Thursday, November 7, 2013

Relationship Betrayal & Barriers to Forgiveness


Betrayal & 

Barriers to 


On 6 November, Sarah Pulliam Bailey of RNS posted a story about the resignation of Christian Leader, Doug Phillips following an extramarital relationship. From time to time we read about stories of prominent religious leaders and relationships that have gone awry. Using graphic language, biblical prophets refer to the Israelites acting like prostitutes in their betrayal of their relationship with God. In this post I consider several weapons that hurt relationships and six types of barriers to healthy relationships.


NINE Weapons of Relationship Destruction (WRD)

I hope that as I list some WRD items -- barriers to forgiveness in relationships -- that you will recall other barriers from your own experience and share them as comments so we can all benefit. 

Couples deal with a myriad of exchanges that they often overlook but some rise above others as powerful stimuli. In addition, a number of smaller offenses can stick to each other to form a monster that seems to emerge from nowhere and catches people off-guard. We should keep in mind Gottman’s (1994) finding that 69% of all marital problems can be classified as perpetual and recurring.

69% of all  marital problems are perpetual and recurring (Gottman)

I have been thinking that many of the powerful offenses in a relationship have to do with betrayal. Let’s consider some of those events in a couple’s life together.

1. Relationship betrayal due to Self-Love: Time for personal pursuits can crowd out time together (Online gaming, sports, hobbies, music, reading, work)

2. Relationship betrayal by failing to nurture: The powerful negative ratio building described by John Gottman. Insults and complaints increasingly exceed positive comments. Be sure to check out his concept of contempt as the major WRD in relationships.

3. Financial betrayal: Many people struggle to pay bills. When a partner consumes excess resources, trust can be irreparably harmed (Irresponsible hidden purchases, persistent overspending, gambling).

4. Interpersonal betrayal: Some people seem to have time for everyone else but one’s spouse or close friend (e.g., parents, children, ministry, coworkers, other friends).

5. Emotional betrayal: In romantic relationships, one partner can develop an attachment to another person, which competes with love for one’s spouse or partner. This betrayal is felt and much worse than an excessive devotion based on duty to an ailing family member. Some find this worse than a one-time sexual betrayal.

6. Family and parenting: It is no secret that couples argue about parenting tasks and methods. Criticisms can reach a tipping point that impairs both the marriage and the capacity for effective parenting.

7. Capacity to cope with special needs: People vary widely in their capacity to cope with spouses or other family members who have special needs. Special needs vary widely and include such challenges as dementia, end-of-life care, and a limiting chronic illness.

8. Sexual betrayal: The obvious insult of infidelity is too common and often leads to irreparable damage.

9. Abuse and violence: Again, these concerns are very serious and may interfere with reconciliation leaving us with a focus on intrapersonal forgiveness. That is, we need to forgive the hurt but reconciliation may not be a safe option.




I use a multidimensional model when assessing personal problems or thinking in general about human functioning. I use the acronym SCOPES to refer to the six dimensions of the model, which I described in a previous post (August 25, 2013). At the heart of the model are the four familiar dimensions that define how we respond to life events or COPE (Cognitive, Observable behavior, Physiological, Emotional). I add two S dimensions for the Spiritual core of our being and the Social context in which events take place. Because people are whole persons, we will usually have to consider multiple dimensions at the same time.

Spiritual barriers
Blaming God or the Devil: Attributing life situations to God or the devil.  The problem may be bad theology and/ or persistent problems of figuring out how much personal responsibility each person has in a relationship.

Questioning God: It is easy to understand why people want answers when things go wrong. We seek to understand what went wrong; however, why questions can lead us astray when we seek for answers then feel compelled to create an answer. Sometimes we just cannot explain life’s complexities. Sometimes, we learn years later how a set of circumstances came about. Sometimes asking why is an invitation to develop a lie-- a fabricated story that distracts us from dealing with the relationship problems.

“Asking why invites a lie”

Spiritual Transference – For Christians, the relationships with God and family are primary so it is easy to transfer (i.e., generalize responses) feelings and attitudes toward God or toward others onto the other person in our relationship. That is, angry feelings toward God may be transferred to a friend or member of the clergy and vice versa.

Instant miracles- Some Christians believe that God will answer their prayers without delay. A belief in instant healing can interfere with forgiveness when emotional forgiveness takes longer than expected. Pastors still advise congregants to "forgive and forget" as I and a colleague once witnessed following a massacre in Africa.

Deliverance without personal work- This is something like a belief in instant forgiveness but the difference is that God does all the work. In deliverance thinking, people have a limited role to play in the spiritual battles between Jesus and Satan. This belief continues to be held among believers in many countries.

Cognitive barriers (mostly thoughts linked to an attitudinal barrier)
Trust: “I can never trust him/her again.” This can generalize as: “I can never trust another man/ woman again.”
Entitlement narratives: “I deserve better treatment.” People are here to serve me and meet my needs. This core belief can lead to thoughts of justice and revenge.
Justice: “What he/she did was just plain wrong!” “He/ she deserves to be punished.” The call for fire and damnation.
Revenge: “He/ she better watch out.” Thoughts and fantasies of ruinous destruction accompanied by that gloating feeling.
Memory: “Do you know what he/she did?” A belief in one’s memory of events as perfect and if people only knew what I knew, they too would be impressed with the wicked and unfair treatment. Our brain searches for other associations with the offenses and the negative thoughts we are processing. Our memories are imperfect and only retain a part of an experience. Different people present at an event recall different details.

Hindsight is 20/200

Duty: I must forgive. If I don’t forgive, God will punish me. A belief that a quick pushing aside of a hurt is required of a Christian, which can lead to stifling unrecognized emotions.
Victim narratives: I get what I deserve. I should have said that. If only I did what he/ she asked he/ she wouldn’t have been so mad at me. A victim’s narrative prevents an objective appraisal. As the narrative continues, the problem of unforgiveness deepens.

Observable behavioral barriers: Patterns of verbal and nonverbal behavior
Verbal behavior-- things people say
You will pay for this. You better watch your back.
 Personal insults- numerous offensive words designed to hurt, belittle, embarrass. Recall Gottman’s findings on contempt and things like hostile humor, name calling, and mockery.

Nonverbal behavior-- things people do
Active avoidance: Leaving, hiding from a painful stimulus- the burned hand on the stove effect. It is hard work to promote healing a relationship when one person walks away.
Passive avoidance: isolation, withdrawn (think depression; too much stress to face)
Active aggression: Hitting in many ways; destruction of property
Passive aggression: Lateness for events; Low participation in spouse’s events, sex strike

Physiological barriers
The physiological response to stress has been fairly well documented. There is of course some variation from person to person.

Common stress factors
Dysregulated (increase/decrease) sleep and appetite
Increased blood pressure and heart rate
Stomach distress
Muscular effects- tightness
Neurological responses- headaches, migraines

Neuropsychological effects
            Deficits in attention and concentration possibly involving dopaminergic pathways
            Deficits in memory possibly associated with serotonin and the hypothalamus

Emotional barriers
Emotional pain is at the core of our being, which we experience in associated words, images, behavior patterns, and palpable changes in our body. We describe these powerful and primitive emotions as hot states of anger, uncomfortable states like anxiety (including fear and dread) and cooler smoldering states like deep sadness and depression. Research shows that trait anxiety is a particular problem in forgiveness and reconciliation.

Social barriers
There are several aspects of social space that function as barriers to forgiveness and reconciliation. As I write this post, we in Christian cultures are approaching Christmas. Obviously, a major spiritual event but the expectations are for family members to be together in peace and harmony. Factors of time and space can turn Christmas and other occasions into barriers.

The first dimension is time. People focused on past hurts are mired in the past and unable to function effectively in the present or consider the future. This time problem can obviously vary from person to person but in the extreme, a person almost seems to live in the past. 

There are several dimensions of social space that people occupy sequentially during a day. Other locations vary by the week, month, or holiday season. Many have a home and visit extended family. Many have friends. Most go to work or school and some do both. Within each social space are people who serve to enhance or degrade a person’s life experience. People affect us as we affect them. People can serve as barriers to change. And people can serve as bridges to recovery.


            I would like to leave you with a sense of hope and encouragement. I believe many people find their way to forgiveness as they pray and meditate or benefit from wise counsel from friends or authors of many helpful books. Others report success by working through the steps of forgiveness with a counselor, pastor, or spiritual adviser. In previous posts I have suggested ways to improve relationships such as effective apologies and the ideas about healthy marriages from Gottman's research.

Related forgiveness posts

Babcock, J. C., Graham, K., Canady, B., & Ross, J.M. (2011). A proximal change experiment testing two communication exercises with intimate partner violent men. Behavior Therapy, 42, 336-347.
Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 109-130.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Luskin, F. (2002). Forgive for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness. New York: HarperCollins.
Pennebaker, J.W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury.
Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.). Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Multidisciplinary Studies from a Pentecostal Perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.
Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29-44.

Thomas, E. K. & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious Leadership Failure: Forgiveness, Apology, and Restitution. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 308-327.

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

1 comment:

  1. loving this blog!!!! marriage is the best part of human life, It has to be protected by couple love and dedication to make it Succesful.Happy Marriage Life