There are worse things than cheating.
Infidelity is the betrayal our society focuses on, but it is actually the subtle, unnoticed betrayals that truly ruin relationships. When partners do not choose each other day after day, trust and commitment erode away.
Partners may be aware of this disloyalty to each other, but dismiss it because it’s "not as bad as an affair." This is false. Anything that violates a committed relationship’s contract of mutual trust, respect, and protection can be disastrous.
Betrayals are founded on two building blocks: deception (not revealing your true needs to avoid conflict), and a yearning for emotional connection from outside the relationship.
Below are three betrayals that ruin relationships, and only by confronting and taking responsibility for them can couples reestablish their trust in each other:
1. Emotional cheating
It’s very easy for platonic friends to bond in the trenches of work, day after day. Sometimes we call this person a "work wife" or "work husband." Even friendships made at the gym or local coffee shop can threaten the bond at home.
These non-sexual relationships can lead to both parties sharing intimate details about each other’s lives. That doesn’t make it a betrayal. What makes it a betrayal is this: if your partner would be upset by the things you’ve shared or would be uncomfortable watching the interaction.
Tom first learns of his wife’s sexless affair when they hosted a Christmas party. Emily has never mentioned Chris, the new manager of her department. At the party, Chris seems to know about Emily’s entire life. He even brought their son Marshall a Bumblebee Transformer, his favorite.
Tom looks at Emily with a shocked expression. Her sheepish look sinks his heart. When he confronts her after the party, Emily argues about her friendship with Chris. She tells Tom it’s "nothing" because they are "just friends."
She then turns against Tom and defends Chris. She accuses Tom of being irrationally jealous and tells him it’s the reason he didn’t know about Chris in the first place. Tom feels there is nothing irrational about his jealousy.
Whether he admits it or not, his wife is cheating. The evidence lies in her secrecy. These are signs that your partner’s friendship is not an innocent friendship:
- Has the friendship been hidden?
- Are your questions about the friendship responded with “don’t worry” or discouragement?
- Have you asked it to end, only to have your partner tell you no?
- Have your boundaries been disrespected?
- Is the friend the subject of fantasies or comments during troubled times in the relationship?
If you answered "yes" to any of the questions above, the friendship may be too intimate. Use Dr. John Gottman’s Conflict Blueprint from his book What Makes Love Last? to help talk to your partner about this issue.
2. Conditional love
Couples don’t feel supported when one partner keeps a foot out of the relationship. They don’t feel like their partner has their best interests at heart, that they have their back. When this happens, it’s not uncommon for the betrayed partner to blame a trigger as the real problem, when it’s actually the lack of commitment.
As Kristina reflects on her first marriage, she knows she began to feel betrayed when her husband stalled on starting a family. At first she thought he was anxious about becoming a father, but in couples therapy it became clear that he was hesitant to deepen his commitment to her.
Like an anxious lover, she clung onto him with desperation, terrified of losing her marriage... until she realized she never really had one to begin with.
Sometimes, a partner may pressure the other to marry or move in, believing the "next level" will deepen their connection, but it’s difficult for a marriage to succeed if it is built on a vow to create a strong bond rather than the result of one. The shallowness of the bond will eventually bleed through the connection.
Steps to create unconditional love: When couples ignore or dismiss talking about difficult issues, they are left with a shallow commitment. By using conflict as a catalyst for closeness, couples can intentionally use problems as an opportunity to discuss their goals, fears, and dreams.
Couples that unconditionally love each other live by the motto,"Baby, when you hurt, the world stops and I listen."
3. Emotional withdrawal
Emotional withdrawal can be something big, like choosing a work meeting over a family funeral, or it can be as small as turning away when your partner needs emotional support.
A committed relationship requires both partners to be there for each other through the life-altering traumas and everyday nuisances. That means celebrating joys and successes with your partner, too.
Everybody has different ways of expressing themselves. In a committed relationship, it is the responsibility of both partners to uncover and disclose these preferences to understand what the other requires to feel loved, protected, and supported.
Think of The Five Love Languages. In his research lab, Dr. Gottman discovered that happy couples turned toward each other 86 percent of the time, while unhappy couples turned towards each other only 33 percent of the time. That means unhappy couples withdraw 67 percent of the time!
Emotional withdrawal sets in when bids are ignored.
Solution: To improve your emotional connection, focus on rebuilding and updating your Love Maps, cultivating a culture of admiration and fondness, and turning towards bids more often.
Do any of the items listed above feel familiar or make you feel uneasy? If so, you may be facing a betrayal. Maybe it’s as serious as finding discomforting text messages between your partner and someone else. This list is not about who is right or wrong.
Like sexual affairs, these betrayals can be overcome if you recognize the problem and repair the relationship together.
This article was originally published at The Gottman Institute. Reprinted with permission from the author.