame themselves for not knowing what was going on, for believing their partner, or for being blind to the clues that they now realize were all around them. How could they have been so trusting? How could they have been so naïve?
There is also the tendency to compulsively rehash everything that happened in the past. Who else knew? Has my husband told me the whole truth? Did other family members know this secret? In addition to intense feelings of humiliation and shame, they feel stupid. Friends and family may also suggest that they were responsible for missing what is now obvious.
It’s very hard to “get over” these betrayals. It changes everything forever. Once trust is so grievously broken, it can never go back to its previous shape or form. There are scars that do not go away. The relationship is forever changed. These experiences are traumatic, not just because they are so painful, but because they change the victim’s life story. Their view of the world is altered.
Here are some thoughts that may be helpful for both sides of this equation:
Forgiveness may come, but don’t expect to ever forget what happened. Others may want you to “forgive and forget”, but amnesia is not possible or desirable!
Don’t pressure your relative or spouse to “move on” or “let go.” That just rubs salt in the wound.
Avoid rehashing the past. A plain fact--love is blind! You may never know every detail of what happened.
Sometimes, forgiveness is not possible. Spouses may “want” to forgive their partner, but find they can’t. That is often the result of infidelity.
Have you experienced a betrayal? How has it impacted you?