When we hear the word “betrayal” within the context of marriage many quickly think of an affair or infidelity within the relationship. While both of those absolutely are a type of betrayal, the reality is there are many more betrayals within a marriage- many of which “happy couples” do to one another often, even daily.
Couples seeking counseling more often than not are doing so to help repair their marriage. By proactively avoiding the following betrayal action, couples can work to PREVENT damage to the relationship. Betrayal can be broken into 4 categories: Negative Ignoring, Disinterest, Active Withdrawal & Secrets.
Stage 1: Negative ignoring
This is where the beginning of the end often starts. When couples (or one part of the couple) starts to turn away from the other intentionally it is the first sign of betrayal. Something as simple as not responding when the partner says “wow – look at that!” or “I had something interesting happen today….” Limited grunts or no response starts the division between partners and can build resentment. This is ignoring the connection moments leads to less desire to connect which further and can distance the relationship.
In this stage partners also can find themselves comparing their partners negatively to others. “Amy’s husband never complains about this…..” or “Brad’s wife at least tries to work out.” Even if those comments are verbally shared with the partner, having the negative comparisons starts to divide a couple and create a negative thought pattern toward one another. From this, it is not a hard step to reach the level where dependence on one another lessens and it’s assumed the other isn’t there when wanted/needed. This betrayal often appears as a mental laundry list of the partner’s shortcomings. Mentally dwelling on “my husband is clueless when it comes to knowing how I balance our lives” or “my wife has no idea what I do all day” may seem like a way to blow off steam but it’s actually a betrayal of the relationship. Too many of such thoughts and behaviors lead to larger betrayals found in stage 2.
Stage 2: Disinterest
When a relationship encounters behavior from stage 2, it is a more progressive form of betrayal. This stage requires the individuals to start to become less interested in one another and behave accordingly. They stop sharing as much with the other (i.e. the answer to “How was your day” is usually “fine” and nothing else.) The desire to share time, efforts & general attention start to decrease. Often times there is a shift from attention/energy and instead of sharing it with the spouse that same energy/attention starts to go toward other relationships (i.e. prioritizing friendships or children over spouse) or attention can go too much to distractions (i.e. social media, hobbies, involvement elsewhere.) When couples are sacrificing less, sharing less and investing less with one another it is a dangerous zone to be as these disconnecting behaviors can become repetitious and lead to actual withdrawal from the relationship.
Stage 3: Active withdrawal
Betrayal behavior from stage 3 is some of the most damaging to a relationship. This stage is about actively withdrawing from a partner. The behavior toward one another is often critical or defensive. Most people can identify this couple- unless it is them. The defensive and critical couple is quick to judge one another, they’re short, show frustration quickly and often verbally or physically show annoyance with the other over simple things not worthy of the response they get in this phase.
Partners feel lonely in stage 3 even with one another as the communication has become so strained it’s difficult to connect again. There is limited intimacy during this stage…and the desire to initiate anything romantic is non-existent. One of the most common betrayals in this phase is the “trashing” of the partner to others. This not only is disrespectful but publicly is sharing the breakdown of the marriage, encourages others to choose sides and agree with the negative mentality and jump on the bandwagon. Partners during this phase are quite likely keeping record of the shortcomings of one another, feeling lonely even starting to let their mind wander to “I wonder if I would be happier alone…. or with someone else….” And when such thoughts and betrayals enter a relationship, stage 4 is not far away.
Stage 4: Secrets
The Secrets stage is when the end is near. Betrayal has become a way of life in the relationship. One or both parts of the couple is keeping secrets from the other. Things such as a credit card the other doesn’t know about or have records of, emails that aren’t known, social media accounts, lunches out, a co-worker/friend who has become more important than they maybe should have, activities throughout the day, the way time is spent online, financially or with colleagues. The less the partners share- the more the betrayal builds. This is true even if infidelity has not entered the relationship. As the little fences of secrecy are built and living a transparent relationship becomes nearly impossible, the relationship goes from holding small secrets to major ones- and the betrayal builds.
Deep into stage 4, it is quite easy for a partner to cross boundaries and enter into another relationship. Usually, an affair is not about finding love with another partner but instead about finding a listener, affection, empathetic communication and respite from marital conflict. When the stages of betrayal have become so entwined within a relationship, crossing boundaries to even more betrayal is almost a logical next step for partners.
While the stages are listed in the order it’s possible for couples/individuals to jump throughout the stages with their behavior. Paying attention to any betrayal step – regardless of what stage – is critical to the success of the relationship. The more betrayal that is avoided within the relationship, the stronger it will be! Paying attention to behaviors from self and partner are important. Self-awareness and willingness to honestly discuss when there has been a betrayal (or perception of one) is the only way safeguard against future betrayals and stop the actions from progressing through the steps.