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Betrayal, Rejection, Revenge, and Forgiveness: An Interpersonal Script Approach



While it is true that betrayal leads to the loss of reliance on an individual, this chapter asserts that distress from the breach of trust comes from a sense of being neither regarded nor accepted. The author utilizes the interpersonal script method in understanding the latest researches in the field. Psychologically speaking, betrayal seems to be a complex form of interpersonal relationship conflict. Various sorts of emotions can be felt upon experiencing this circumstance, including anger, fear, doubt, and repulsion. Mechanisms to counteract these potentially destructive feelings involve taking revenge or letting go of the mistakes. Although reconciliation is suggested, it depends on the hurt party to forgive and accept or to repress and retaliate. Likewise, the offender has the choice to apologize and maintain the bond, to create alibis and enjoy the relief from the guilt, or even to leave with no confrontation and destroy the ties with silence.
Betrayal, Rejection, Revenge, and Forgiveness:
An Interpersonal Script Approach
Julie Fitness
Macquarie University
In: Leary, M. (Ed.) (2001) Interpersonal rejection (pp. 73-103). New York: Oxford University
Acknowledgement: The author acknowledges the support of a Large ARC grant A79601552 in
the writing of this chapter.
Throughout recorded human history, treachery and betrayal have been considered
amongst the very worst offences people could commit against their kith and kin. Dante, for
example, relegated traitors to the lowest and coldest regions of Hell, to be forever frozen up to
their necks in a lake of ice with blizzards storming all about them, as punishment for having
acted so coldly toward others. Even today, the crime of treason merits the most severe penalties,
including capital punishment. However, betrayals need not involve issues of national security to
be regarded as serious. From sexual infidelity to disclosing a friend’s secrets, betraying another
person or group of people implies unspeakable disloyalty, a breach of trust, and a violation of
what is good and proper. Moreover, all of us will suffer both minor and major betrayals
throughout our lives, and most of us will, if only unwittingly, betray others (Jones & Burdette,
The Macquarie Dictionary (1991) lists a number of different, though closely related,
meanings of the term “to betray,” including to deliver up to an enemy, to be disloyal or
unfaithful, to deceive or mislead, to reveal secrets, to seduce and desert, and to disappoint the
hopes or expectations of another. Implicit in a number of these definitions is the rejection or
discounting of one person by another; however, the nature of the relationship between
interpersonal betrayal and rejection has not been explicitly addressed in the social psychological
literature. In fact, most scholars treat the two as distinct phenomena. For example, Jones and
Burdette (1994) argued that rejection tends to occur early in the process of trying to establish a
relationship, whereas betrayal occurs in an established relationship where partners are involved
with, and to an extent, trust one another. According to their argument, rejection is painful, but the
pain is for the loss of a potential relationship. Betrayal, however, is devastating because it
disrupts an ongoing, meaningful relationship in which partners have invested material and
emotional resources. Similarly, Jones, Couch and Scott (1997) argued that rejection and betrayal
are the two basic risks people take in close relationships, but that betrayal is worse than rejection.
I will argue in this chapter, however, that this conceptualization of interpersonal rejection
is too narrow and misses the essential meaning of what it is to betray, and to be betrayed, within
an interpersonal relationship. Essentially, betrayal means that one party in a relationship acts in a
way that favors his or her own interests at the expense of the other party’s interests. In one sense,
this behavior implies that the betrayer regards his or her needs as more important than the needs
of the partner or the relationship. In a deeper sense, however, betrayal sends an ominous signal
about how little the betrayer cares about, or values his or her relationship with, the betrayed
partner. In particular, and as Gaylin (1984) noted, when those on whom we depend for love and
support betray our trust, the feeling is like a stab at the heart that leaves us feeling unsafe,
diminished, and alone. Psychologically, then, betrayal may be conceived as a profound form of
interpersonal rejection with potentially serious consequences for the healthy functioning of the
betrayed individual.
This chapter focuses on interpersonal betrayal and the ways in which relationship
partners cope or do not cope with the rejection it implies. The first section will review the
theoretical and empirical work on the nature and causes of betrayal in different relational
contexts, with a particular focus on perceived violations of relationship rules. The second section
will focus on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral concomitants of betrayal from the dual
perspectives of the betraying and betrayed parties. The third section will explore the aftermath of
betrayal and present relevant data from a recent study on forgiven and unforgiven marital
offences. The chapter will conclude with a consideration of the long-term consequences of
betrayal and suggestions for future research.
The Nature of Betrayal
As children grow to become adults, they learn from their caregivers and culture what
relationships are all about - that is, they acquire theories, or knowledge structures, about
relationships and how they work (Baldwin, 1992; Fletcher & Thomas, 1996; Knee, 1998).
Although these laytheories of relational processes may have limited scientific validity, social
cognitive research has amply demonstrated the power of such theories to influence laypeople’s
perceptions, judgments, and memories, both of relationships in general and of their own
relationships in particular (e.g., see Fletcher & Fitness, 1996).
Relationship knowledge structures include beliefs about the importance of various
aspects of relationships such as passion and intimacy (Fletcher, Rosanowski, & Fitness, 1994),
rules about proper conduct within relationships (Argyle & Henderson, 1985; Jones & Gallois,
1989), and expectations about how partners will (or ought) to behave toward one another (Kelley
& Burgoon, 1991; Metts, 1994). When two partners play by the rules and meet each other’s
expectations, their relationship runs smoothly, and relatively little emotion, positive or negative,
is experienced. However, when relationship partners behave in ways that violate each other’s
expectations, there is a “hiccup”, or interruption, to the smooth running of the relationship and
the scene is set for an emotional interaction between the partners (Berscheid, 1983). In particular,
the partner whose expectations have been violated must attend to the situation and decide what it
means in relation to his or her needs, concerns, and goals (Fitness & Strongman, 1991; Lazarus,
Of course, not every interruption is unpleasant; some expectation violations may be
highly positive and elicit emotions such as happiness and love (Kelley & Burgoon, 1991). For
example, an individual who holds a strong belief that his mother must be kept happy at all costs,
but who also has rather gloomy expectations about how his relationship partner is likely to
behave when his mother comes to stay, may feel delighted when his partner violates his
expectations with her exemplary behavior. On the other hand, an individual who holds a strong
belief that sexual infidelity is wrong and who expects her partner will be faithful is likely to be
shocked and disappointed to discover his infidelity; and to the extent that she had trusted him not
to behave in such a fashion, she is also likely to feel betrayed.
The key to betrayal, then, lies in relationship knowledge structures - people’s theories,
beliefs, and expectations about how relationships in general, and their own relationships in
particular, should work - and also in people’s trust that their partners will share, or at least
respect, those beliefs and meet those expectations (Elangovan & Shapiro, 1998; Holmes, 1991).
Indeed, trust is integral to betrayal because of its intimate connection with relational
expectations. Boon (1994), for example, defined interpersonal trust as “the confident expectation
that a partner is intrinsically motivated to take one’s own best interests into account when acting
- even when incentives might tempt him or her to do otherwise” (p. 88).
Clearly, trusting others exposes us to the risk of betrayal if they violate those confident
expectations and take advantage of us. Moreover, if the relationship between two parties has
been an intimate one, then the implications of betrayal are especially painful: The person to
whom we have disclosed and entrusted our deepest fears and vulnerabilities appears neither to
care about our relationship nor to be committed to it. Little wonder, then, that such experiences
of betrayal trigger feelings of rejection, abandonment, and aloneness.
Contexts of Betrayal: Who betrays Whom?
Over the course of their evolutionary history, humans have become finely attuned to the
possibility of betrayal by others (Shackelford & Buss, 1996). Indeed, for social animals, knowing
who to trust and how much to trust them is a critical survival mechanism. Shackelford and Buss
(1996) have suggested that our “cheater-detector” mechanisms (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992) are
somewhat domain-specific, and that human beings are attuned to detect different types of
betrayal in different types of relationships, e.g., between spouses, friends, and coalition
members. Typically, people tend to think of betrayal in the context of romantic relationships, and
with good reason, since spouses and romantic partners are the most frequently cited sources of
betrayal (e.g., Hansson, Jones, & Fletcher, 1990; Jones & Burdette, 1994). However,
Shackelford and Buss (1996) claimed that to really understand betrayal, it is necessary to
consider the relationship context within which it occurs because different kinds of relationships
involve different kinds of rules and expectations.
One line of research that supports this argument derives from the work of Clark and her
colleagues (e.g., Clark & Mills, 1979; Clark & Waddell, 1985) on communal versus exchange
relationships. In communal relationships, the expectations are that partners will care about one
another’s welfare, and will support and help each other without expecting immediate reward.
Typically, marital and familial relationships are characterized as communal in orientation.
However, in exchange relationships the expectations are that partners are not responsible for one
another’s welfare, and that benefits obtained from either partner should be promptly
reciprocated. Typically, relationships between clients and service providers are characterized by
exchange principles. These differences in orientations and expectations set the scene for specific
types of relationship betrayal, such as might happen if a partner in a supposedly communal
relationship demanded the kind of formal reciprocation of benefits normally associated with an
exchange relationship (Shackelford & Buss, 1996). One recent example involved a man who,
against his parents’ wishes, married a woman of a different ethnicity and religion. On his
wedding day he received an itemized bill from his embittered parents charging him thousands of
dollars for the “cost of his upbringing.” The son felt betrayed, not so much because his parents
disapproved of his marriage, but because the itemized bill redefined what he had assumed was a
communal relationship as an exchange relationship. He was now expected to repay love with
Fiske (1992) made two additional distinctions among types of social relationships.
Specifically, along with what he called communal sharing relationships and equality matching
relationships (ones based on exchange principles), he added authority ranking relationships, in
which people are ordered according to status differences (such as exist in the armed forces), and
market pricing relationships, in which people, like material resources, have a particular market
value (e.g., as employees). Again, each type of relationship implies different rules, expectations,
and forms of betrayal.
For example, many older wives who have been “traded in” by their husbands for younger
women perceive that what was meant to be a communal sharing relationship was actually a
market pricing one in which they were a low-valued commodity. Similarly, part of the
discomfort many people feel about pre-nuptual agreements derives from the belief that a
communal relationship that should be based on love and trust is being treated as an exchange, or
market pricing relationship. These violations of relational expectations have been termed “taboo
trade-offs” by Fiske and Tetlock (in press), who suggested that such violations are not just
cognitively confusing, they also trigger negative emotional and behavioral reactions, including
feelings of distress, anxiety, and punitive rage.
Betrayal, then, may occur in any kind of relationship context if one or other party violates
salient relational expectations or “breaks the rules” in some way. Close friends, for example,
hold mutual expectations about one another’s behaviors, based on shared understandings of the
rules of friendship (Wiseman & Duck, 1995). Such rules typically include respecting privacy,
volunteering help when needed, not criticizing one another in public, and sharing confidences,
but not disclosing them to others (Argyle & Henderson, 1985). Violating any of these friendship
rules may be appraised as a betrayal and lead to the breakdown of the relationship (Fehr, 1996).
Indeed, Jones and Burdette (1994) found that women reported betrayal by same-sex friends
almost as frequently as betrayal by spouses.
The workplace is another potent context for interpersonal betrayal. Jones and Burdette
(1994) found that nearly 19% of men reported having been betrayed by a colleague at work;
similarly, in a study of anger in the workplace, Fitness (in press) found betrayal-related rule
violations (e.g., lying and exploitation) were amongst the most frequently reported types of
anger-eliciting offence amongst co-workers. Betrayal may also occur in employer-employee
relationships. For example, employers may draw up a contract that specifies the rights and
responsibilities of both parties with respect to wages and working conditions. If either of the two
parties violates a provision of the contract, then technically speaking, a breach has occurred that
may evoke anger in the aggrieved party. However, not every kind of workplace-relevant rule is
explicitly accounted for in an employment contract. Equally as important (and perhaps, more so)
is the so-called “psychological contract,” comprising the beliefs employees hold about the
reciprocal obligations between themselves and their employers, including procedural and
interactional fairness, and the right to be treated with respect. When employees are deceived or
unjustly treated by their employers, it is this perceived violation of the psychological contract
that elicits outrage and a sense of betrayal with potentially serious consequences, including
industrial sabotage (Morrison & Robinson, 1997). Employers, too, may feel betrayed when
deceived, cheated, and exploited by trusted employees.
In summary, not every interpersonal rejection implies betrayal, but every betrayal implies
interpersonal rejection and/or a devaluation of the relationship between two parties. Moreover,
and in line with Shackelford and Buss’s (1996) argument, relational context is clearly important
with respect to understanding the nature of betrayal. Even more important, however, is
knowledge of the socially-shared rules and expectations that are most salient to any particular
relational context.
The Process and Outcomes of Betrayal: An Interpersonal Script Approach
Previously it was argued that people hold lay theories about the nature of relationships
and how they work, as well as beliefs about what they can expect from their relationship
partners. One important type of relational knowledge structure, called a script, comprises beliefs
and expectations about the ways in which relationship events typically unfold (Baldwin, 1992).
For example, partners may have a “going out for a romantic dinner” script that involves
expectations about how they will dress, where they will go, who will order what for dinner, how
much wine they will drink, and what will happen once they have arrived home. Over time,
relationship partners acquire a large number of relational scripts with respect to the many and
varied routines of their lives together, including domestic chores (who does what), conflicts
(what they are typically about, who gives in first, who sulks, how the fight is resolved), and
various kinds of emotional interactions involving, say, jealousy, or anger (Fehr & Baldwin,
1996; Fitness & Fletcher, 1993).
The process and outcomes of interpersonal betrayal may also be regarded as a form of
interpersonal script in that people hold socially shared beliefs about the kinds of behaviors that
constitute acts of betrayal and expectations about the ongoing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
of both parties to the betrayal. These beliefs and expectations play an important role in directing
people’s attention to particular kinds of relationship behaviors and in shaping their
interpretations of those behaviors with respect to their needs and goals. The next section of the
chapter will examine some of the ways in which relationship partners betray one another, and
explore the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral features of the interpersonal betrayal script from
the perspectives of the betrayed and betraying parties.
Acts of betrayal
Theoretically, any kind of relational transgression may be appraised by relationship
partners as a betrayal, depending on the extent to which relational expectations and trust have
been violated. In general, however, the most commonly reported acts of explicit betrayal involve
sexual and emotional infidelity, lies, and deception (Fitness & Mathews, 1998; Hansson, Jones,
& Fletcher, 1990; Jones & Burdette, 1994). Sexual infidelity, in particular, is regarded by many
as the epitome of marital betrayal, and with good reason. Betzig (1989), for example, found
sexual infidelity to be a significantly more common cause of marital dissolution than any other
factor except sterility in 88 societies. Similarly, Pittman and Wagers (1995) observed that, in
their clinical experience, more than 90% of divorces in established first marriages have involved
sexual infidelity.
Clearly, the discovery that a spouse or romantic partner has been unfaithful strikes a
devastating blow to an individual’s sense of self-worth and needs for commitment and emotional
security (Charney & Parnass, 1995; Weiss, 1975). However, an even more tormenting aspect to
infidelity derives from the degree of deception that typically accompanies it. Indeed, many
people regard deception in any relational context as the ultimate betrayal. Psychological research
and popular literature alike attest to the multitude of ways in which relationship partners deceive
one another, from simple non-disclosure, to half truths and white lies, to full-scale falsification
and outright lies (DePaulo & Kashy, 1998; Metts, 1994; Peterson, 1996). As De Paulo and
Kashy (1998) pointed out, people’s reports of what they value most in their close relationships
revolve around issues of authenticity and the ability to reveal their true selves to someone who
can be counted on not to betray their trust. Lying is, by definition, inauthentic communication;
thus, if my relationship partner lies to me, I may assume that he is promoting his own interests
over mine and that he cares more about protecting himself than about caring for me or our
Despite the opinions of betrayed parties about their partners’ motives, however, liars
frequently do not regard their deceptions as selfishly motivated. Metts (1989), for example,
found the predominant motive for spouses’ deception was actually to avoid hurting their
partners, or to help maintain their self-esteem. Similarly, in a study of relational deception,
Barbee, Cunningham, Druen, and Yankeelov (1996) found 70% of participants admitted they
had lied to their current partner at least once; however, 79% of these respondents also claimed
their lies were motivated by a desire to protect their partners. An example might involve a
husband who believes his wife would be upset to know he is dining with an ex-girlfriend, so he
tells her he is working late to spare her the “unnecessary” pain of feeling betrayed. Ironically,
however, this benevolent strategy may work against his interests if the deception is unmasked,
since research suggests that, compared with men, women view lies and deception as more
profound relational transgressions (Levine, McCornack, & Avery, 1992). Thus, his wife may
appraise her husband’s lie as a more serious betrayal than his dinner.
Whether or not an act of betrayal involves lies, deception, or infidelity, one important
aspect of the experience that intensifies its severity and painfulness is humiliation, or the
perception that one has been shamed and treated with disrespect, especially in public (Gaylin,
1984; Metts, 1994). A number of studies have the examined the role of humiliation in
exacerbating interpersonal conflict in different contexts. For example, Jones and Gallois (1989)
found that not belittling or humiliating one’s partner was one of the most important endorsed
rules for handling marital conflict constructively. Similarly, Fitness and Fletcher (1993) found
that being mocked or publicly shamed by one’s spouse evoked strong feelings of hatred for him
or her, and several researchers have noted the link between perceived humiliation and physical
violence in marital and dating relationships (e.g., Dutton & Browning, 1988; Foo & Margolin,
1995; Lansky, 1987). In the workplace, too, Fitness (in press) found that public humiliation by
superiors was associated with the most destructive long-term outcomes of an anger-eliciting
incident, and Bies and Tripp (1996) claimed that workplace violations involving public ridicule
may be virtually irreparable.
According to Miller’s (1993) detailed exposition, humiliation involves the perception
that one has been treated as contemptible, or exposed as an inferior or ridiculous person. From an
evolutionary perspective, our survival as social beings critically depends on the degree to which
valued others accept and respect us, and people will go to extreme lengths to avoid looking weak
or foolish - indeed, some will even die to protect their reputation (Miller, 1993). The horror of
humiliation, then, derives not simply from its assault on a person’s self-esteem, but also from the
perceived loss of social status it evokes. So, for example, the humiliating discovery that one has
been the “last to know” about a partner’s infidelity, and the suspicion that one has been the
subject of other people’s gossip and pity, may trigger as much pain as the act of betrayal itself.
Similarly, the humiliation of being discarded by one’s partner for someone more physically
attractive compounds the pain of betrayal and rejection (Shettel-Neuber, Bryson, & Young,
In summary, laypeople appear to have firm views about the kinds of acts that constitute
betrayal in different relational contexts. Many such acts, however, involve a common, underlying
theme: Specifically, the power balance between two, interdependent parties has been disrupted.
In particular, when a betrayal has been accompanied by deceit or humiliation, the betrayer
effectively assumes a “one-up” position to the betrayed, who has been duped or demeaned. Even
without explicit humiliation, however, the betrayed party is disadvantaged relative to the
betrayer, who has put his or her own interests first and discounted the needs and concerns of the
betrayed party. The next important step in the interactional sequence, then, is for the betrayed
partner to respond to the act of betrayal and to the shift of power it implies.
Discovering Betrayal
Discovering a betrayal may come “out of the blue” and constitute a deeply distressing
shock. On the other hand, if relational trust is low, or the betrayer has been “on probation”
because of a prior offence, a partner may actively search for evidence of deception, drawing on
his or her implicit theories about the kinds of behaviors that suggest there may be “something
going on.” Once looked for, such evidence may not be hard to find, since research suggests
people regard a wide range of partner behaviors as potential pointers to deception. For example,
Shackelford and Buss (1997a) examined laypeople’s beliefs about the kinds of cues that
suggested a partner was being sexually or emotionally unfaithful and found a large number of
supposedly diagnostic behaviors, including perceiving the partner was angry, critical or
apparently dissatisfied with the relationship; believing the partner was acting guilty, anxious, or
emotionally disengaged; and an unaccountable increase or decrease in the partner’s attentions or
sexual interest. These findings suggest, in line with Berscheid’s (1983) interruption theory, that
virtually any noticeable disruption to the normal day-to-day functioning of the relationship can
be interpreted by a suspicious partner as an alarm signal.
Betrayal may also be revealed by way of a partner’s confession. Confessing misdeeds has
a long history in Western culture, and many Westerners believe that confession is good for one’s
bodily health and emotional well-being (Georges, 1995). According to Weiner, Graham and
Zmuidinas (1991), the function of confession derives from a naive, confession-forgiveness
association; that is, offenders believe that “coming clean” will both ease their guilt and win them
forgiveness from the person they have wronged (“a fault confessed is half-forgiven”, p. 283.) Of
course, this belief may be mistaken. Indeed, although confessing infidelity can provide great
relief to the offender, it shifts a considerable burden of pain to the one who has been betrayed,
and forgiveness is frequently not forthcoming (Lawson, 1988). Confession, then, like other forms
of betrayal discovery, effectively sets the scene for the betrayed partner to make the next move in
the interpersonal drama.
Reacting to Betrayal
According to Morrison and Robinson (1997), the initial discovery and experience of
betrayal goes beyond the mere cognitive awareness that a violation has occurred; rather, the
feeling of violation is registered at a deep, visceral level. Other researchers have also noted that
pain and hurt are amongst the first and most acute emotional reactions to the awareness that one
has been betrayed (Leary, Springer, Negel, Ansell, & Evans, 1998; Vangelisti & Sprague, 1998).
For example, Leary et al. (1998) found 20% of recalled “very hurtful” events reported by 168
students involved betrayal, with their ratings of how hurt they felt positively associated with how
rejected they felt. These findings support the central argument of this chapter that betrayal
implies rejection and relational devaluation, or the realization that one’s partner holds neither
oneself nor the relationship in high regard (Leary et al., 1998).
Given the visceral impact of betrayal, it is interesting to speculate, in line with the
evolutionary arguments proposed by Shackelford and Buss (1996), whether humans may
affectively register betrayal before very much conscious cognitive work is undertaken at all,
particularly when the revelation constitutes a severe interruption to the betrayed party’s
expectations of their partner. Under such circumstances people may register pain through an
emotional calculus, rather than a so-called rational, cognitive one (see Planalp & Fitness, 1999).
At some point, however, the powerful emotional impact of betrayal will motivate a considerable
amount of conscious, cognitive effort to figure out its causes and implications, both for the
betrayed partner and for the relationship. And, depending on how the betrayed partner interprets
the situation, a variety of negative emotions other than hurt may then be experienced. For
example, Fehr and Baldwin (1996) found students rated betrayal of trust as the most intensely
anger-provoking type of relational transgression; anger that arises, no doubt, because betrayed
individuals typically appraise the motives of their betrayers as malevolent, dispositional (“a
mean streak”), and intentional (Hansson, Jones, & Fletcher, 1994; Jones & Burdette, 1994). Such
appraisals, along with perceptions of unjustness and moral “wrongness,” reliably elicit anger in
most relational contexts (Fehr & Baldwin, 1996; Fincham & Bradbury, 1992; Morrison &
Robinson, 1997; Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, & O’Connor, 1987).
Another emotion that may be experienced in response to betrayal is hatred - an emotion
about which psychologists know little, but that is considered by laypeople to be a powerful
motivator of destructive and vengeful behaviors. As noted previously, Fitness and Fletcher
(1993) found that humiliation and appraisals of relative powerlessness were important elicitors of
hatred for an offending spouse; thus it might be expected that hatred would be experienced in
response to deeply humiliating betrayals involving deceit, severe loss of social status and
appraisals of powerlessness. Moreover, betrayals that have involved sexual or emotional
infidelity are likely to evoke the highly complex emotional syndrome known as jealousy,
comprising elements such as fear of rejection, anger, and sadness (Sharpsteen, 1991). Of course,
jealousy is not always destructive. Indeed, research has shown that laypeople tend to regard a
partner’s occasional, mild jealousy as flattering, and as a signal of how much they mean to them
(Fitness & Fletcher, 1993). However, researchers have also noted the often serious concomitants
and consequences of chronic or intense jealousy, including hostility, resentment, alienation,
withdrawal, and even murder (e.g., Daly & Wilson, 1988; van Sommers, 1988).
Specifying the kinds of emotions that may be experienced in response to betrayal is not
just an academic exercise because different emotions motivate different kinds of behaviors, and
so play a major role in how the interpersonal betrayal script progresses. Anger, for example,
typically tends to motivate confrontation and engagement with the offending party, whereas hate
tends to motivate avoidance or emotional withdrawal (Fitness & Fletcher, 1993; Frijda, Kuipers,
& ter Schure, 1989). Jealousy, with its complex blends of emotions, may motivate a variety of
behaviors, from anxious clinging, to depressed rumination and
brooding, to angry confrontation or revenge (Sharpsteen, 1991; van Sommers, 1988). The
emotional reactions of the betrayed party, then, are cues to how he or she has interpreted the
betrayer’s behavior, and what the consequences might be. The next move is for the betrayer to
react to those cues with his or her own interpretations, emotions and behaviors.
Accounting for Betrayal
Once a betrayed individual has discovered and reacted to a partner’s betrayal, the typical
next step is for the betrayer to provide some kind of explanatory account of his or her behavior
(Cody, Kersten, Braaten, & Dickson, 1992; Metts, 1994). As noted in the discussion of
deception, betrayers may believe their intentions were good. They may argue they were doing
their victims a favor, or at least, that their betrayals were unintended, excusable, and due to
temporary, extenuating, or unstable causes (Baumeister, Stillwell & Wotman, 1990; Hansson et
al., 1994; Jones & Burdette, 1994; Leary et al., 1998). However, regardless of how benignly
betrayers regard their own motives, the accounts they give of their actions must be carefully
tailored if they are to achieve their relational goals. For example, whereas a fervent wish to repair
the breach may call for a contrite account, a desire to end the relationship may call for a rather
callous one. Making the issue more complex is the fact that relational goals may not always be
compatible with one another. For example, a betrayer may sincerely regret her behavior and
desire her partner’s forgiveness, but she may also desire to defend herself in order to maintain
self-esteem and save face. Or, a betrayer may desire his partner’s forgiveness, yet also desire to
end the relationship.
Studies from the communication literature suggest that accounts fall into one of four,
broad types, with each type serving to accomplish different kinds of relational goals (e.g., Cody
et al., 1992). The first, most mitigating type of account involves conceding that an offence has
been committed, along with a sincere expression of remorse, and perhaps an offer to make some
form of restitution. The second, not quite so mitigating type, involves excuses, whereby the
offence is admitted, but various kinds of extenuating circumstances are offered as reasons for it
(e.g., alcohol, stress, illness). The third, even more defensive type of account involves
justifications, whereby the offence is admitted, but the offender minimizes its wrongness or
seriousness; and the fourth, most aggravating type, includes denials that the account-giver
committed an offence or refusals to take any responsibility for it.
Naturally, the kind of account proffered by a betrayer has an important impact on the
next stage of the betrayal script. For example, Gonzales, Haugen, and Manning (1994) found that
victims judged aggravating accounts, involving justifications and refusals, more harshly than
mitigating accounts. Similarly, in a study of hypothetical relationship transgressions, Hodgins,
Liebeskind, and Schwartz (1996) found that offenders preferred to give more mitigating than
aggravating accounts in the expectation that victims would receive the former more favorably.
However, they also found that the most blameworthy offenders told more lies and gave the
shortest and most aggravating accounts, suggesting that these highly culpable offenders may
have been more motivated to save face than to win forgiveness. Pittman and Wagers (1995) also
remarked on the kinds of inventive excuses and justifications people give for having or
continuing extramarital affairs, including one man who explained to his wife that “she was lucky
to be married to him because she was such an ugly woman. She should feel proud to be married
to a man who was able to get such a beautiful affairee” (p. 311). Needless to say, his wife was
not mollified.
Without doubt, the most constructive kind of account if the betrayer’s goal is to repair the
relationship is a concessionary one involving apologies and the sincere expression of remorse. A
wealth of psychological literature attests to the power of the apology in ameliorating relational
damage. For example, in a study of school-aged children, Darby and Schlenker (1982) found
more profuse apologies resulted in less blame, greater forgiveness, less desire for punishment,
greater liking, and a stronger belief that the offender was really sorry for his or her offence.
Similarly, Ohbuchi, Kameda and Agarie (1989) found apologies were helpful in softening
negative attitudes toward an offender and in reducing urges to aggressively retaliate.
Apologies, then, are powerful, but why? According to Tavuchis (1991), the original
meaning of the term apology was to defend, justify, or excuse one’s behavior. The modern
meaning, however, is to admit one has no defense, justification, or excuse for behavior that has
wronged another. Apologies, then, have been described as both paradoxical and powerful. No
matter how sincere, an apology cannot undo what has been done, and yet somehow, it does
(Tavuchis, 1991). Miller (1993) claimed that the magic of the apology derives from the
submissive posture of the apologizer, and its implications for restoring the face or esteem of the
injured party. Essentially, the offender abases himself before the person he has wronged,
unconditionally admits his offence, and, even if only briefly, invests the wronged person with a
higher moral status than himself. The power of the apology to repair, then, derives from the gift
of status that helps redress the power imbalance between the two parties.
Of course, apologizers may not actually feel sorry - but they must look sorry. As Miller
(1993) pointed out, “if an apology does not look somewhat humiliating.. it would be utterly
ineffective in accomplishing the remedial work it is supposed to do. We have all given,
witnessed, and received surly apologies that are intended and received as new affronts requiring
more apology” (p. 163). Similarly, a truly contrite offender must take full responsibility for the
offence; as Jacoby (1983) explained, there is a big difference between a friend or lover who
simply says, “I’m sorry you’re hurt”, and one who says, “What I did was wrong; you have every
right to be hurt and I’m sorry” (see also Cody et al., 1992).
Sincere apologies, then, imply that an offender is feeling guilt, an emotion that
comprises an essential element of the interpersonal betrayal script. Several researchers have
demonstrated that people feel most guilty about offences that threaten their relational bonds (e.g.,
Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, 1995; Jones, Kugler, & Adams, 1995), and Vangelisti and
Sprague (1998) claimed that an offender’s guilt sends a powerful signal to the hurt partner that
the betrayer still cares and is committed to the relationship. However, another important facet of
guilt that makes it so functional in the context of interpersonal betrayal relates to its motivational
aspect. Specifically, feelings of guilt are theorized to derive from empathic distress over the
suffering of the betrayed partner; the pain of guilt, then, motivates atonement and a desire to
make the suffering partner feel better (Baumeister et al., 1995; Tangney, 1995). Indeed, the
suffering of guilty offenders often goes quite some way toward compensating victims for their
own suffering (referred to by O’Malley & Greenberg, 1983, as the “down payment” effect). For
example, Baumeister et al. (1995) found that reproachers felt much better once they had
successfully made offenders feel guilty, “as if some of the negative affect had been transferred
out of one person and into another” (p. 266). Guilt, then, appears to more fairly share the
suffering between script interactants.
Once a betrayed partner is feeling better because the betrayer is feeling guilty, it might be
assumed that the emotional balance is more or less restored between the two parties, and that the
next act in the interpersonal drama will be the concluding one, involving the betrayed party’s
forgiving and forgetting the offence. However, forgiveness is not the only possible outcome of a
betrayal event, regardless of an offender’s remorse. For example, the betrayed partner may
decide that an offence is simply unforgivable and terminate the relationship, or that an offence is
unforgivable and warrants revenge. Or the partner may decide that long-term, forgiveness is not
impossible, but that the betrayer has a great deal more suffering to do before the debt is paid. In
the next section of the chapter I will discuss some of the betrayed partner’s response options,
beginning with the most potentially damaging for the long-term future of the relationship:
Coping with Betrayal: Revenge and Forgiveness
A 27-year-old Perth woman who poured a pot of boiling liquid over her
former partner’s penis as he slept was jailed for seven years yesterday.. She
concocted and boiled the brew of floor cleaner, disinfectant, bleach, candle wax
and honey because she was angry the man wanted to break up with her after four
years together (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Sept., 1998).
According to Frijda (1994), the ancient and universal desire to get even with those who
have betrayed us is one of the most fundamental and potent of human passions. Despite the
fundamental nature of the human urge to retaliate, however, revenge is generally regarded as
unhealthy and signifying some kind of mental illness (Jacoby, 1983). Bagnall (1992) also noted
how revenge has largely fallen out of our vocabulary, “as if modern humanity were embarrassed
by its melodrama” (p. 37). Certainly, few admit to plotting revenge with Machiavellian relish,
although some will freely admit to exacting revenge on their enemies; e.g., Australian politician
Ros Kelly apparently claimed on television that she always exacted revenge on people who
betrayed her, no matter how long it took (Bagnall, 1992).
Surprisingly, very little psychological research has focused on revenge, which Stuckless
and Goranson (1992) defined as the infliction of harm in return for perceived wrong. In early
times, people coped with injustice through revenge; indeed, for many peoples, including the
ancient Greeks, revenge was equated with justice (Kim & Smith, 1993; Solomon, 1994). At
various times in history it was even considered acceptable to take revenge against inanimate
objects, like trees, that were perceived to have harmed an individual (Cloke, 1993). Similarly,
parents frequently “punish” inanimate objects on behalf of their hurt children (witness, for
example, parents who console a toddler who has stumbled into a table by “smacking” the table
and informing it of its “naughtiness”).
What motivates betrayed individuals to take revenge on their betrayers? Clearly, one
important motive is that revenge helps “even the score” between the two parties. In this sense,
revenge and guilt are functionally similar in that both help to share the pain - causing one’s
betrayer to suffer makes one feel better (Planalp & Hafen, 1998). Gabriel and Monaco (1994),
for example, cited a case study in which an abandoned husband broke into his ex-wife’s
apartment and shredded all of her clothing. “This, he said, had made him feel ‘much improved’”.
However, he also “talked in some detail of his fervent wish and intention to do more than simply
kill her. He wanted her to suffer the way in which he had suffered, i.e., feeling alone, frightened,
and humiliated” (p. 173). Again, this case points to the strong links between humiliation,
rejection, and revenge that have been noted by several researchers (e.g., Baumeister, 1997;
Brown, 1968; Frijda, 1994; Kim & Smith, 1993; Vogel & Lazare, 1990). Given that humiliation
inflicts such a deep and painful injury to a person’s self-esteem and social status, taking revenge
might well be regarded as a powerful means of restoring dignity and regaining some control over
the situation.
With respect to actual revenge behaviors, there is no limit to human inventiveness, from
everyday acts of vindictiveness (e.g., being unhelpful, gossiping), to torture, rape, or mass
murder (Frijda, 1994). Jacoby (1983) claimed that people generally have some sympathy for the
vengeful behaviors of rejected lovers; certainly, one famous case that recently inspired much
public amusement, if not sympathy, concerned Lady Graham-Moon, an Englishwoman whose
husband left her for a younger woman, and who cut four inches off the sleeves of all his suits,
daubed his BMW with paint, and gave away his vintage wine collection to the local villagers
(Bagnall, 1992). Usually, revenge is not so dramatic, though fantasies can be lurid. For example,
in a study of students’ experiences of desiring revenge, Frijda (1994) found “vivid thoughts of
revenge.. for erotic unfaithfulness, indiscretions, having been slighted, being cheated” (p. 264).
Fortunately, students’ fantasies tended to far outweigh vengeful actions; even so, a number of
acts were reported, including the destruction of cherished possessions, public humiliation, and
The impulse to take revenge in response to a betrayal, then, is undoubtedly powerful and
profoundly human; but actually taking revenge can cause problems, especially when the act of
revenge itself constitutes a relational betrayal that encourages further revenge in a tit-for-tat
cycle. Part of the problem derives from what Bies and Tripp (1994) refer to as the “different
arithmetics” between victims and perpetrators. As discussed previously, betrayers and their
victims interpret and respond to the same act of betrayal differently (see also Mikula, 1994). In
particular, betrayers tend to minimize the harm they have caused, whereas the betrayed tend to
maximize their own suffering (Baumeister, 1997). Thus, the betrayed party perceives a great deal
more pain and suffering is “owing” than the betrayer believes is fair and reasonable, and this
perceptual mismatch leads to escalating cycles of revenge and counter-revenge (Kim & Smith,
Despite its unsavory reputation, revenge may play a constructive role in the relational
context. Certainly, Frijda (1994) noted that the desire for revenge is not irrational, though its
expression requires moderation. Solomon (1994), too, claimed the dangers of vengeance are
exaggerated and its importance for a “sense of self-esteem and integrity underestimated” (p.
308). Revenge can even motivate constructive behavior change (“I’ll show them!”) (Bies &
Tripp, 1996). Clearly, people who have been rejected and deeply hurt feel a powerful impulse to
reciprocate the pain; perhaps, then, society needs to find ways for helping people to deal
constructively with this impulse. One innovative approach has been taken by an Australian florist
shop called “Drop Dead Flowers” which organizes revenge packs for jilted and betrayed lovers
including everything from a single dead rose to the “ultimate revenge pack”: 13 dead roses and a
box of melted chocolates packaged in black paper and a box. They claim divorcees are their
main clientele and that many customers find it therapeutic to send a revenge pack because it
means they can get on with their lives and not have to think about their betrayal any more.
Finally, Cloke (1993) claimed that if wished-for revenge is illegal or impossible to
obtain, one can stay angry, which is bad for one’s health, or one can deny one’s anger and try to
forget the betrayal, which is often impossible because of its painful nature. The third option is to
forgive, and in so doing, to paradoxically achieve the highest form of revenge. In this respect,
Cloke notes Oscar Wilde’s (reputed) advice to “always forgive your enemies - nothing infuriates
them so!” (p. 78).
Until recently, the study of forgiveness was the almost exclusive preserve of
philosophers, theologians, and clinicians; consequently, there is very little material in the social
psychological literature on laypeople’s theories of how forgiveness works, or what is forgivable
or unforgivable in close relationships. Thus, there are many unanswered questions about the
nature and process of forgiveness. For example, Tavuchis (1991) noted that sorrow and guilt are
the energizing forces behind apology, but what motivates betrayed parties to forgive their
betrayers? According to McCullough, Worthington, and Rachal (1997), empathic distress for a
guilty party’s suffering plays a crucial role in a victim’s willingness to forgive; does this mean,
however, that forgiveness can never occur if a betraying partner is unremorseful? Or that
forgiveness will always occur if the betrayer is patently sorry?
In a recent study of forgiven and unforgiven, self- and partner-caused marital offences, I
attempted a preliminary exploration of some of these issues (see also Fitness & Mathews, 1998).
The study was based on the premise that laypeople hold implicit theories about the ways in
which various kinds of relational events unfold, and that these event scripts may be accessed by
having people recall episodes from their own relationship experiences. Based on the evidence
discussed in this chapter, for example, it could be argued that the prototypical interpersonal
betrayal and forgiveness script works something like this: A relationship partner perceives that
an offence has been committed; a rule has been broken or expectation violated. To the extent that
the partner appraises the violation as caused by a close, trusted other who both intended to do it
and is to blame for it, he or she will feel angry and betrayed, and will call for an account from the
offender. Now, the offender should concede an offence has been committed, accept
responsibility for it, feel guilty, apologize, and make reparation; at which point the victim will
perceive the offender is sorry, feel sorry for him or her, and forgive the offence. It might also be
hypothesized, on the basis of folklore, that once the victim has forgiven the offence, it should
also be forgotten; the relational slate is wiped clean.
But how might an unforgiven offence work? Given the previous discussion about the
emotional consequences of betrayal, we would expect feelings of hurt and anger to comprise an
important aspect of both forgiven and unforgiven offence scripts. We would also expect offender
guilt and apology to figure less prominently in unforgiven, as opposed to forgiven, offence
scripts. However, a number of other potentially important emotions and behaviors may be more
typical of unforgiven than forgiven offences. For example, as previously noted, Fitness and
Fletcher (1993) found marital hate accounts were characterized by themes of relative
powerlessness, humiliation, and shame – all potent motivators of revenge. Anecdotally, several
of their respondents also commented that if the researchers really wanted to know about hatred,
they should have asked about unforgiven offences committed by ex-partners, rather than current
spouses. Taken together, these findings suggest that humiliation, shame, powerlessness, hatred,
and revenge might be more distinctive of unforgiven rather than forgiven offence scripts.
It was also hypothesized in the current study that the role of shame in unforgiven offence
scripts would not be restricted to the emotional reactions of the betrayal victim; rather, shame
was also expected to figure prominently in offenders’ feelings about their own betrayals, making
forgiveness-seeking particularly difficult. As noted earlier, guilt is a generally functional emotion
that derives in part from an offender’s empathic distress in response to the pain he or she has
caused. It is this distress that is held to motivate remorseful behaviors and attempts to restore the
relationship. Shame, however, is a profoundly painful, self-focused emotion that typically
motivates attempts to hide or escape from the situation, or alternatively, to retaliate against
whoever has caused or even simply witnessed the shame in what Tangney (1995) referred to as
“externally-directed, humiliated fury” (p. 123). Clearly, if a betrayer’s shame-induced
withdrawal or defensive anger are misinterpreted by the betrayed party as signs of callous
unrepentance then the delicate interactional negotiations involved in seeking and being granted
forgiveness will run into problems.
To investigate these hypotheses and explore the features of self- and partner-caused
forgiven and unforgiven offences, 90 long-term married (mean length of marriage = 21.3 years)
and 70 divorced individuals recalled either a partner-caused or a self-caused marital offence;
divorced participants described unforgiven offences, and married participants described forgiven
offences. Respondents were asked to write an account of what had happened, what they had
thought and felt at the time, how humiliating the offence had been, and how powerful they had
felt relative to their partners. They also recalled their perceptions at the time of their partners’
thoughts and feelings, and answered a series of open-ended questions about self and partner
behaviors during and after the incident. Finally, respondents were asked either why they had
forgiven or not forgiven their partner’s offence, or why they thought they had or had not been
forgiven by their partners.
Forgiven and Unforgiven Marital Offence Scripts
Offence Types
Overall, most of the offences reported in this study could readily be classified as
betrayals of one kind or another. Over half of the unforgiven, partner-caused offences involved
explicit betrayals such as lies, deception, and sexual infidelity, compared with 33% of forgiven
partner-caused offences, 17% of unforgiven, self-caused offences, and 14% of forgiven, self-
caused offences. The bulk of remaining offences such as “neglect, uncaring behavior,” “public
embarrassment,” or “third party conflict ” comprised rule violations and implicit betrayals
involving personal rejection or perceptions of relational devaluation. For example, a male
respondent laconically describing a forgiven, self-caused offence explained that he had “fallen
asleep during intercourse. Needless to say, partner was there at the time. She thought it meant I
didn’t love her.” And a woman discussing a partner-caused, unforgiven offence explained how
her partner had sided with his mother against her in a serious family conflict; an offence she
clearly interpreted as a betrayal. As she said, “my husband should have put me first, not his
mother. I should have been his priority.”
Given that betrayals were found in forgiven as well as unforgiven accounts it was clearly
not betrayal per se that made an offence unforgivable. In addition, and as predicted, respondents
reported high levels of anger and hurt on behalf of the injured party, regardless of forgiveness
condition. One important discriminating factor that did emerge between the two conditions,
however, was offence repetition: Specifically, some 60% of unforgiven, partner-caused offences
had happened more than once, compared with only 30% of forgiven, partner-caused offences and
both forgiven and unforgiven self-caused offences. Repeat offences were typically regarded by
respondents as a signal that the offender had neither truly regretted his or her previous behavior,
nor had any serious intention of behaving differently in future, despite protestations to the
contrary. As one woman explained, “I think the old Christian adage, turn the other cheek and just
keep on forgiving, no matter how many times it happens, is for the birds who don’t have the
brains to figure out what’s going on, not real human beings who have to move on with their
Along with offence repetition, a second discriminating factor between forgiven and
unforgiven scripts involved perceived humiliation and the emotions of shame and hatred. In
particular, and as predicted, unforgiven offences were significantly more likely to have involved
humiliation than forgiven offences; furthermore, unforgiven self-offenders reported feeling
significantly more shame than forgiven self-offenders, and sadly, were significantly more likely
than forgiven self-offenders to believe their partners hated them. Finally, and irrespective of
forgiveness condition, feeling intense shame over a self-caused offence was positively associated
with either withdrawing from or attacking the injured partner; feeling intense guilt, on the other
hand, was positively associated with efforts to repair the damage to the relationship.
Overall, these data support the hypothesis that feeling shame in response to a self-caused
offence, and subsequently withdrawing from or attacking an injured partner, may impede the
flow of the prototypical forgiveness script and make it more difficult for the injured partner to
forgive. However, the data also suggest that an initially hateful, unforgiving reaction from a
rejected partner may heighten an offender’s shame and so further reduce the possibility of
constructively resolving the situation. Clearly, more fine-grained research is required to tease out
the potentially disruptive and destructive roles of humiliation, hate, and shame in the process of
interpersonal forgiveness, for both the betrayed and betraying parties.
Remorse and Forgiveness
Another important contrast between forgiven and unforgiven partner-caused offences
concerned the role of offender remorse. Over 50% of forgiven self-offenders claimed they were
“truly sorry” (even if not entirely to blame) for the offence, compared with 31% of unforgiven
self-offenders; similarly, nearly 50% of forgiven partners were believed to have been “truly
sorry”, compared with only 15% of unforgiven partners, despite the fact that unforgiven partners
were more likely to have verbally apologized (40%) than forgiven partners (9%). Respondents’
accounts made it clear that being “truly sorry” went far beyond verbal apologies. As several
long-term married respondents observed, showing true remorse can take weeks, months, or even
years, of “making up” for an offence and proving one’s commitment to one’s partner and the
relationship. For example, in one moving account, an 81-year old man who had deceived his
wife some 30 years previously described how it had taken some two years of patient and
persistent effort following the betrayal to rebuild her trust in him, and to convince her that he
truly wanted no other but her.
One reason that a betrayer might experience such difficulty in convincing a partner that
he or she is truly sorry is that, along with feeling hurt and rejected, the partner appraises the
offence to mean that the relationship is not important to the betrayer. To win forgiveness, then, a
betrayer must reassure his or her partner that the offence was an inexplicable aberration
reflecting only the betrayer’s unworthiness, rather than any kind of partner or relational
deficiency. In addition, a betrayer must convince his or her partner that their relationship is still
of primary importance, and that almost any sacrifice would be made to repair and restore it.
In the current study, repentant offenders used a number of strategies to demonstrate their
contrition. For example, nearly half the respondents who had forgiven their partners referred
explicitly to their remorseful partners’ guilty, hang-dog expressions and dejected body language,
including weeping. The majority of these respondents, however, along with the majority of
forgiven self-offenders, claimed forgiveness was won through persistent, constructive efforts to
repair the situation; e.g., by regularly demonstrating thoughtfulness, or kindness; seeking
counseling for drinking or gambling problems; resolutely ending extra-marital liaisons; and
firmly admonishing troublesome third parties, including in-laws. In contrast, only a small
proportion of unforgiven self or partner offenders were reported to have made such constructive
efforts. They were more likely to have angrily retaliated, taken revenge (including physical
abuse), or packed their bags and moved out - behaviors that may have been triggered in part by
their feelings of shame, but that also reinforced the impression that they cared neither for their
partners nor for the relationship.
It should be noted, however, that even true contrition was not always a sufficiently good
reason to forgive an offender. Of those respondents who claimed they could not forgive a clearly
remorseful partner, 20% claimed the offence simply broke the rules and so fell outside the
bounds of forgiveness, regardless of how sorry the offender was; 80%, however, cited betrayal
severity and the complete breakdown of trust as the primary reason forgiveness was impossible.
In particular, these respondents did not believe that spouses who really loved their partners
would treat them as if they meant so little. For the most part, they appraised their partners’
repentance as sincere; however, they did not believe they could ever be adequately compensated
for the damage done. In line with these data, the majority of remorseful but unforgiven self-
offenders believed it was the severity and painfulness of the betrayal, and the breakdown of
relational trust, that had made forgiveness impossible.
There was more of a contrast, however, in respondents’ reported reasons for forgiving an
apparently unremorseful offender. Of these, 40% charitably agreed that there were extenuating
circumstances involved in the offence (e.g., alcohol, stress); a further 30% reported, with some
degree of resignation, that the passage of time had healed their wounds; 22% reported they had
forgiven their partners simply because it was the right thing to do, either for the sake of the
relationship or for their own personal well-being, and only 8% claimed they had forgiven their
unremorseful partners because they loved them. Somewhat accurately, then, 40% of
unremorseful self-offenders believed they had been forgiven because their partners had accepted
their offence was more or less excusable. Less realistically, however, 60% believed they had
been forgiven simply because their partners loved them. None believed they had been forgiven
because of the passage of time, or because their partners believed it was their “duty” to forgive
them. These findings suggest a number of different motives for forgiving betrayals that have
little to do with offender remorse; however, it is interesting to speculate whether some
unrepentant offenders may misinterpret the reasons for their partners’ forbearance and even
regard their apparent indulgence as license to repeat the offence.
Punishment and Forgiveness
As mentioned previously, one of the most important tasks for repentant offenders is to
convince their partners that they would pay almost any price to repair and restore their
relationships. One way for betrayed partners to assess the extent and sincerity of offenders’
contrition and test their resolve to put things right is to inflict costs and seek compensation for
the offence. Accordingly, respondents were asked if they had punished or been punished by their
partners for the offence, and to describe the kinds of punishments that were meted out.
Surprisingly, perhaps, over half the respondents reporting on forgiven, partner-caused
offences claimed they had punished their partners, compared with less than one third of
respondents reporting on unforgiven, partner-caused offences. However, the type and severity of
punishments differed according to forgiveness condition. For example, nearly 75% of forgiven
partners’ punishments involved ongoing reminders of the offence; similarly, 100% of punished
but forgiven self-offenders reported periodic reminders about what they had done. However,
70% of unforgiven partners’ punishments and 58% of unforgiven self-offenders’ punishments
comprised acts of revenge including physical abuse, denunciation to family and friends,
destruction of possessions, and abandonment. Both revenge and reminding were reportedly
motivated by the betrayed party’s need to communicate the depth of their hurt or to regain some
power in the relationship - to feel “one-up” relative to the partner; however, reminders were also
reportedly given to ensure the offender did not reoffend.
These findings have interesting implications for the delicate negotiations involved in the
interpersonal betrayal and forgiveness script. For victims of betrayal, reminders appear to serve
at least three purposes: fine-tuning the degree of mutual suffering, readjusting the balance of
power, and behavioral deterrence. Clearly, as O’Malley (1983) theorized, expressing guilt goes
some way toward making the betrayed party feel better, but guilt alone is not sufficient. Rather,
as discussed previously, convincing partners in the aftermath of betrayal that they are, in fact,
cherished, requires considerable effort and persistence on the part of remorseful offenders,
especially if trust is to be fully restored.
This raises the interesting question of how sorry is sorry enough, and when and how
betrayed partners decide it is safe to fully trust again. Certainly, a number of forgiven
respondents expressed some puzzlement, irritation, and sadness that they were still being
reminded of something they had hoped was behind them. As one self-offender pointed out, “she
said she had forgiven me, so she had no right to keep bringing it up and throwing it in my face.”
Pittman and Wagers (1995) also noted the extent to which punishments following infidelity may
persist for years; indeed, they recommended a statute of limitations to such punishments, after
which “all emotional rights should be restored” (p. 312).
One reason why betrayed spouses may refuse to forgive, despite the best efforts of their
partners to behave well over an extended period of time, is that they believe letting their partners
“off the hook” somehow diminishes the significance of the betrayal and exonerates their
betrayers (Glass & Wright, 1997) – as if forgiving the offence served to legitimize it. Betrayed
partners may also be reluctant to let go and lose the upper hand, or moral advantage in the
relationship. Indeed, refusing to forgive can be a very effective, if dysfunctional, way to exert
relational power. At some point, however, remorseful offenders believe they have paid their dues
and earned forgiveness, and their partners’ reluctance to let go may be interpreted as a sign that
they themselves do not truly care about the relationship, or about the offender. Indeed, ongoing
punishment may itself constitute a relational betrayal that signals rejection to a confused partner.
Given how little is known about the ways in which betrayed and betraying partners go about
making these kinds of complex cognitive and emotional calculations over time, this is clearly a
fascinating and fertile research area.
Overall, the findings of this study support the idea that laypeople hold elaborate theories
about the nature of forgivable and unforgivable offences in marriage. In particular, the results
suggest that forgiven offences tend to be once-only events; that sincere contrition is essential for
forgiveness, but that verbal apologies are not necessarily the best indicator of being “truly sorry”;
that forgiven offenders must work hard to regain their partners’ trust and repair the damage they
have done, and that even then, they can expect to be periodically reminded about the offence.
Unforgiven offences, on the other hand, tend to involve humiliation, shame, hatred, and revenge;
the offender is neither perceived to be (nor often actually is) truly sorry, despite his or her verbal
apologies, and there is a good chance that the same offence, or something similar, has happened
In line with previous research, the results of this study demonstrated the striking
difference in perspectives between perpetrators and victims. For example, although self-caused
offences involved exactly the same kinds of betrayal incidents as partner-caused offences, they
were more likely to be justified as accidents, misunderstandings, or understandable reactions to
prior partner provocations. In addition, many forgiven self-offenders were almost smug in their
assumptions that ultimately they were understood, excused, loved, and forgiven by their partners.
However, respondents recalling forgiven, partner-caused offences emphasized the hard work that
went into the forgiveness process, with many claiming that even though the offence was
officially forgiven, it was not forgotten. It might be argued that self-offenders chose less serious
offences to remember and write about; however, types of offence and ratings of offence severity
for self-offences were the same as for partner-caused offences, and as noted before, self-
offenders acknowledged the degree of hurt and anger their partners had experienced in response
to the offence.
The interesting point about these results is that respondents were randomly selected to
report on a self- or partner-caused offence; thus, any one of them could have been asked to recall
a marital betrayal from the opposite perspective, and presumably, they would have reported the
entire sequence of events in line with the appropriate script. This suggests that many long-term
married couples may be privately nursing long-standing, partner-instigated hurts and rejections;
yet neither partner may realize that their own acts of betrayal are still remembered and still
It should also be noted that very few significant gender differences were found in this
study, and the differences that were obtained are in line with other researchers’ findings. As
previously noted, Levine et al. (1992) found that women regard deception as a more profound
relational transgression than men; similarly, Mikula (1994) found that women appraised
relational offences as more serious and unjustified than men. He speculated that, compared with
men, women have higher relational expectations and so feel more let down when their
expectations are violated. In line with these findings, women in the current study appraised
forgiven partners’ offences as less fair and harder to forgive, and unforgiven partners’ offences
as more serious, than men. However, although these findings suggest that, as one male
respondent claimed, “women sure do find it hard to forgive and forget,” it may be too simple to
conclude that the results merely reflect women’s more exacting standards. As Mikula (1994)
pointed out, women tend to have less power than men: they occupy lower status positions, earn
less money, and have less economic power than men. Consequently it may be that in general,
men’s betrayals really do have more serious consequences for their partners than women’s
betrayals, and that women’s judgments derive from a complex combination of relational
expectations, and social and economic realities.
The Long-Term Consequences of Betrayal
Predictably, the long-term consequences of interpersonal betrayal depend on whether one
asks the betrayed or the betrayer. For example, Hansson et al. (1994) found 26% of respondents
reporting on their own betrayals claimed their behavior had actually improved the relationship,
41.5% reported no change or only temporary harm, and only 29% claimed their betrayal had
damaged or ended the relationship. However, not one betrayal victim claimed the relationship
had been improved by their partner’s behavior; rather, 86% claimed it had damaged or destroyed
it. Jones and Burdette (1994) obtained very similar findings.
The consequences of sexual infidelity may be particularly dramatic and long-lasting.
Glass and Wright (1997) noted that the discovery of infidelity means the shattering of “long-held
assumptions about the meaning of marriage, perceptions of the partner and views of oneself” (p.
471), with the severity of reaction being associated with the strength of those assumptions.
Similarly, Charney and Parnass (1995) found that 67% of betrayed husbands and 53% of
betrayed wives suffered significant damage to their self-image and confidence, and 18% and
21% respectively suffered feelings of abandonment and attacks on their sense of belonging.
Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the study of forgiven offences reported in this chapter, many
relationships do survive infidelity and other forms of betrayal; so how do partners go about
repairing the damage and maintaining the relationship?
According to Rusbult, Verette, Whitney, Slovik, and Lipkus (1991), one important factor
involves accommodation - individuals’ willingness to inhibit their destructive urges and to
behave constructively in response to their partners’ offences. Rusbult et al. (1991) found a
number of factors influenced people’s willingness to accommodate, including the extent to
which they felt invested in and committed to the relationship, and, reasonably enough, whether
or not there were any promising alternatives on the horizon. Other researchers, too, have found
that the knowledge that one has access to desirable alternatives plays an important role in the
decision to leave a relationship following partner betrayal. Shackelford and Buss (1997b), for
example, found that women rated by observers as highly attractive were more likely to report
they would seek a divorce if their husbands went on a date or had a one-night stand than women
rated as less attractive; similar results were obtained for women judged to be more attractive than
their husbands.
Partners who wish to repair or at least maintain their relationship in the aftermath of
betrayal have a number of options potentially available to them. Roloff and Cloven (1994)
identified a number of relational maintenance strategies, including one called reformulation,
whereby an offence is redefined so that it no longer violates a rule. Thus, a couple may decide
that infidelity will be ok after all, but that it must always involve safe sex or no emotional
involvement. Another strategy is prevention, whereby partners agree to avoid conflict areas.
Baumeister et al. (1990), for example, found that happily married spouses apparently do not tell
each other up to 44% of their marital grievances, presumably in the belief that there is no point in
“rocking the boat.”
Another strategy described by Roloff and Cloven (1994) is minimization, whereby the
offence is recast in such a way that it no longer seems like a “big deal.” As a respondent in the
forgiveness study explained, “it was trivial; in the wider scheme of things, what did it matter?”
Roloff and Cloven noted that this strategy may even encourage a victim to accept blame for the
offence (“I made you do it!”) in an effort to convince the partner that the relationship is worth
maintaining. Wiseman and Duck (1995) have also pointed out that betrayed friends will often
apologize first in an effort to repair the friendship.
A final strategy is relational justification, whereby partners focus on reasons for staying
in the relationship. Bowman (1990) found focusing on good memories, expressing positive
feelings, and initiating shared experiences is a common and functional strategy for coping with
marital difficulties. Certainly, some of the comments made by forgiving partners in the study
discussed previously reflected this theme. For example, one man claimed that “in a relationship,
there is both pleasure and pain. If you concentrate on the pain, sooner or later the whole
relationship will become painful, and you’ll feel drained;” another respondent explained that
“it’s a matter of weighing up whether the result of non-forgiveness, i.e., unhappiness and the loss
of that person in your life, is worth maintaining the rage for. If it isn’t, you should let it go.”
As a last resort, betrayed partners who have no viable alternatives may simply bide their
time. As one recently divorced woman explained, “I just didn’t love my husband anymore.. what
he did killed my love for him. However, his betrayal made me realize I had to become more
independent so that when the children got older I would have some options; so I just waited it
This chapter has examined the process and consequences of interpersonal betrayal and
rejection from an interpersonal script perspective. It was argued that the drama of betrayal,
rejection, revenge, and forgiveness is played out between relationship partners who hold beliefs
and expectations about the rights and wrongs of relationship behavior, and the consequences of
breaking the rules. Clearly, our understanding of this fascinating area of human social behavior
still has some way to go, particularly in relation to the various script components, such as the art
of taking “just enough” revenge and the complex negotiations involved in winning forgiveness.
Indeed, some of these components themselves constitute “mini-scripts” with important
implications for the ongoing emotions and behaviors of the interacting parties. Much also
remains to be learned still about forgivable and unforgivable betrayals in different relational
contexts, such as among family members and within different cultures. For example, in the
forgiveness study described earlier, a Javanese respondent provided an intriguing account of why
she had forgiven her husband’s betrayal, suggesting that in this case, cultural prescriptives were
far more relevant than either partner’s feelings.
It would also be fruitful for researchers to examine ways in which individual differences
moderate the process and outcomes of interpersonal betrayal. For example, using a self-report
test called the Interpersonal Betrayal Scale, Jones and Burdette (1994) found divorced
individuals were more likely to report betraying others than married individuals, and that high
betrayers were less committed to their marriages, had more affairs, and told more lies than low
betrayers. Presumably this propensity to betray is linked to people’s beliefs that self-interest
should usually take precedence over the interests of others. However, the tendency to betray may
also be linked to people’s beliefs about the inherent untrustworthiness of others. As Holmes
(1991) noted, some individuals are chronically distrustful of relationship partners, possibly
because they have experienced betrayal and rejection in past relationships.
This suggests an important role for attachment style in people’s expectations of and
responses to betrayal, given that insecurely attached individuals hold pessimistic beliefs about
the likely trustworthiness and reliability of relationship partners (Shaver, Collins, & Clark,
1996). Rejection sensitivity, too, may mean individuals are always on the lookout for potential
betrayal cues and interpret all kinds of partner behaviors as reliable signs of the rejection they
dread (Downey & Feldman, 1996; see also Downey, this volume). High self-esteem has also
been associated with destructive responses to relationship conflict (Rusbult, Morrow, & Johnson,
1987), apparently because people with high self-esteem believe they are valuable human beings
who do not deserve to be badly treated. Ironically, however, too strong a sense of entitlement
may make it difficult either to forgive a betrayal or to humble oneself sufficiently to
acknowledge and be truly sorry for one.
In conclusion, a great deal more can be learned about the nature and consequences of
interpersonal betrayal. Hopefully this chapter will stimulate further exploration of its causes in
different relational and cultural contexts, its psychological links with rejection, and its
associations with the rich and endlessly fascinating relational phenomena of revenge and
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... Research suggests that moral transgressions are experienced quite literally as intrusions upon a moral order that needs to be set right (Cushman, 2015;Strelan et al., 2017). This is because people tend to see moral norms and rules as touchstones, helping them make sense of the social world and make it more predictable (Fitness, 2001;Fitness and Peterson, 2008). A transgression of a moral norm thus often leaves people feel uncertain and uneasy about their social environment (Funk et al., 2014). ...
... A transgression of a moral norm thus often leaves people feel uncertain and uneasy about their social environment (Funk et al., 2014). As a result, they feel the need to be reassured that the moral norms are still in place and that other people are still likely to behave in line with these norms (Fitness, 2001). ...
... Specifically, an important function of punishment is to have a transgressor pay for his/her actions by incurring suffering (Carlsmith, 2006;Fitness and Peterson, 2008). In support of this analysis of the function of punishment, research shows that some transgressors want to be punished for their misdeeds, as they feel they would not be able to move on otherwise (Fitness, 2001). This is also true on the victim-and observer-side: Punishment has been found to be empowering to victims (Strelan et al., 2020), and allows all parties to move on beyond the transgression . ...
Full-text available
Punishment and forgiveness are two very different responses to a moral transgression that both have been argued to restore perceptions of moral order within an organization. Unfortunately, it is currently unclear what motivates organizational actors to punish or forgive a norm transgressor. We build on social cognitive theory to argue that punishment and forgiveness of a transgressor are both rooted in self-regulatory processes. Specifically, we argue that organizational actors are more likely to respond to intentional transgressions with punishment, and to unintentional transgressions with forgiveness. However, these effects of transgressor intentionality should be found in particular among actors for whom moral identity is central (vs. peripheral). We find support for these predictions in a laboratory experiment and a field study among organizational leaders. By simultaneously studying punishment and forgiveness in organizational settings, we provide crucial insight in their shared motivational bases, as well as into important differences between the two.
... A social group functions within a set of morals and norms to which its members are expected to adhere (Haidt, 2013, Joskowicz-Jabloner & Leiser, 2013, and Fitness, 2001. Breaking another person's trust through a social transgression in the form of betrayal had the potential of being socially destructive, since it could cause the betrayer to not only lose their good standing with their community (Geher et al., 2019), but an act of betrayal may also prohibit the victim from extending a helping hand when needed in the future. ...
... Geher et al. (2019) found that a stronger transgression has a lower potential of forgiveness. When considering accounts of marital infidelity, which are considered a major betrayal, Fitness (2001) describes the victim as extending true forgiveness only after a serious attempt of reparations, (for example, when extensive time investment rebuilding the lost trust has been offered by the offender). Forgiveness, and willingness to move past the transgression, are more likely to follow after a minor offense; however, this phenomenon seems to be moderated by the strength of the existing relationship between victim and offender (Schumann, 2012). ...
... While a private betrayal is undoubtedly shocking and hurtful, a public betrayal temporarily gives the betrayer a leg up while the victim is put down (e.g., through public ridicule or exposure) in front of the shared social context (Elshout et al., 2016). Additionally, a feeling of betrayal may elicit more intense emotions if the betrayal has been broadcasted to the public eye (Fitness, 2001). ...
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The current work seeks to contribute as a continuation of evolutionary-based studies investigating the effects of social transgressions on human behavior. Our evolved capacity for social connections is predicated on reciprocal trust within a relationship. In ancestral conditions, violating that trust could have adverse implications on a betrayer, as well as the victim who was betrayed. By looking beyond forgiveness or social estrangements, this study focuses on our willingness to help the offender after a betrayal has taken place. Our main predictions were that future altruism would more likely be offered by the victim if the harm-doer was kin, if the betrayal did not occur publicly, and if the betrayal was relatively minor. To test these hypotheses, we randomly presented 449 participants with betrayal scenarios that varied in relatedness (kin or non-kin), publicity (public or private), and severity of betrayal (major or minor). We found that only the severity of the betrayal and whether the betrayal was public or private had a significant effect on social reciprocity intended helping behavior. Additionally, certain dispositional predictors of the Light and Dark Triad played a significant role on whether the victim would extend a helping hand after being betrayed by the same person.
... In that, we join Schoorman et al., (2007, p. 349), who hold the "(more traditional) view that trust and distrust are the opposite ends of the same continuum." Further, the management and the psychology literature is careful to note that there are important differences on a psychological and behavioral level between a low trust and the betrayal of trust (e.g., Fitness, 2001;Kramer, 1999). This conceptual segmentation, reminiscent of prospect theory in economics, is not without merit. ...
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Firms located in communities in which people are, on average, more trusting enjoy some benefits in terms of the power of CEO contracts. We present two pieces of empirical evidence to support this claim: (1) higher average trust in a county is associated with “flatter” executive contracts and (2) when an exogenous shock occurs (such as a scandal involving an important social institution), both trust and contracting move in similar directions. We obtain the first result in a panel specification and the second in a “difference-in-difference” specification that uses the revelation of sex scandals involving the Catholic Church across different U.S. localities.
... When a confidant shares a secret-holder's secret with a third-party, there may be numerous cascading relational impacts. For example, sharing a secret-holder's secret without permission is seen as a betrayal that harms the relationship (Fitness, 2001;Jones et al., 2001), especially if the confidant shares the information with a more distant social connection (e.g., an acquaintance; Yovetich & Drigotas, 1999). Such behavior provides multiple insights about social closeness. ...
The lion's share of research on secrecy focuses on how deciding to keep or share a secret impacts a secret‐keeper's well‐being. However, secrets always involve more than one person: the secret‐keeper and those from whom the secret is kept or shared with. Although secrets are inherently social, their consequences for people's reputations and social relationships have been relatively ignored. Secrets serve a variety of social functions, including (1) changing or maintaining one's reputation, (2) conveying social utility, and (3) establishing friendship. For example, if Beth has a secret about a past misdemeanor, she might not tell any of her friends in order to maintain her reputation as an outstanding citizen. If Beth does share this secret with her friend Amy, Amy could interpret this as a sign of trust and think that their friendship is special. However, Amy could also choose to share Beth's secret with the rest of the friend group to show that she is a useful member with access to valuable information about others. Attention to these social functions of secrets emerges from a young age, and secrets play a prominent role in human relationships throughout the lifespan. After providing an overview of what is currently known about the relational consequences of secrecy in childhood and adulthood, we discuss how social and developmental psychologists could work together to broaden our understanding of the sociality of secrets. Future steps include incorporating more dyadic and social network analyses into research on secrets and looking at similar questions across ages. This article is categorized under: Psychology > Reasoning and Decision Making Secrets are inherently social and cannot exist outside of the social relationships in which they are kept and shared. Accordingly, secrets can also serve a variety of social functions, including (1) changing or maintaining one's reputation, (2) conveying social utility, and (3) establishing friendship.
To lose one’s sense of what it means to be human reflects a profound form of loss. Recent research in the study of dehumanization highlights that the loss of humanness can be experienced at the hands of close others. Moreover, acts of dehumanization can take many forms in close relationships. In this paper, we review the emerging literature on the study of dehumanization within interpersonal relationships, placing a specific emphasis on adult romantic relationships. We situate our review of the literature within a newly developed model of interpersonal dehumanization. This model outlines how many destructive relationship behaviors reflect forms of dehumanization, which can result in a vast array of personal and relational losses.
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Deviance can impact team performance but it is unclear how this process unfolds. Common measures delineate between interpersonal and organizational deviance rather than considering the impact felt by teammates. Instead, we categorize deviant acts into team-relevant and team-irrelevant measures. We then consider how deviance severity and frequency impact affective states and team performance. Guided by affective events theory’s focus on work events shaping emotional reactions and subsequent behaviors, we suggest that deviant acts that are negative work events increase negative affect and harm team performance, particularly when frequent. Team-irrelevant deviance is not a negative work event and thus should not impact team affect or performance. Within team-relevant deviance, because severe forms are objectively wrong and punished severely, teammates can overcome them whereas subtle and clandestine minor forms harm the team the most, especially when frequent. Support was found within 1114 recorded deviant acts from 435 employees in 114 organizational teams.
L'infedeltà è uno dei temi più difficili da affrontare sia per le coppie che ne so-no coinvolte sia per i clinici che se ne occupano. Nonostante essa sia un fenomeno molto diffuso, la ricerca in merito rimane limitata. La complessità del costrutto rende infatti difficile la sua definizione. Questo studio ha l'obiettivo di sistematiz-zare le ricerche presenti in letteratura sulla definizione di infedeltà, sulle sue conse-guenze e sulle implicazioni cliniche. È stata condotta una revisione della letteratura scientifica degli articoli pubblicati dal 1987 fino ad aprile 2021. Dagli studi analiz-zati è emerso che i ricercatori, i clinici e la popolazione generale concettualizzano l'infedeltà in maniera differente e che le conseguenze di questa possono essere le più disparate e sono diverse per la parte tradita, per il fedifrago e per l'amante. È stato riscontrato che le coppie che rimangono insieme dopo un tradimento sono quelle che ne parlano e iniziano una psicoterapia. Non esistono modelli di interven-to evidence-based specifici per l'infedeltà, ma la fiducia e il perdono sono gli ele-menti centrali dell'intervento psicologico. Risulta necessario ampliare le conoscen-ze in merito e sviluppare degli strumenti specifici che permettano ai clinici di navi-gare in questo processo.
Following interpersonal transgressions, both victim and offender can experience psychological loss due to threatened needs for agency and moral-social identity. Moral repair is the process by which these losses are restored. Rather than involving only intra-individual static processes, research is starting to recognize that moral repair is dyadic, reciprocal, and interactionist. It involves the victim and offender co-engaging with one another, reciprocally responding to the other’s psychological needs, and co-constructing a shared understanding of what has occurred, their relationship, and a way forward. Each of these steps represents periods of vulnerability where the losses of a transgression can be repaired - or exacerbated.
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Combining scholarship on norms and trust in international relations, this article puts forward the concept of entrusted norms as a novel means to understand certain dynamics of cooperation and conflict in international politics. Entrusted norms differ from non-entrusted norms both in the manner that they are policed and in the reaction to their infringement. In the first case, there are few formal hedging mechanisms taken against potential defection. In the second case, when broken, they result in a betrayal reaction where a return to the behavioral status quo is insufficient to return to the political status quo. We illustrate the analytical usefulness of entrusted norms through an examination of the established norms of diplomacy within the Gulf Cooperation Council, paying particular attention to interactions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the post-Arab Spring period. We argue that the perception of Qatar's defection from an entrusted norm, the preservation of individual and collective dignity, contributed to the 2014 diplomatic rupture between these two states and set in motion a betrayal/attempted reconciliation cycle, where even Qatar’s attempts to move back to the behavioral status quo prior to the fallout have been insufficient to fully repair the relationship. In addition to providing a novel interpretation to this case, this paper highlights the need for further theoretical consideration of the severity and duration of punishment after norm transgression within social constructivism, reinforces the theoretical connection between social structures and emotions, and advocates for an expansion in the domains of trust that we study.
Discrepancies in views about what is to be regarded as just and unjust are among the core problems of injustice. Judgments of injustice presuppose observations that people’s entitlements have been violated, that is, that they do not get what they are due by virtue of who they are and what they have done (cf. Buchanan & Mathieu, 1986; Cohen, 1986; Lerner, 1977, 1991). In addition to this most basic element, attributions of responsibility for the violation of entitlement to some other agent than the person affected, and lack of justification for the violation, have been proposed as important components of judgments of injustice (e.g., Cohen, 1982; Crosby & Gonzales-Intal, 1984; Folger, 1986; Mikula, 1993; Mikula & Petri, 1987; Montada, 1991; Utne & Kidd, 1980). If one considers the subjective nature of these various elements, disagreements over the existence of injustice seem likely. They can follow from different views about the nature of the entitlements of certain people, whether and to what extent any existing entitlements have been violated, the responsibilities of various agents, the availability of sufficient justifications, and any combination of these possibilities.
In this chapter we will review the different types of studies we have completed concerning how people cope with deteriorating relationships. First, we will review research on the communication and evaluation of accounts. Our research in this area focuses attention on basic issues concerning why people communicate apologies, excuses, justifications, and denials, and the consequences of using such oral arguments in performing needed remedial work or in promoting a particular public image. The second line of research to be reviewed focuses attention on relational break-ups and deals with basic issues concerning why dating partners disengage, the tactics used either to resolve relational problems or to disengage, and the consequences that follow.