Whose Relationship Violations are Worse?

Posted on July 17, 2019


How do you rate the following violations of love and trust in a relationship?  Number the following from 1-12 with 1 being the most egregious betrayal.

____  One night of sex with a stranger.

____  An emotional affair with a coworker.

____  A secret bank account.

____  Not showing up when your partner has a significant health scare.

____  Hiding your alcohol (or other substance) use/addiction from your partner.

____  An online affair with your high school sweetheart.

____  Siding with your mother over your mate.

____  Hiding credit card debt from your partner.

____  Hiding from your partner that you are using pornography daily.

____  Focusing on your career advancement ahead of your mate’s needs for connection and emotional support.

____  Secretly going to massage parlors and receiving manual sex.

____  Making large purchases without your partner’s knowledge or buy-in.


Let’s take just the first one.  Does your ranking change if it was oral sex and not genital sex?  How about if it was kissing and fondling?  If your partner was hiding pornography use, does your answer change if the porn involved sex acts that are disturbing to you?  What if the pornography was outside of your sexual orientation?

Sometimes there are violations of love and trust by both partners.  What does it mean if you did number 11 on your list, but your partner did number 3?  Does your partner have any right to be upset about what you did in light of what they did (especially considering that any reasonable person would rate these the same way you did)?  Can we just throw it all on the scale and see which is heavier?

When there are violations of love and trust, they create what we call (in the therapist’s parlance) attachment injuries.  Attachment injuries are those wounds that cause you to close off part of your heart to your partner.  They are those incidents that make you say, “never again.  Never again will I trust you.  Never again will I let you hurt me like that.”  Attachment injuries can be coming up decades after that incident, after the person who did the violation has apologized many times.

Would you like to know how I rank the list above?  The answer is it really doesn’t matter how I would feel about each of these.  What matters is what it meant to your partner.  What is the feeling that comes up for your partner when the incident comes up?  What is it that your partner believes that this says about the relationship and who he/she is to you?  How has this impacted that way your partner views him/herself and how they view you?

On the whole, attachment injuries don’t automatically heal with time.  Apologies often don’t work either.  Comparing whose sins are more egregious probably just makes the injury work.

Shame also often has the reverse effect to what you want.  This may seem counterintuitive.  If I am beating myself up for this, doesn’t it show how sorry I am?  The problem is that shame is self-focused.  When you did whatever you did, it was about you.  If you go to shame as a strategy to show remorse, you are still making it all about you.  Your partner is still (emotionally) left alone, abandoned.

What does bring healing is empathy, compassion, understanding, and repentance.  Healing generally requires that your mate has a felt sense that you get what this meant to him/her and that you are genuinely sorry for your partner’s pain.  If you can be present for your partner every time something triggers that pain again, the triggers become less frequent and less intense.  Eventually the incident is just a bad thing that happened to us in the past and not a current wound.

In therapy, if there have violations by both partners, we generally handle them separately.  The point here is that we are trying to treat both wounds.  They are separate wounds and need to be treated separately.  If you try to address them both at once it runs the risk of landing as, “Yes, but you did the same thing to me.”

To do this on your own requires some pretty mad relationship skills.  If you can’t seem to get there, marital therapy can help.  Otherwise (assuming you stay together), this thing may still be coming up decades from now.