Why we ignore signs of a cheating spouse, and other cases of ’betrayal blindness’

The mysterious process by which we ignore betrayal
Julia McKinnell
Problems for the couple incoming
Overlooking infidelity
Simone Becchetti/Getty Images

One night, Julie Stone (a pseudonym) arranged for a babysitter and surprised her husband by waiting for him at his favourite bar. “As my husband came inside, a woman jumped up and went over to him and they kissed. When they stopped kissing, he looked up, and our eyes met. I’m kind of watching this and he walked over and said, ‘I don’t know who that woman was.’ I believed him. I thought, ‘That was weird’ . . . and whoosh! That was it. I spent the rest of the evening with him dancing. I never questioned him again about that woman.”

“Whoosh?” ask Jennifer Freyd, a research psychologist at the University of Oregon, and Pamela Birrell, a clinical psychologist, who cite Stone’s case in a new book. “What exactly is this mental process? You could say we study ‘whoosh.’ We have come to call this ‘whooshing’ away of important details ‘blindness betrayal.’ It means you do not, or cannot, see what is there in front of you.”

Stone’s case is one of many Freyd and Birrrell looked at when studying what they call “betrayal blindness”: the mind denying the overwhelming and obvious evidence that one is being betrayed. The phenomenon isn’t limited to the issue of fidelity. A child can be blind to a parent’s betrayal or an employee can turn a blind eye to mistreatment at work. How and why it occurs is the topic of their book, Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being Fooled.

Stone, who’s now a lawyer, was financially dependent on her husband at the time. She couldn’t accept the reality of her philandering husband until she actually caught him in bed with another woman. Looking back on the kiss, she said, “It feels like it just completely didn’t register. In terms of information, I think it was just unprocessed, somehow. I wanted to believe that we had a happy marriage.”

Two aspects of human nature explain how a person remains blind, write the authors, who conducted their research using surveys, interviews and laboratory experiments. “First, we are extremely vulnerable in infancy, which gives rise to a powerful attachment system. Second, we have a constant need to make social contracts with other people to get our needs met.” Both serve humans well, except when the person we’re dependent on betrays us.

In another case, a husband confesses to having had an affair. The wife refuses to believe it. “Samantha” makes excuses for him, blaming it on an alcohol problem and the seductive tactics of the other woman.

“Betrayal blindness is an adaptive mechanism,” explain the psychologists. It allows us to keep the necessary relationship going. “It is harmful in the sense that it takes a big toll on us psychologically,” said Freyd. “It means we cannot stop the ongoing abuse at the time. Still, blindness is often the best choice, in the sense of survival, if the victim is truly dependent on the perpetrator.”

One way to start seeing clearly is to dwell on “weird” or uncomfortable feelings you experience. “We pick up little cues and signs,” Freyd said. “When we have betrayal blindness, we’re silencing those cues. People need to listen to themselves better, not silence the little voices.” Another clue: if you’re having long mental arguments in your head with someone else, it’s a sign that you’re being unheard, and you could be at risk for betrayal.

In an interview, Freyd talked about the feelings of betrayal she experienced at the hands of her parents. When Freyd was in her 30s, she began to remember incidences of her father sexually abusing her. Her parents reacted to the claims by organizing the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. “It was bizarre and surreal,” Freyd said on the phone. The scandal made international news. “When the people who are betraying you are denying it, it really messes you up.”

As an adult, try not to be too dependent on anyone, Freyd stresses. Recently, her husband died. “You can be really in love but still feel like your core would be intact if you lost them. My husband was one of the ways I managed when my parents were being so difficult. He was a very mature, solid person. It’s a terrible, devastating loss, but I don’t feel my existence has crumbled. It’s more just very sad.”