I was talking with Heidi, one of the relationship coaches that works in our private, members-only forum, and she started telling me about a woman who was in a bad relationship.
She was frustrated, because this woman refused to see that the relationship wasn’t good for her. It was obvious that this guy wasn’t treating her well. She didn’t even seem happy. But she wasn’t open to considering the possibility that he was bad news.
Heidi already knows the answer, but she asked me, “James, why do women stay in bad relationships? Why??”
Obviously, that’s a REALLY big question.
There’s no one reason women stay in bad relationships. Everyone has their own story.
But we often find ourselves coaching women who have just gotten out of a bad relationship, or who want to avoid making the same mistake.
We see how they beat themselves up for falling for the wrong guy. They express so much shame and guilt.
For these women, I tell a story.
I tell them about a term coined by Jennifer Freyd back in 1994.
As they listen and take in this new idea, I can see their shoulders relax… their chest expand and release in a huge sigh… and an emotional burden release.
If you’ve ever suffered romantic betrayal, I hope this can do the same for you.
The Origin of Betrayal
Human beings are social creatures.
We live in community. We trade goods and services. We ally ourselves with others.
For these relationships to work, we make a number of agreements, both explicit and implicit.
Agreements like, “If I give you this amount of money, you’ll give me that product,” or, “If we agree to meet, you’ll be there on time,” or, “If we decide to be in a relationship, we’ll stop seeing other people.”
For the most part, we trust that other people will keep those agreements.
That doesn’t mean we’re foolish. Our natural inclination to trust others is critical to human survival. If we assumed everyone was lying or tricking us, there would be no social cohesion.
But, because we’re human, those agreements do sometimes get broken.
We agree to meet someone and they don’t show up. We reveal a secret and the other person tells it to others. We agree to love one another forever and our partner breaks it off.
Those betrayals hit us hard, because they strike at the foundation of what makes us feel safe and able to trust one another.
Not all betrayals have the same emotional impact.
If a co-worker didn’t finish her part of the project, it probably won’t hurt you in the same way it would if your romantic partner ghosted you.
Being betrayed by someone you rely on emotionally for support or even survival is the most traumatic kind of betrayal, because it puts you in an impossible position.
You love this person. You need this person. This person is your life.
And what they’ve done to you is so unacceptable that your mind can’t wrap itself around the idea that you can no longer trust them.
This is known as betrayal trauma.
Responding to Betrayal
An empowered response to betrayal is to:
- Say, “Stop that.” Tell the person that what they’re doing isn’t okay. Make your boundaries clear and enforce them. Or…
- End the relationship.
If someone consistently breaks their agreements with you, and communicating with them isn’t helping, then ending the relationship may be your only option.
But many people don’t feel they have the strength to do this.
Especially when they feel like they need the other person.
For example, in most cases, children who’ve been betrayed by an abusive parent can’t walk away. They depend on their parents for survival. They don’t have the power to tell their parent to stop doing what they’re doing.
There’s a third way to cope with betrayal, and that’s betrayal blindness.
Blind to Betrayal
Betrayal blindness is when you refuse to acknowledge what happened, or you erase it from your memory, or you don’t even notice it because your mind blocks it out.
This isn’t willful blindness. It’s a survival strategy.
For whatever reason, you need this relationship. You feel like you can’t walk away. Acknowledging the betrayal would be such a blow to your love for and sense of trust with this person that it would threaten your ability to continue with them.
So your psyche protects you.
By not feeling the full impact of the betrayal, you can continue loving this person and being with them even in the face of their untrustworthy behavior.
Betrayal blindness serves another purpose.
It protects us from shame.
It can feel so shameful and embarrassing to be betrayed by someone you loved. You think, “How could I have been so stupid? How could I have trusted him?”
Instead of seeing the situation for what it really is—bad behavior on his part—you take it on yourself and feel responsible for what isn’t yours.
Trusting someone you love doesn’t make you foolish.
Loving someone you can’t trust doesn’t make you foolish.
These are natural, normal behaviors.
In love, sometimes you will end up with a partner who betrays you.
Hopefully, you will feel empowered enough to confront the betrayal and end the relationship if necessary.
But if you stay, and you don’t even see how bad it is because you want the relationship to work so much, don’t fall into the trap of shame.
No matter what your friends say, it’s not necessarily the case that you’re in denial, you have low self-esteem, or you don’t think you deserve better.
Sometimes you don’t see what’s happening because your psyche is protecting you from the trauma of betrayal the best way it knows how.
If you have a friend who could use this insight, make sure to share.