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!

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Legends of the Fall: A Discussion Guide


Legends of the Fall (USA, 1994); directed by Edward Zwick

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Defining Love through the Eye of the Lens: Romance, Sex, and the Human Condition in Pretty Woman, Legends of the Fall, and The Bridges of Madison County.” The author is Greg Jesson. Here are discussion questions for the film Legends of the Fall that I’ve used in conjunction with his chapter.

  1. A native American named Stab, an elder of the Cree Nation, narrates the beginning of the film. How would you explain the director’s choice in beginning the film this way?
  2. In a letter to his mother, Alfred writes, “I pray every night for the grace to forgive Tristan.” Do you agree that Tristan has sinned against his brother, Alfred? Explain your answer. Does Alfred ever forgive Tristan? Why or why not? If you believe he doesn’t, what would it have taken for him to forgive Tristan?
  3. When visited by a committee of citizens who want Alfred to be elected to Congress, he shouts at them, “What do you want for yourselves if you get my son elected?” What does this say about his view of politics? What does it say about his view of people, in general?
  4. Alfred says, in response to his father’s accusation that the U.S. government has yet to regain its wisdom, common sense, and humanity: “I will consider it my absolute duty to bring both wisdom and humanity to the United States Congress.” This may ring a bell. Compare Alfred’s vow with the similar promise made by Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. How are they alike? Different?
  5. Following his argument with the Colonel, Alfred says, tenderly, “Susanna, you deserve to be happy.” Is this true? What is Alfred’s conception of happiness? How does this compare with your conception of happiness?
  6. Does the Colonel have a favorite son? If so, who is it? What accounts for this? How are the others affected?
  7. What happens when Susanna’s name comes up, after Tristan returns home? Is Susanna over Tristan? Is Tristan over Susanna? What is your evidence?
  8. What do you think of Anthony Hopkins’s performance as a stroke victim? Is his stroke supposed to mean anything that ties into the story line of the film? (Is it symbolic?)
  9. One Stab repeatedly speaks of “the bear inside” of Tristan. What is the point of this metaphor? What does it say about Tristan and One Stab’s evaluation of him as a person?
  10. At a public meeting, Alfred and Tristan meet. Alfred asks, “How’s father? Is he well?” Tristan answers, “As well as can be expected.” What does this mean? What can be expected? Why?
  11. In explanation of the accidental death of Isabel, Alfred says to Tristan, “It was a terrible, tragic, accident.” What does this say about Alfred? Has he changed as a person?
  12. Whose faults are greater? Tristan’s, or Susanna’s? Support your answer.
  13. At Susanna’s grave, Alfred says to Tristan, “I followed all the rules . . . . And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more.” What does this say about Alfred’s view of love? What does it say about his view of doing the right thing? Is there a sense in which he isn’t any different than Tristan?
  14. Tristan’s father says to him, “You are not damned, Tristan. I won’t allow that.” Any comments?
  15. How are things resolved in the end? Does this change anything?
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