Many couples don’t even realize that a breach of trust is something they are struggling with, because when they think of the word trust, they only consider whether or not their partner has lied or has been unfaithful. Those are obvious breaches of trust. However, even without those blatant behaviors present in a relationship, you may still sense that something is wrong. You just can’t seem to put your finger on what the problem is. I recently came across an excellent list in John Gottman’s new book, “What Makes Love Last,” which helps clarify for many people what it is they are struggling with, and why it really is a trust issue.
Gottman basically defines betrayal as the opposite of trust, and calls this list, “10 Other Ways to Betray Your Lover” (besides cheating). I often read these out loud for couples when they come to see me and explain that if any of the things on this list are happening in their relationship they will likely feel betrayed on a consistent basis. These behaviors MUST STOP if a couple is going to feel emotionally safe with one another. One couple I recently counseled were experiencing all 10 betrayals! After they heard the items on the list, it instantly made sense to them why their relationship was so distressed.
Many of the following items are also covered in depth throughout my eBook, “What You Are Really Arguing About,” but I never considered them betrayals per se. I categorize behavior like these as a partner’s reliability/dependability. Betrayal is a strong word, and many people might not like the thought that they are betraying their partner. But if you really think about it, being undependable or unreliable will cause a trust issue in relationships, so the word betrayal fits these 10 items, which include:
1) You aren’t fully committed –When one person isn’t committed, it’s almost impossible for the relationship to feel good. If you have the sense that your partner is only with you until someone “better” comes along, or if one person is constantly threatening the relationship by saying things like “I can’t take this!” or “It’s over,” it’s really difficult to trust that person. Another common scenario is when one person wants to take the relationship to the “next level” such as marriage or living together, and the other is completely fine with the status quo. Not being on the same page about the level of commitment in the relationship is painful and will definitely cause trust issues for the couple.
2) A non-sexual affair—Emotional affairs are tricky because many people believe they really aren’t cheating unless they have been sexual with someone. But I tell people to think about it like this: If your partner was a fly on the wall and could see you interacting with your “friend” and you know they wouldn’t like what they were seeing and hearing, you are likely engaged in an emotional affair. It can be really exhausting for the person who feels betrayed to have any influence with their partner because they can’t “prove” anything is really going on. “It’s just my friend!” you argue. If your partner feels uncomfortable with your relationship with someone else, be honest with yourself about whether you would do and say the same things if your partner really was a fly on that wall. If you know that you would act differently, then you probably are on a slippery slope that with enough time and opportunity, can easily lead to infidelity.
3) Lying—Your words and behavior have to match if you want people to trust you. You can say anything in the world. But if what you do is in opposition to what you are saying, people are going to be confused and mistrusting. If you say that you were at work and it turns out you were really at a bar, your partner has every right to feel betrayed. If you say that you want your relationship to improve, but you don’t do one thing to try to improve it, your partner will not trust you. Do what you say you are going to do and the trust will improve. However, if you are attempting to repair damaged trust, your words and behavior must be consistent over time. It may take months or years to repair things once there has been a breach of trust. Be as honest as you can. Trust needs to be the foundation of your relationship and nothing damages trust quite like lying.
4) Coalitions against your partner—This simply means that you are participating in a relationship that is at your partner’s expense. A common one is with your mother (or sibling or friend). Meaning that you tell your mom too much about your relationship and/or you team up with your parent against your partner. Your partner will surely feel betrayed by this and these behaviors will damage your relationship. It’s extremely invasive when two people team up against another. If there are issues in your relationship, seek a therapist who is not on either one of your sides, but is on the relationship’s side.
5) You aren’t there in a crisis—Gottman calls this “emotional absenteeism.” This often occurs in couples where one of them has a lack of empathy and compassion. I see this with couples that have experienced big things like medical illnesses, miscarriages, or the death of loved ones, as well as “smaller” things like job stress or a fight with a good friend. We need to feel like we can go to our partner during times of upheaval for understanding and support. Sometimes our partner does care, but they just don’t know how to show it or don’t know the right things to say. But there are also people out there who really just lack empathy and cannot comfort or support you. Instead they basically send you the message that there is something wrong with you for how you are feeling. When you feel like your partner just isn’t there for you in these times of stress or crisis, you will not only feel invalidated and alone, but you will also feel betrayed.
6) Withdrawal of sexual interest—Many long-term couples are in “sexless relationships” meaning that they have sex 12 times per year or less. Some couples are just fine with this. But if one partner is not ok with the frequency or quality of their sex life, and these issues are not being addressed, they will definitely feel betrayed and resentful. Some people don’t seem to understand that they are basically sending their partner the message: “Don’t you dare be unfaithful…but don’t look to me for sex either!”
7) Disrespect—Gottman studied “contempt” (i.e. disrespect) in couples and found it to be THE number one relationship killer. He became famous for being able to predict which couples would divorce with over 90% certainty just by seeing them interact for 5 minutes. The way he was able to make these predictions was based on whether or not contempt was present. Contempt can include name-calling, acting superior to your partner, subtle (and not so subtle) slights, eye rolling, or any other way that you convey disgust. It can also be knowing exactly what you could say that would completely crush your partner, and then going right ahead and saying that thing anyway. Often people call that “hitting below the belt.” This is considered emotional and verbal abuse and should not be tolerated in a relationship. Couples need to learn how to communicate without this corrosive element in their dialogues. (It goes without saying that if physical abuse is present in your relationship, you will not feel safe and cannot trust your partner. Please seek help ASAP if your partner is emotionally or physically abusive. These dynamics rarely change on their own). You likely not only feel betrayed, but also frightened. These feelings are the opposite of the emotional safety necessary to engage in an intimate relationship.
8) Unfairness—Unequal housework and child-care usually come up in this category. When couples navigate through these issues in a way that they both find fair, they will feel much more trusting and loving than those who do not feel that the arrangement is fair. In Gottman’s book, “And Baby Makes Three” he advises men to do as much as they can to contribute to the house and kids, especially if they want their wives to feel sexual. Women do not seem to be able to relax and enjoy sex after a long day of tending to the house and children (and often her own job!) Gottman tells men that doing their fair share around the house is a form of foreplay.
9) Selfishness—You can’t truly trust someone who you believe does not hold you or the relationship as a priority. When you consistently see your partner meeting their own needs at your expense (i.e. playing golf all weekend while you stay home with the kids…every weekend) you will feel betrayed.
10) Broken promises—This can encompass any behavior from promising you will be home by 8pm and not showing up until 10, to promising you will have more children and then getting a vasectomy, to becoming a problem drinker, gambler, substance abuser, and/or sex addict. Often the person breaking agreements promises to change, and then doesn’t change, so the betrayal deepens and deepens. One person is usually doing some behavior that is a “deal breaker” for their partner, but dealing with “deal breaking” behavior in a marriage is tough, especially when you feel you cannot influence your partner to really change. This can easily became a “crazy making” situation where it’s just a big circle: partner A engages in a certain behavior, partner B freaks out, partner A feels ashamed and promises to change, things are ok for a while, and then the cycle starts all over.
If any of the above behaviors are going on in your relationship, you will likely find it difficult to trust, and therefore, you feel betrayed by your partner on some level. You may not have thought about it that way before, but this list should validate your concerns about trust. If your partner does not agree that any of these behaviors are a problem for your relationship, you will likely benefit from some form of relationship counseling or coaching in order to help you resolve these issues. If your partner won’t get help, try individual counseling to help you navigate through these betrayals on your own and learn to set effective boundaries.
This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.