Forgiveness and the Problem of “Betrayal Bonding”

When I began writing about the virtue of forgiveness I recognized the need to identify prevalent yet mistaken attitudes about forgiveness. For example, many think that forgiving someone who is no longer living is a meaningful act. But I maintain that this misunderstands forgiveness.

Sometimes a virtuous form of behavior is confused with forgiveness. What I’ve called “therapeutic forgiveness,” for example, may be rooted in healthy beliefs and practices, without counting as forgiveness in the proper sense. A person may feel negative emotional ties to someone who was abusive but is no longer living. These emotional links can be especially crippling and efforts should be taken to break them. Fortunately, there are effective tactics for doing this. But these tactics do not consist in forgiving the abusive person.

Another confusion arises in cases where a person defends an attachment with a person who has betrayed him and may be known to betray others. This kind of attachment has been called “betrayal bonding.” The idea of forgiveness comes into play for the person who “looks past” the behavior of such a person and “accepts them as they are.”

I’ve seen this in several instances where a charismatic figure, very likeable from a public vantage point, is personally nefarious in his dealings with people who work closely with him or are members of his family. In another post, I wrote about “Snakes in Suits,” where I recommended a book with this title. Snakes in suits are among those who cultivate psychically dangerous and damaging relationships. But the type can be found in many different contexts.

What does betrayal bonding look like?

You may be friends with an individual who has a record of wrecked relationships that many would have thought were healthy, even exemplary. You may harbor vague puzzlement about this pattern. You may accept the individual’s explanation for relationship collapse, where blame-shifting often is featured prominently. You may wish to defend this individual out of a sense of loyalty—loyalty that may have intensified if you think the individual has been “abandoned” by “so-called friends.” You may wish, contrary to the evidence, that the individual is blameless in his dealings with others. You may suppose that your relationship with the individual will survive and that you will never be relegated to the sidelines or cast upon the pile of carnage. You may judge that the individual’s “quirks” and “foibles” are tolerable, and perhaps should be “forgiven,” given his importance in whatever cause you identify with.

All of this is evidence of betrayal bonding. (Betrayal bonding is not to be confused with co-dependence, though subtle co-dependencies may be at work.) The effect is unhealthy for the least suspecting person—YOU.

How do you know whether you’re bound to someone in this way?

Here’s a clue: If while reading this you have found yourself thinking of a particular person whose friendship you value, but whose relational skills by certain important measures are a little sketchy, then there’s a chance you suspect the presence of betrayal bonding. If so, this merits further exploration.

The International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) has developed a “Betrayal Bond Index Test.” It’s a series of straightforward questions that you answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” Unlike much psychological testing, there isn’t much scope for uncertainty as you answer each of the 30 questions. And it goes quickly.

Today, I would answer all questions in the negative. But I would also be thinking of a destructive relationship of the past. Sometime after the early stages of that relationship, an honest answer to many of the question would have been a “yes.” That relationship, which I mistook for a friendship, pooped out a long time ago. I still have occasional encounters with the person, but I have not the slightest inclination to restart a relationship, to imagine that he has changed for the better, to give him a second chance, to make excuses for his conduct, to give him a pass or defend his reputation because of his popularity or perceived importance. (Forgiveness, a precondition for restoration, must await repentance.)

If he’s reading this, he probably knows who he is. At the moment, I’m happy to say, I can think of no one else who qualifies for the ignominious status rightly accorded to this person of the past. In fact, I can’t remember any other person prior to that relationship where I was at risk of “betrayal bondage,” (except, possibly, a girl I once dated). I guess that makes me a lucky guy.

How about you? Have you been so relationally blessed that none of this speaks to the inner you? Then by all means, celebrate. (It shouldn’t matter much who you celebrate with.)

But maybe you’re not so sure that you’re in the clear. Then the IITAP Index Test may be a good place to start toward better understanding!

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to Forgiveness and the Problem of “Betrayal Bonding”

  1. Mark says:

    I stumbled across my own comment, and I see that unfortunately I was unable at the time to articulate what I wanted to say because it was early in my thinking process on this type of thing.

    Basically, what I should have said is that it seems to me if we’re going to speak of “betrayal bonding”, that we should also have in mind relational idealism. If “betrayal bonding” is going to be something we’re conscious of then I would think so should be “idealistic distortion”, which is also a term used by some psychologists which apparently even has a questionnaire to determine a given a participant’s place on the IDS (idealistic distortion scale). It is used in the context of romantic relationships so far as I’ve seen, but if it is valid here surely it would be valid in virtually any context of human expectations.

    The “betrayal bond” test itself shows some pretty clear signs of relational idealism and also some unfortunate trends in sociology where conflict is considered as a sickness to be excised rather than as an older view had it that as healthy within limits and something to be managed. There is a social value of conflict.

    A little late perhaps, but that is the compressed version of the main reason that I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the term “betrayal bonding”. I think it is a real issue, but I think the term lacks clarity and I suspect is more complex than those who made the test may think.


  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Thank you, Mark. I appreciate your careful response and your analysis of honor and humility in your comment. You’ve offered much to think about. Maybe it will elicit discussion from others.


  3. Mark says:

    “How do you know whether you’re bound to someone in this way?

    Here’s a clue: If while reading this you have found yourself thinking of a particular person whose friendship you value, but whose relational skills by certain important measures are a little sketchy, then there’s a chance you suspect the presence of betrayal bonding.

    … If he’s reading this, he probably knows who he is.”

    Dr. Geivett, I’m not as sanguine in such tests or this self-conscious understanding as you are. The problem is in identifying whether one is thinking of a person who is a betrayal bonder, or whether one who thinks this is a person feeling a betrayed bond because of a false sense of himself and imputing the betrayal to others. I’d say the likelihood of the latter case is something at least a little north of 50/50. Because it seems to me it is pretty rare for persons who self-identify with certain groups and standards not to have a great deal invested in their self-image as defined by ideal types of the group or standard. If no conflict arises no problem arises, but when it does if others won’t assist them in supporting their self-image, their lack of humility and perspective caches out in imputing betrayal bonding to the other person, when in fact that other person is simply doing their duty to something of greater importance than managing another’s self-image (or the average of the group in question as well). You can say it is a lack of humility, but it seems justified to such a one because the loyalty to the person or group is deemed more important. In other words, it isn’t so much a lack of humility as much as the lack of an intellectual basis that would ground a humility on the matter.

    That is why when many people feel they or their group has been disrespected all principle goes out the window. In my opinion it isn’t as likely to be an overweening pride that causes the umbrage over the disrespect (though that certainly occurs too), as it is the little understood concept and grasp of honor nowadays, whose public nature seems to warrant taking a precedence over other Christian principles seen mostly as personal and more abstract that otherwise would more likely be allowed to govern. Believe me, I’ve had strong arguments with people I respect whom I consider to display admirable amounts of humility in their character in all other ways that simply will not budge over such a issues (often non-personal) for what I think is exactly this reason.

    Honestly, I think that instead of sending so many students off to study of the concept of eudaimonia a few decades ago, we should have been sending as many or more of them to study the concept of honor. What is the nature of this idea in persons, and what is a proper understanding of it to a Christian? The answer matters a lot. And regardless of the health of the view, we’re somewhat blind to much of human behavior without a grasp of its role in any case. And we’ve had amazingly sophisticated and thought provoking critics in history on both sides throughout history, and the debate is just a forgotten aspect of the continuing debate between the ancients and moderns.

    I could be wrong, but I think this issue is deeper than we tend to think. I think there are issues behind the issues of forgiveness and charity that we’re just blind to now. Anyway, here are books that have helped me come to grips with such things and try to get to explanations of misunderstandings regarding matters of loyalty and forgiveness. In any case, it is a reasonable question to ask if people really misunderstand them, or do they just misunderstand their relevance and importance when conflicts with other ideas arise?

    -Honor: A History, James Bowman
    -Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, Bertram Wyatt-Brown
    -Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South, Edward L. Ayers (first chapter)
    -Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor, John Alvis
    -Moral Relevance and Moral Conflict, James D. Wallace (not directly about honor)


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