You're Not Stupid, It's Called Betrayal Blindness
Why—In Retrospect—We Missed the Obvious Signs that Our Partner Was Lying
“I can’t believe it happened again. Why do I keep giving him the benefit of the doubt? I keep wanting to hope that he’ll change but I dig a little deeper and I keep finding more lies. I don’t think he’s capable of telling me the truth. God, what else don’t I know? I’m not sure I can stomach digging for more, pushing him to tell me the truth, only to find a new low that we’ve hit as a couple.”
That was a recent conversation I had with a client who’s been working on reconciling and healing with her husband after discovering a yearlong affair he had with a co-worker. She was destroyed to find out that her partner lied about continued contact with the affair partner and also found out there were other inappropriate “friendships” with other women. Previous to her recent marital crisis, my client would have been described by many as an extremely intelligent, grounded, strong-minded, and secure person…someone who would never fall victim to such a cliché ruse. Her “shell-shock” along with the shaming self-talk of “How did I not know this was happening? How could I be so blindly trusting and stupid?” can all be chalked up to one phenomenon: Betrayal Blindness.
Betrayal blindness was coined by research psychologist, Jennifer Freyd, in her books Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse (1996) and Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves that We Aren’t Being Fooled (2013). The term stemmed from her research on childhood abuse and then expanded to another form of relational betrayal trauma: infidelity. Dr. Freyd was intrigued when she found story after story of infidelity where everyone seemed to know the partner was cheating, except for the spouse. However, in retrospect, the spouse could recount numerous, obvious signs of her partner’s suspicious activities that she “didn’t see” or quickly accepted her partner’s false justifications surrounding the behaviors (i.e.Gaslighting). Freyd was intrigued by the victims of betrayal trauma seemingly choosing to ignore that they were being lied to, abused, or betrayed.
Why, you ask, would one choose to ignore being victimized by lies, abuse, or betrayal?
Freyd explains: “Everyday betrayal blindness is all around us. It is the systematic filtering of reality in order to maintain human relationships. It is not knowing and not remembering the betrayals of everyday life and everyday relationships in order to protect those relationships. It includes white lies and the darker lies we tell ourselves so as not to threaten our bonds. It is not seeing that your intimate partner is having an affair when others see it plainly (193).”
Basically, various forms of betrayal happen around us all of the time. When we don’t care about the betrayer (i.e. A stranger lies to us or harms us), we react by getting angry or hurt and avoiding that person or situation in the future. However, with intimate, dependent relationships where there are strong levels of emotional and logistical ties to another (i.e. A husband whom you love and is also the breadwinner and co-parent to your children), the more likely a person is to “ignore” betrayal or abuse. The fear of losing the relationship suppresses our intuition telling us that we’re being betrayed and harmed. In fact, the more the victim is dependent on the perpetrator of the betrayal, the more power the perpetrator has over the victim. Betrayal blindness is the same concept used to explain why acts of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other abuses at the hands of loved ones often go uncovered, unacknowledged, and unchanged.
One’s perception of dependency on another may be real, such as financial dependence if there are young children involved and, perhaps, at a stay-at-home mom, who feels she cannot sustain a proper lifestyle without her husband. However, the perception of dependency is often the RESULT OF PAST OR CURRENT PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION, where escape and change may be possible but the abused partner may not see those options at all due to fear. See my blog on Gaslighting to understand the insidious nature of psychological manipulation and how it contributes to betrayal blindness.
Bottom line: Your fear-driven determination to maintain your marriage at all costs, supersedes your intuitive messages cautioning you that you are being mistreated, lied to, harmed, or abused. Therefore, one “allows” the abuse and lies to continue for weeks, months, even years.
The Problem with Maintaining Your Relationship No Matter What:
“If you are blind to the evidence that your intimate partner is having an affair, you may manage to keep the relationship from ending. But what sort of relationship is it, and what purpose does it serve?” (Freyd 194) When one chooses to ignore the truth of the state of their marriage they are, in essence, living a lie. Defense mechanisms such as lack of awareness, forgetting, denying, dissociating, and being less than fully connected internally may be adaptive but are ultimately tragic solutions in life. When we choose to be blind to what’s happening outside of us (i.e. our marriage and our partner), we may also be choosing to ignore what’s going inside of us. The result can be preserving a fractured life—internally and externally—impoverished spiritually and socially. Keeping ourselves blind to the betrayal does allow us to maintain the relationship with our spouse, but at what cost to our sense of self, quality of life, and sanity?
The Antidote to Betrayal Blindness: Empowering Yourself and Your Intuition
Betrayal blindness breeds from co-dependency (More on interdependent vs. co-dependent relationships). Its existence stems from an overriding reliance on the person who’s perpetrating the betrayal. That’s why the fear of losing a partner SHOULD NOT and CANNOT be considered a life-threatening consequence. Life altering, yes. Painful and sad, of course. Life threatening, no. Our partner can be a significant aspect of our life without becoming the single, most defining aspect of life. Our value and worth must exist in spite of their approval and love. After all, our partners, like everyone else, are imperfect and act of their own free-will. We do not have control of our partner’s choices or behaviors. Sure, we can influence them at times. However, they will ultimately do what they want and for their own reasons. Assuming we have any control over another is a recipe for exhaustion…and anger…and resentment….and betrayal blindness.
Our intuition, “better judgment”, and sense of self are all compromised when we allow ourselves to be co-dependent. In order to prevent patterns of betrayal blindness, we must work hard to empower our intuition, maintain a strong sense of self, and maintain many meaningful facets of our lives beyond our primary relationship.
More info on betrayal blindness and Jennifer Freyd see her article.