The Many Shades of Betrayal

Betrayal of trust is a subjective experience for each individual based on the spoken and unspoken rules of commitments made in a relationship. Communication is extremely important when it comes to understanding the boundaries of your relationship. The boundaries will likely be different in any relationship you have. Talking about them is critical so that assumptions aren't made. Sometimes, people feel that their desire for more open or more closed boundaries will be judged by their partner in a negative way. They therefore don't bring up their needs and wants and silently hope for the best. This can often backfire once there is extensive investment into the relationship as far as time and resources.

The following list of ways betrayal can happen in a relationship is from John Gottman's book, The Science of Trust, (pages 351-353 for any of you who want more detailed reading). There is a wide variety of ways that betrayal happens. It is not limited to sexual communication or action.

No part of betrayal belongs in a committed relationship. The key is to know that boundaries are set by two people within a relationship. I cannot stress enough that these boundaries vary. What is considered betrayal by one person or one couple may be considered acceptable by another person or couple. It is up to the couple to clearly demarcate the limits of their commitment so that there are no surprises and hurt is minimized. 

If someone has chosen to act out a betrayal, it will be up to the betrayed partner to decide what they need in order to forgive or whether or not they choose to stay in the relationship. Decisions on this matter like all others in a relationship need to be respected. My recommendation is to meet with a therapist, even if for just a few sessions, to discuss and understand the intricate inner workings of the betrayal so that the residual effect is reduced as much as possible.

Read on below to be more clear on where your boundaries are and consider having an open conversation with your partner as to where you stand. Boundaries of the relationship are a very important topic to discuss. There may be differing opinions so be prepared to have the conversation with an open mind and a loving heart. 

1. Betrayals by violations of commitment. This type of betrayal simply means that one or both partners are conditionally committed. Commitment happens when it works for them or when no one better has come along. The individual hasn't firmly decided that the relationship they are in is the only one they want to be in or the one they want to be in for the long run. In this type of betrayal, commitment levels diminish when there is an argument, disagreement, emotional or physical distance happens, financial insecurity, their partner becomes ill, or their partner states reasonable demands that they don't care to fulfill. People leave for a period of time or threaten to leave when times are bad between them. The partner can be left feeling confused, unfulfilled, worried, and needing to do more than their fair share in the relationship in order to keep the partner violating the commitment engaged. Needless to say, neither person feels connected or satisfied.

2. Betrayals of emotional, romantic, or sexual exclusivity. In a healthy and successful relationship, partners do not turn away from the agreement to be exclusive. When betrayal of this type happens, one or both partners do not turn away from other relationship, flirtations, sexual acts, secret emotional or financial attachments, or other kinds of secret liaisons that present themselves. Sometimes they even seek out these types of betrayal. They do not discuss their betrayals within the relationship before, and most of the time after, boundaries have been crossed. The partner acting out the betrayal may make sense of why they are doing it and why it is okay. This can range anywhere from, 'my partner won't care,' 'my partner won't find out,' 'my partner doesn't give me this type of attention and I need to find it somewhere, anywhere,' to being completely oblivious that they are doing anything to betray their partner. This type of disconnect usually happens over time, but the external relationship(s) often don't come to an end until the partner who has been betrayed finds out. This usually results in the partner doing the betraying feeling anywhere from immensely guilty and promising change to trying to reason and validate their behaviors to help their partner understand why their behavior is okay. 

3. Betrayals by secrets, lies, and deceptions. One of the most distressing forms of betrayal is this category, lies of omission. This type of betrayal includes violations of trust, directly or indirectly lying, concealing any and all information from your partner regarding simple or deceitful actions or feelings, violations of confidence, broken promises, and inconsistencies. Not sharing the whole truth or keeping basic information from your partner is not only misleading but it is not faithful. It does not make for a successful, happy relationship. If you feel like you have to participate in this kind of behavior, you may want to reconsider your level of connection and communication with your partner. Before engaging in this type of betrayal, or after you find yourself already engaged in it, you can come forth and have a conversation with your partner as to what is turning you away from the relationship. By doing so, you have a better chance at repairing and building a stronger relationship. If you don't think that's possible or you do not want to move towards a successful relationship, you may want to reconsider why you are in the relationship at all.

4. Coalitions with others against the partner. When one partner forms a connection with a person outside of the relationship such as a friend, co-worker, family member, in a way that excludes or hurts their partner, they are choosing to engage in behavior that they would not engage in if their partner was there. The most common example of this is talking negatively about a partner with a friend. The problem with this type of betrayal is that problems are vented to an outsider without consulting and resolving them with one's partner. If the problem is so bad that it is on your mind, your partner is the first person to turn to. If there are communication difficulties between you and your partner and you are not happy about something that you would like to resolve with them, try going to a therapist or reading a good book on communication for romantic relationships. If your partner is not willing to try to make changes that will bring your relationship to the place you would like it to be, you may want to think about how you can improve your ability to cope with your difficult feelings to the extent that they are not overwhelming. If you've tried everything, then you may realistically want to understand when it is time to let go and move on. 

5. Betrayals by disinterest. In this instance, one or both partners stop expressing interest in their partner's thoughts, feelings, inner life, or future goals. Part of being in a healthy relationship is an ongoing interest in your partner as an individual in this world. This helps them feel connected and gives them the space to grow. By being disinterested, the individual doing the betraying is essentially putting down their partner and making them feel not good/cool/interesting enough. Now that's not a feeling anyone wants to have. Especially not from their significant other. If you are uninterested in your partner, take a moment to think about why. Consider talking to them about what used to make them attractive. Click here to watch this video on The Secret To Desire In a Long-Term Relationship. Do something, anything, but don't make your partner feel unimportant in your world. 

6. Betrayals of disrespect, unfairness, and lack of care. There are defaults in taking care of your partner such as not abandoning each other when ill or in need of emotional comfort and understanding. Being there for the other person is a standard part of being in any committed relationship. It is important to discuss what this looks like for each person in a couple. Once it is decided and understood, it will continue to bring two people together over the course of the relationship. The terms to this need can be modified and adjusted as time moves on and people change, but in essence, the feeling that the other person is there for you no matter what needs to be maintained while in relation to each other. Individuals who do not cherish, compliment, or express pride in their partner are creating a sense of disconnect that can diminish the value of their relationship. They are instead express disrespect, mockery, ridicule, sarcasm, mean behaviors or words, and often express superiority so as to denigrate their partner. None of these behaviors have a place within a loving, intimate relationship.

7. Betrayals of affection or sexual interest. Sometimes one or both partners become unaffectionate, unresponsive, or cold towards the other person. This can be so confusing and stressful for the other person. The person who is being betrayed in this instance may themselves become cold and unaffectionate, or they may try to compensate by seeking out affection more and more as the other person distances. Again, neither partner can possibly feel satisfied in this scenario. If you are experiencing a lack of affection, talk to each other or to a therapist to see how you can get back on track. It is an important part of any intimate relationship and requires work to maintain it. Affection won't be the fireworks of the early stages of your relationship, but it's not going to be too far off from it. There may be a lack of attraction or physical interest, or a lack of desire for physical intimacy that can manifest in several ways. First and foremost, it is critical to be certain that there are no medications or medical issues that are disrupting libido. You can talk to your medical doctor about these topics to ensure that everything is in tip top shape. Beyond that, building sexual intimacy once it is lost can be done by finding ways to reconnect and appreciate the other person emotionally and physically.

8. Betrayals by abuse. This is a serious form of betrayal that need not be tolerated under any circumstance. Examples include but are not limited to: social isolation, sexual coercion, extreme jealousy, public humiliation/belittling/degradation, threats or actual acts of violence or other acts that are intended to induce fear, damages or threats of damage to property, pets, or children, financially restriction or control by one partner, and physical abuse which is any unwanted touch. If you are finding yourself in a situation where abuse is occurring, be certain to have a safe means of escape should you need it. Having contact information for domestic violence shelters or contacting your local Department of Child and Family Services can save you from harm. Reach out to a professional who can help you figure out your best course of action in creating a safe place for yourself and your loved ones.

9. Betrayals by not meeting each others needs. A relationship is about healthy interdependence. Partners who violate this principle do not meet the other person's essential needs cooperatively and honestly. To meet your partner's needs, you are agreeing to being emotionally present, open, available, and responsive. You need to be willing to make sacrifices at times so that you can put your partner's and your families needs before your own. You are after all in relation to other people. You are not on your own when you are in a committed relationship. It is totally okay to not know how to exist in relation to others. Some people have never had a positive experience in this realm. It is important to know that meeting the needs of another person is fundamental to having a successful relationship of any sort, romantic or otherwise. The good news is that there are many outlets to learn this. Books, articles, therapists, the other person you are in relation to are all excellent sources of information. Start asking and you will be amazed at how much more fulfilling your relationship can be when there is a balanced give and take.

10. Betrayals by breaking promises and vows. Having conversations about the previous 9 topics and reviewing and acknowledging the promises and vows that were made at the beginning of and over the course of the relationship is a task that can be done every so often when in a relationship. It is important to keep promises and vows that are made so as to not create a distance between yourself and your partner. This is another one of the means of betrayal that applies not only to romantic relationships, but to all relationships. This involves being true to yourself and knowing that it's not productive to over-commit or over-promise, especially when you know you don't intend to do what you say you will. That leaves the other person disappointed and confused.


Committed relationships are a work in progress. When well-maintained, they can be fulfilling beyond your imagination. Some fine tuning is regularly needed as is some attention to who you are presenting yourself as in the relationship. Be honest to yourself and to others and keep communicating what is going on for you. Hopefully you find yourself in relation to a person who can and wants to do the same so that any unclarity can be cleared away and both of you can live in peace, harmony, excitement, and love with each other.