It's common enough -- Jill gets betrayed by her partner and is the last to know. After it is all over, or perhaps during divorce proceedings, Jill beats herself up. "How could I have been so stupid?" "What is wrong with me?" "It's so embarrassing that everyone else knew and I didn't!" Jill begins to remember the damning evidence that was there all along -- the affair, the emotional and perhaps physical abuse, the pain of it all. And she blames herself, vowing never to be so stupid again. And yet, Jill might find herself repeating that same pattern again. All this can happen to men too, although our research suggests girls and women are at particular risk for being betrayed.
As we wrote our book (Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled), we heard this kind of story over and over again. One of our interviewees, Julie, a well-respected lawyer in her 40s, had an interesting description of what happened when she surprised her husband by meeting him in a bar. She saw him come in and kiss another woman. She described what happened then in her mind:
When they stopped kissing he looked up and our eyes met. And I'm kind of watching this and he walked over and he said, "I don't know who that was." And I believed him. I seriously believed him. I thought "that was weird" and... whoosh! That was it, and I spent the rest of the evening with him dancing... I never questioned him again about that woman.
"Whoosh?" What exactly is this mental process? We are psychologists -- we should know. We do in fact investigate the ways people can forget and remain unaware of important events. You could even say we study "whoosh" in the laboratory and observe in the consulting room. While we must admit that it remains something of a mystery to us, there is much we do understand. We have come to refer to this "whooshing" away of important betrayals as "betrayal blindness." Betrayal blindness involves not seeing what is there to be seen. The information that her husband was unfaithful was there the whole time. When Julie later replayed the bar incident in her own mind, she finally saw what she couldn't see at the time:
It wasn't until much later, after we were divorced, I was working as a gardener, and when you work as a gardener you have a lot of time... to just mull things over in your mind, and I remembered that night and I thought, oh my god, he must have been having an affair with her.
How could Julie have been so blind to her husband's infidelity when she already knew of at least two of his previous affairs? Her husband kisses a strange woman, and she accepts his claim: "I don't know who that was"?
The human mind is marvelously convoluted and clever. Julie almost surely knew about her husband's betrayals in some sense of the word "knew," even as she didn't let herself know in some other sense of the word. Betrayal blindness requires this convolution and cleverness so that one can be in the dual state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing something important.
Why would Julie not know something there for the knowing? It is not because Julie was stupid -- in fact, she was and is brilliant. The answer likely resides in Julie's need to survive. During the initial period of her marriage, Julie had a powerful -- although unconscious -- motivation for remaining blind to her husband's betrayal: she was utterly dependent upon her husband. Knowing about the betrayal would have required some action, yet she could not afford to rock the boat. Sometimes ignorance can preserve the relative bliss of the status quo when knowledge would inevitably lead to chaos. Ignorance is bliss when it allows you to survive.
Were Julie's experiences unusual? From our research and interviews with many others, we know that Julie's experiences of remaining blind to infidelity are fairly common for both women and men. And when betrayal occurs in relationships that we depend on for our physical and psychological survival, we often just don't see it. It's not stupidity; it's human nature. Betrayal is all too common, and it is toxic. Remaining unaware may keep important relationships in place but it is at a high cost to mental and physical health. Betrayal is toxic and it takes work to suppress it -- causing unexplained depression, anxiety, and health problems.
People can become aware of betrayals. They can become happier, healthier people after even extreme betrayals. In our book, Blind to Betrayal, we discuss how to heal from betrayal and overcome betrayal blindness. This work involves developing safe, supportive relationships, being willing to stand up to injustice and betrayal and claiming one's own truth, as difficult and painful as that can be. It involves rocking the boat, stirring up relationships that appear adequate on the surface but are toxic underneath. It's most often not the betrayed person that is crazy or stupid, but the fact that there was betrayal in the first place. "Whooshing" away information is actually not stupid or crazy at all -- it is a survival mechanism that is quite clever -- but it comes at a great cost. When people have a better alternative -- facing the betrayal, confronting it, stopping it -- that alternative is difficult but opens the door to a much freer, deeper, healthier, better life.