Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. But it’s absolutely crucial to a marriage. Without trust, it’s not possible to safely give yourself away. And when the parties to a union can’t give themselves away, there’s really no marriage. Marriage is about the melding of hearts and minds. But when someone entrusts their heart to another, only to have it crushed, the damage done is not only substantial but also can take years to repair, even under the best of circumstances.
I’m sorry to say that over my many years counselling troubled couples I’ve witnessed very few cases where the disturbed character in a relationship was truly willing to “own” all the damage they’d caused by their breaches of trust and then commit themselves to repair the damage. What follows is an example of one of the more unfortunate cases (as always, any potentially identifying details or circumstances in the vignette have been altered to preserve anonymity and confidentiality):
Looking back on things, “Jane” realized the warning signs were there all along. She should have trusted her gut but took the risk of trusting “Ted.” There was that time, for example, early in their engagement when Ted had a rendezvous with his former girlfriend and didn’t tell Jane about it until she confronted him after learning about it from a friend. And she chose to believe him when he insisted “nothing happened,” that he was only doing the right thing by affording this woman the “closure” she desperately needed to “move on” with her life, and that he kept quiet about the encounter purely out of concern it would only unnecessarily worry her to know about it. She chose to believe him despite the fact that by all appearances, this woman didn’t appear to be “moving on” all that much, frequently contacting Ted at odd times, prompting Jane to finally put her foot down. It would be a few years into their marriage before Jane learned that something indeed “did happen” between Ted and his ex, and as much as it hurt for her to learn the truth, she chose to accept Ted’s explanation that “it was a stupid mistake” that occured only happened once (it didn’t) and only because he felt sorry for an emotionally vulnerable person with whom he was once close. And he insisted it would be wrong to dwell on something that happened in the past and over and done with anyway, so it was time to “forgive and forget.” But it was only a year or so later that Jane, while taking Ted the cell phone he’d forgotten on the kitchen counter, found a truly unnerving text message from one of his female co-workers. Her heart sunk. And she confronted him as soon as she got to the office. But somehow he made her feel guilty for adopting an “accusatory tone.” Again, he insisted, “nothing happened” and there was nothing to really worry about. He admitted that he’d “probably let a harmless flirtation get a little out of control” but promply promised it “would never happen again.” He even offered to leave his job (which would certainly hurt them financially) “if it would make [her] feel better.” But it’s what happened next that should really have clued her in to the kind of person Ted really was. After he’d made his so-called apology, Ted launched into a diatribe about how “paranoid” Jane was “because of that one little mistake” he made years ago with his ex girlfriend and how sad it was to think she might be checking his phone all the time now, when all she really need to do was “just get over it.” At the time, however, she wasn’t seeing things clearly. In fact, she remembers only feeling guilty herself for finding it so hard to trust. But looking back, Jane realized how many red flags had been raised not only about the kind of person Ted really was but also about the kinds of heartless actions he was capable of because of his apparent lack of honesty and empathy.
So here they were, in a therapist’s office (at Jane’s insistance, of course), trying to salvage some semblance of a relationship after the sudden revelation that Ted and yet another co-worker had been having an affair for several months. Just going to therapy with Ted was hard enough, but when, on only the second visit Ted dared to suggest that she had “some part in this too” because her “paranoia” and “emotional distance” probably “drove him” into someone else’s arms, and then on top of that the therapist appeared to agree that “there’s always two sides to any infidelity story,” Jane had her epiphany. How could she have been so blind, she wondered? Who was this person she had married, anyway? Could he really be such a selfish, heartless fraud? And if he was, as she had now come to believe, why couldn’t the therapist see it? Moreover, how could any reasonable person think a marriage to someone so deceitful and untrustworthy could ever work?
Now, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from this story and the hundreds I’ve seen very much like it. When people of decent character “make a mistake,” they not only take responsibility for it but they’re also willing to do what it takes to repair any damage they may have done. And even when folks with significant character impairments deliberatly do bad things, if they have any shred of decency in them (i.e. any modicum of empathy and conscience) they certainly don’t add insult to injury by blaming the vicim of their trust violations and chiding them to “get over it” (for more on this topic, see the relevant articles on remorse and contrition, especially, Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition). A decent person who violates trust, works both diligently and unbegrudgingly to earn some trust back. Disturbed and disordered characters feel no obligation to do so, content to put the burden on others to “forgive and forget.” That’s the lesson Jane unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late to save a heartbreak. If she’d only known the signs that would have revealed the kind of character Ted really was, she might not have married him in the first place. But she didn’t know what to look for and she trusted Ted instead of her gut. Worse, she entrusted her heart to him. Ted knew very well the wound he’d inflicted on Jane’s heart. And his actions testify to the fact that he was never really sorry (i.e. never had genuine remorse) for anything he’d done. As I assert in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome, the truly contrite person hurts precisely because they’ve hurt the other person. Jane didn’t see it early on but she saw it clearly now: Ted was all about Ted – a narcissist lacking in conscience, empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse, and he always had been. He could never give himself over to her or to anything other than his own selfish desires, which made him an untrustworthy partner from the very beginning. And because of all the damage he’d inflicted on her heart by his betrayal of the trust she’d placed in him, it would be a very long time before Jane could allow herself to even think about trusting anyone again.
There will be at least one more post in this series, as trust is one of the more important topics.
Changes will continue to the blog over the coming weeks and information about the upcoming webinar and advance registration details will be posted in just a couple of weeks. Details are being worked out for some regional seminars for professionals and some of those workshops may also be open to the general public.
There will be a lot to talk about on Character Matters this Sunday evening (7 pm EDT, 4 pm PDT), which will again be a live program, so tune in, and if you have a mind to, call in and join the discussion.