The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships
By Patrick J. Carnes
It happens every fall. Lucy Van Pelt offers to hold the football for Charlie Brown. Every time this happens, Charlie Brown recognizes that this is a ploy to use him. And every time, Lucy comes up with a plausible reason why Charlie Brown should trust her. Charlie Brown sets aside his distrust and takes a risk again. Lucy then does what she always does-jerks the football out of the way at the last second. Charlie Brown always ends up flat on his back. Lucy then makes it clear why he should not have trusted her. We smile because the scenario is so familiar and perverse it is comical. It also contains the basic elements of deception and seduction that are the essence of betrayal.
In real life the scenario ceases to be funny. Here are some examples:
A nationally known physician is approached by a hospital administrator about setting up a program in his specialty. Meetings are held with staff to prepare a proposal for the board of directors. The physician is promised the medical director's position for the program. The proposal is turned down by the board but the administrator encourages another round of breakfast meetings and work sessions. Again the proposal is turned down, followed by more meetings. The physician starts to distrust the process and drops out of the planning. Six months later the program opens. A staff member confides to the physician that the administrator never intended to use the physician but needed his expertise to train staff and put the program together. The board had never seen the proposal. The administrator simply used the physician with no intention of ever hiring him. When challenged, the administrator says the physician lost hope too early. The staff says this is the administrator's common method for getting "free" consultation.
A rabbi sets up a special religious education course for adolescent girls. Parents are thrilled with the prospect. Part of the new curriculum involves sex education, however, and some parents withdraw their children because of rumors of the rabbi being "too close" to some of the girls. Other parents steadfastly keep their daughters enrolled. They write the rumors off to temple politics and the sexual rigidity of some of the parents. Nobody in the congregation is prepared for the revelations that the beloved rabbi is, in fact, having sex with a number of the girls in a sex ring.
Carol is a woman in her early forties. She is an investment broker married to a wealthy CEO with his own company. Together they have raised three daughters, all in their early twenties. Carol starts a passionate affair with a man whose source of money is difficult to determine. But the passion is in sharp contrast to the "lifeless" marriage she sees herself in. Her sexual experiences with her new partner are unlike anything she's experienced with her spouse. She leaves her husband amidst much anguish from her daughters and a lot of anger from him. Once living with her new partner, the nightmare begins-beatings and torture to the extent of being hospitalized twice. He is so in control of her life she cannot go to the bathroom by herself. One day while sitting in my office, and after being pulled out of her nightmare, I ask her why she stayed with this man. Her answer comes from some distant place inside: "The sex was good."
In each example there is a promise. In the physician's case, it was the professional position and recognition he always wanted. In the rabbi's case, it was the promise of a solid religious education that had solid parental support. For Carol, it was a form of sexual redemption that would pull her out of a sterile, emotionless marriage. Common to all was a promise. Those who betray read their victims well. They appeal to the emptiness, the unfinished and the wounds of others. The promise is designed to fix, to heal, to resolve or to make up for what has happened.
The promise is so appealing that intuitions are set aside. Even Charlie Brown knows better. In the cartoon on the following page, Charlie Brown sets his suspicions aside because Lucy sounds sincere. He wants to believe so badly that Lucy will hold the football that he persuades himself to take yet another run at it. The promise and his desire to believe the promise are so great that he ignores the obvious and accepts the improbable. And once again, he is sucked back into the inevitable result.
There are five main ways promises are used to betray. They are: betrayal by seduction, betrayal by terror, betrayal by exploitation of power, betrayal by intimacy and betrayal by spirit. One of these is bad enough, but oftentimes all five are present. To understand traumatic bonding, the reader must understand these separate types of abuse. We start with betrayal by seduction.