When Sara and Jeff* came to see me for couple therapy, Jeff had been in a new job for the past six months. He had been socializing after work with co-workers and staying out much later than ever before. Sara had not met his new friends and was not pleased with his after work socializing. Jeff had become very close to a female colleague and the text messaging between them made Sara very suspicious and upset. Jeff denied that his female colleague was any more than a friend and assured his wife that he had not crossed the line. Sara had grown to believe that her husband was no longer trustworthy and she had developed a profound sense of betrayal despite no substantive evidence of unfaithfulness.
In order to understand what we mean by trustworthy or untrustworthy, it seems wise to examine the opposite of trustworthiness: betrayal. What is a betrayal? How does a person become untrustworthy? Besides the obvious extra-martial affair, what other kinds of betrayal can occur in a relationship?
Betrayal has been called the ‘secret’ relationship killer because disloyalty grows slowly and subtly in a relationship. Betrayal is not always expressed through a sexual affair. It often takes a form that couples do not always or easily recognize. According to John Gottman in his book How to Make Love Last: how to build trust and avoid betrayal,
‘Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship – it is there even if the couple is unaware of it. If a husband always puts his career ahead of his relationship, that is betrayal. When his wife keeps breaking her promise to start a family, that is also betrayal.’
Eleven Ways Betrayal Can Invade a Relationship
- Porn Most users of pornography are men who keep it secret from their partner. Masturbation to unreal sexual situations can lead them to problems with real sex with their wife.
- Conditional Commitment Sometimes the underlying belief of one partner is ‘I am here until someone better comes along.’ They may send out signals by flirting with others about their lack of commitment that is a betrayal.
- Nonsexual Affair Many people have co-workers of the opposite sex they work closely with and become friends. Betrayal occurs when you would be uncomfortable with your partner observing your interactions and confidences that you have shared with this person.
- Lying It may be obvious that lying to your partner is a betrayal. Lying ‘to keep the peace’ or not offend your partner is a subtle betrayal.
- Forming a Coalition Against Your Partner If a close friend or a parent, having heard your ongoing complaints about your partner, forms a strong alliance with you against your partner, it’s a sign of trouble to your relationship.
- Absenteeism and Coldness
Not being there for your partner in a warm loving way at important moments for them and allowing work, friends or even your children to become a higher priority.
- Withdrawal of Sexual Interest Deeper emotional issues are often at the core of withdrawal of sexual interest or activity.
- Disrespect When a partner speaks with disrespect and does not apologize or stop, contempt is sure to follow, leading to relationship failure.
- Unfairness Doing housework is one of the most commonly cited activities that feels unfairly shared in couple relationships. Others include imbalance of spending on self. Couples need to feel a sense of justice in their relationship and negotiate change, if unhappy.
- Selfishness The capacity to forfeit your own personal needs for the good of the relationship is a key part of preventing relationship erosion and betrayal.
- Breaking promises Making promises for the future is common with newlyweds and committed couples. When those promises about money, religion, drinking or drug use are broken, it is a form of betrayal to the relationship.
How Does an Affair Betrayal Happen?
- First Comes Secret Keeping. When partners stop confiding in each other, then secrecy and avoidance of conflict increase
- Next When ‘Walls and Windows’ Reverse. Rather than ‘walls’ around protecting the relationship, and ‘windows’ between the partners, as in a healthy relationship, a wall between partners forms and windows to the affair partner are created.
- Next the Deceiver Trashes the Partner and the Relationship. Once a stronger alliance forms with an affair partner, a switch gets flicked and a focus is on all the negative attributes of your partner and the positive ones are ignored.
- Then the Betrayer Considers the Partner Untrustworthy. Because secrets create distance and the betrayer has very negative perceptions of their partner, in a strange reverse of perception, they see their partner as untrustworthy and the affair partner as trustworthy.
- And Then the Line is Crossed. After each person in the affair gives themselves permission to cross smaller boundaries, sharing confidences and other intimate subjects, they cross the line and have sex.
How Can You Know If Your Partner is Trustworthy?
Five criteria for trustworthiness according to John Gottman.
- Honesty Do not trust someone who lies. Do not excuse their lies. Be sure that if they lie to others, they will likely lie to you. If you find yourself consistently questioning the truth of what they said, it best to move on from the relationship.
- Transparency Your intimate partner should be an open book. That means their past life and relationships, their money, jobs, friends and family.
- Accountability In an intimate secure loving relationship people are accountable to each other because they care about the other’s well being. Mutual accountability for your actions, who you are with, when you come home etc.
- Ethical Actions Does your partner share your beliefs and morals about the importance of honesty? Do they conduct themselves in accordance with them? If they don’t, it is probably a good idea to move on from the relationship.
- Proof of Alliance Does your partner have your back? Or do they operate out of sheer self interest? Do they form coalitions with others against you? If they do not put your interests ahead of their own, they are untrustworthy.
Sarah’s concerns about Jeff’s trustworthiness were warranted. There were many private thoughts and feelings that Jeff had been not been sharing with her for years creating distance in the relationship. While he had not been sexually unfaithful, had they not come for help, Jeff likely would have crossed that line. Instead they learned to talk about these private feelings, stopped keeping secrets from the other and accepted that knowing the truth about each other’s negative feelings is best, even when it may hurt to hear.
*This is a fictitious couple based on a composite of several couples seen.