Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Voice of Experience: Betrayal

By Gregory K. Moffatt December 20, 2021

Grouping symptoms and behaviors into categories can be very helpful. It gives us a starting place for treatment planning. By doing this, instead of mistakenly treating symptoms, we can more quickly get to the treatment of causes.

For example, those of you who work with addictions are undoubtedly aware of the underlying concept of entitlement that can lead to relapse. “I haven’t had a drink in over a year, and my brother is getting married. I’ve earned a sip of wine to celebrate with him.”

This isn’t an excuse or a rationalization so much as it is entitlement. By helping our clients see that their entitlement thinking can easily lead to relapse, we can help them avoid this pitfall and make better decisions.

In April 2020, I wrote a column for CT Online about grief. I argued that grief underlies many of our clients’ issues. They may be grieving the loss of childhood, the loss of dreams, the loss of a marriage, or strained relationships with their children, parents or other loved ones.

Again, if our clients can recognize that grief underlies some of what they are experiencing, we can help them work through it like we would any other client who is dealing with a more obvious loss.

It is this kind of thinking that leads me to consider another category — betrayal.

Just as we may tend to think of grief too narrowly — as if it applies only to those clients who have experienced the death of a loved one — we can do the same thing with betrayal. This word is most often applied in the case of infidelity in a relationship, but I’ve learned there are many other ways in which we feel betrayed.

Certainly anyone engaging in an emotional relationship outside of a committed relationship will create a sense of betrayal in their partner. But let’s broaden our thinking to all social relationships.

Any engagement with another person — a co-worker, a weekly tennis date, a parent, child or even neighbors — involves social contracts. These contracts sometimes involve written agreements. Job contracts, marriage contracts, and informed consent for counseling are all explicit social contracts with clear expectations for behavior.

But much of our existence in our social worlds is made up of unwritten social contracts. These are implicit promises to behave in a certain way. “We always meet for coffee on Friday mornings at 8 before work.” Nobody would write that down, have it notarized and have all parties sign it. But the unwritten contract can be just as powerful as a written one. When the agreement is broken, we feel betrayed.

I’ve spent many years consulting with businesses and evaluating employees who are presenting disruptive, concerning or dysfunctional behaviors in the workplace. Many of them have been able to function fairly well in other environments, but in the workplace, they have felt betrayed. Therefore, their dysfunctional behaviors seem rational to them.

Valentina Shilkina/Shutterstock.com

For example, we would have no trouble understanding a husband who loses his cool after finding out that his partner has had an affair. After all, he was betrayed. The same emotional response happens in the workplace when an employee believes they have worked hard and earned a raise or promotion yet have been passed over. The employee with weak coping skills or other compromising mental health issues might behave in seemingly inexplicable ways. But I can see what’s happening. Metaphorically, they’ve found their partner in bed with someone else.

In couples counseling, I see this happening over time. Even if there are no outside relationships compromising the marriage, a sense of betrayal can still exist. “I’ve stayed home, cleaned house, given up my career and done laundry for 15 years. All I ask is a little appreciation.”

“Ah … so what you’re telling me (in counselor terms) is that you had an unwritten social contract with your partner — an expectation that you would do X, Y and Z and, in return, you would receive A, B and C. The contract has been violated and you feel betrayed?”

Resolving that betrayal, along with whatever other systemic dynamics may be at play, is a critical step in healing resentments. The partner may be totally unaware of the unwritten expectations — the fine print in the social contract. Sometimes healing can begin by simply articulating those expectations, negotiating them and putting them into practice.

Just like the large categories of entitlement and grief, betrayal is not a universal emotion in all dysfunction, but it is so big that I always consider this in evaluation and treatment planning. This helps me be more efficient and can begin the healing process sooner.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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