Betrayal is a big word so sometimes we worry it’s just too much. However, when you lose your trust in your relationship that’s how you end up feeling–betrayed. Some betrayals are bigger than others, of course, like infidelity. Other times there is a build up of disloyalty that can feel like 1,000 cuts to your trust. Slow erosion can make it hard to say just when trust started to give way.
Disloyalty can happen in nearly any relationship, not just romantic ones. Parents can be inadvertently disloyal to kids. Friendships can suffer an erosion of trust. Within families someone may not tell the truth. Partners in a couple may not have the other person’s back. All of these kinds of disloyalties can feel like a betrayal and harm the foundation of the relationship.
How does it feel when someone doesn’t have your back and you thought you were on the same side? What about when a trusted person does something you don’t like without telling you? Finally, have you ever experienced a loved one choosing to support someone else instead of taking your side or standing up for you? All of it stinks. Too often we don’t think about it being a loyalty issue because our society compares loyalty with fidelity.
Here are some examples of disloyalty that I commonly see in relationships and families, often without someone realizing it’s harmful.
A child comes home complaining that someone at school wasn’t very nice and the first thing the parent asks is “What did you do to them?”.
A husband’s mother comes into a home and starts telling the wife what she’s doing wrong raising the kids and he stands silently by, or worse, agrees with his mom.
A wife’s brother wants her to take care of his kids to help out on a night her spouse has a function they were supposed to attend and she helps the brother instead of joining her spouse.
Several friends are sitting around joking at another (missing) friend’s expense and nobody says “Hey, that’s not really cool”.
Often when the injured party raises the issue and says they don’t like it, the response might be “What’s the big deal?”. Or perhaps “You know how (that relative/friend) is. Just blow it off.” Finally, there’s the dig that doubles down by saying “You are just too sensitive. Lighten up”. How do you fix that??
First, it’s important to recognize that one of the most important, and often FAILED, stages of adult development is to shift primary loyalty from the family you grew up with to the family you create (and that includes your kids). It’s not perfect, but nearly always when you must choose between having your partner’s back and not upsetting someone else’s feelings you need to choose your partner.
(Note: When your kid is acting kind of rotten, you need to recognize that and not just reflexively take their side. That is NOT what I am talking about here).
Second, listen to what your partner (or child) tells you that hurts their feelings. Often, in our ego, we brush it off because we probably weren’t trying to hurt anyone. It stinks to feel the shame of realizing you’ve done something hurtful. Put down the defenses and hear them out.
Third, it might be helpful to have an agreed upon way to highlight when you are “doing that thing again” so you can be aware in the moment. Change takes time so catching it right when it happens increases the probability you notice it. Then you can do something different.
Finally, take responsibility for when you have acted disloyally (even if you didn’t mean to) and apologize. When your partner or child hears that, it helps keep the trust intact. Remember, you are on the same team so when mistakes happen, make repairs.
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