Posted on June 15, 2017


In a 1970 Monty Python sketch, a book publisher has published a Hungarian-English phrase book for Hungarian tourists visiting Britain.  The publisher has intentionally mistranslated the phrases to wreak havoc.  By way of example, the Hungarian phrase for “Can you direct me to the railway station?” was translated as “Please fondle my buttocks.”  After the ensuing legal case, the public is made aware of the problem such that a man on the street would respond to “Please fondle my buttocks” with directions to the train station.

There is a parallel to this with what happens with distressed spouses.  Since I do a lot of work with sex addicts, let’s look at some examples of things partners of sex addicts say and what the translation may be.  “You didn’t do anything for me for Mother’s Day,” (when you actually tried hard to make it special) may translate into “I am still really hurting over you going outside our relationship and it is really hard for me to trust that you care about me.”  “I can’t believe anything you say,” may actually mean “Because you lied to me before, it is so frightening for me to trust you.  I don’t know what I can believe.”

Even in less distressed relationships, there can be need for translation.  In an ideal situation, partners would always be able to express needs without criticism or contempt.  Unfortunately, this does not always happen.   Sometimes, “What you said just really hurt my feelings,” comes out as “You are so inconsiderate.”

Criticism (applying negative traits and motives to your partner) and contempt (name calling, sarcasm, rolling one’s eyes) are really damaging to the relationship.  We do well to avoid these things.  Sometimes, these will happen anyway, particularly if your partner has been traumatized by something that has happened in the relationship.  Though no one should be required to be on the receiving end of verbal abuse, if your partner has been traumatized, there are times when a little grace might be in order.  What I mean by this is to respond as though your traumatized mate has expressed herself[1] in the most constructive way possible.  “You’re a liar,” (contempt) actually means “I am feeling so hurt by your lies and secrets.”  If she had said it in the most constructive way possible, the response might be something like, “I have hurt you very badly by my lies.  It makes it very hard for you to believe me now.”

The Karpman Drama Triangle is a model of social interaction that looks at participants in interactions taking the roles of Persecutor (controlling, blaming, angry), Victim (oppressed, powerless, ashamed), or Rescuer (enabler, keeps the victim dependent).  What can often happen after discovery of some betrayal of the relationship is that the former victim or rescuer becomes the persecutor and the former persecutor becomes the victim.  This is not a healthy shift.  Name calling is not okay.  Trying to control or shame your partner will never get you the peace and safety you seek.  If you find yourself moving into the persecutor role following a betrayal of trust, it makes sense why you do it, it just really isn’t healthy or helpful.

If you are the partner who betrayed the trust, here is where you can try to bring some healing.  Respond as though your partner expressed her needs in the best way possible.  After, the heat of the moment has been dissipated by empathy, there will be time to talk with your partner about not resorting to contempt.  You can make a concrete request that we not go to name calling during arguments.

A note to the betrayed partner: early in recovery, it may seem that he has no right to request civil treatment after what he did.  We do not repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17).  This is not about giving him a pass for what he did.  It is not about you foregoing your own boundaries.  It isn’t about your decision on whether to stay in the relationship.  It is about responding in healthy and constructive ways.

Having offered all of these thoughts, most couples dealing with significant betrayals of trust need professional help to effectively navigate recovery.  Injuries to your attachment can be healed, but it usually requires help.

[1] I am going to use gender specific pronouns for convenience sake.  Of course, it is not always the husband who betrays the trust nor is the wife always the one who is traumatized.