In the last blog post, we started looking at the five stages that all betraying individuals move through. Betrayal unfolds in the following predictable sequence:
- Violating self-concept
- Making ourselves right
- Making the betrayed person wrong
- Turning internal excuses outward
- Making choices: Taking, or not taking, responsibility.
In the last post we explored violating self-concept and making ourselves right. In this post we unpack the final three stages of betrayal.
1. Making the Betrayed Person Wrong
As we make ourselves “right,” we simultaneously start to build a case about why the person we are betraying is somehow “wrong.” This is part of the process of justifying our choices.
All human beings are imperfect and deal with character flaws and defects. A betraying partner seizes upon the weaknesses and flaws of the other person and amplifies or exaggerates them. This process of focusing on and exacerbating the negative (whether real or imagined) becomes part of the mental scaffolding of justification, rationalization, and minimization.
This can look like building a case that our partner isn’t there for us emotionally, as we look past all the ways they are present while amplifying the places where they miss connection. It can look like judgement and criticism toward our partner’s body or sexual expression, in order to increase our righteousness in looking elsewhere. It can even look like actively creating conflicts and points of tension with our partner, which we then use to justify our actions.
What we might not realize is this: When we define the person we are betraying as wrong in order to justify our own behaviors, we dehumanize them. Unconsciously, we are operating from the hidden belief that because the other person is flawed, imperfect, or frustrating, they are less-than; we rationalize that it is therefore OK to violate their trust and harm them. We unconsciously hold a double standard, looking for empathy, grace, and compassion for our own shortcomings while using the other person’s flaws as a rationale for betrayal.
This is such dangerous thinking. Yet all of us humans are incredibly vulnerable to believing that one person’s character flaw is another person’s justification for bad behavior. Just glance at social media, and you can see this toxic belief running rampant and guiding many people’s actions and discourse.
2. Internal Excuses Are Turned Outward
Out of this toxic soup comes gaslighting. We lie, manipulate reality, scapegoat, and coerce our partner in an effort to keep our betrayal secret. Our partner senses that something is wrong within the relationship and tries to determine what is amiss. As they ask us questions and attempt to find the fire that is creating the smoke, we work harder at making them wrong and throwing them off the trail.
For example, our partner may ask us if we are angry or upset about something because we feel distant to them. We respond by saying that we are fine, nothing is wrong and maybe our partner is stressed about something in their own life (work, kids, parents etc.) and that is the real problem.
When our betrayal is discovered, we turn our internal scaffolding of justification, rationalization, and minimization outward toward the betrayed party—showing them the case we have built against them. We explain why their shortcomings and failures make it fair and reasonable for us to betray them. We tell ourselves, “They’re not the wronged party; I am! They made life challenging and didn’t meet my needs. Who can blame me? They’re the problem, not me.”
The betrayed party becomes caught in a double whammy of betrayal. Not only has their trust and safety been demolished, but the very person who betrayed their trust is now blaming them. The not so hidden message is, “Yes, I betrayed you, but that’s your fault. I’m the victim here, and my victimization is justification for victimizing you.”
The level of righteous indignation that betraying individuals bring to these conversations can be breathtaking. They have often spent weeks, months, and sometimes years manipulating their thoughts to make themselves right and the betrayed party wrong. Given their investment in this altered reality, it is easy to see what drives these crazy-making interactions.
The betrayed partner is caught trying to sort through the rapid-fire justifications while also enduring an additional violation of trust and safety.
3. Making Choices: Taking, or Not Taking, Responsibility
When betrayal is discovered, the person who betrayed is at a crossroads. They must then choose how to handle the impact and fallout from their behaviors.
Some who have betrayed never take responsibility for their behaviors. These individuals often continue to make themselves right and others wrong, shifting the blame and responsibility for their actions.
Sometimes, people avoid responsibility so they can continue their behaviors. They may argue about who is at fault to deflect from their affair or avoid treating their sexual compulsivity. Underneath these arguments lies an unwillingness to stop the harmful actions.
Other times, the betrayer refuses to take on the heavy lifting that would come from owning responsibility for harm. It can be challenging to face oneself and one’s failures; repair and healing are hard work. Many will choose to avoid the growth and development offered by this process and instead stay in their justification stories.
On the other hand, many individuals, upon discovery of their betrayal and when confronted with the deep harm their actions have created, will begin to take responsibility. This is not usually a linear process, as it takes time to dismantle the grievance story that has been used to justify the cheating. Self-manipulation and gaslighting do not change overnight.
However, there is hope. These individuals can choose to enter a process of healing and potential repair, taking ownership of and exploring the underlying causes of the behaviors that created betrayal. This growth process is not easy and requires honesty with oneself and others. But this is the path out of distorting thinking, and unhealthy beliefs and behaviors—back to healthy connection with the self and others.
These five stages are inherent to betrayal and are almost always present in some form when betrayal occurs. For those who have experienced betrayal, deconstructing the nature of betrayal is vital to loosening gaslighting’s grip and opening a pathway back to clarity and healing.