What do we do when someone we like, love, need, trust, is unmasked and we discover they are not who we thought they were. In the news recently we are hearing a lot about men who, to the shock of some, have engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviors such as sexual harassment. Producer Harvey Weinstein is the latest in an increasing number of powerful celebrities including President Donald Trump, Actor and Comedian Bill Cosby, Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, Former President Bill Clinton. So many more politicians, actors and singers and athletes have also fallen off their pedestals with not only sexually inappropriate behavior but with violence and physical abuse as well.
It is is interesting to note what happens after disclosure. Does the person admit their behavior or do they deny? If they admit, are they legitimately remorseful? Or does the apology appear to be perfunctory? And what is the response in their circle of family and friends, and perhaps the rest of us who may admire these people? As a society we can get very angry with those who defend these men, especially when the women in their lives defend them. Hillary Clinton is still vilified for defending her husband and trying to discredit his accusers. Remember, she was not only a wife but also a lawyer. On the other hand, we also appear to be very forgiving of professional athletes and other celebrities. After all, Donald Trump is President despite his inappropriate history.
So, what we are really talking about is our response to betrayal. To “betray” is defined by Merriam Webster as “to fail or desert especially in time of need.” The feelings that follow betrayal are often confusing. A betrayal is like a death, the death of what we believed was real. The stages I mentioned in a previous blog apply again. Denial is very common. Not believing that the person who is accused could do what someone says they did. That of course leads to believing that the accuser(s) must be lying. Or, if they are not lying, then the victim must be responsible, at least in part, for causing the behavior. We talk about how a victim dresses or where they went. They should have known, we say! Sadly, parents sometimes do this when children disclose abuse. We also bargain with the truth. We accept promises and apologies in the hopes that this never happens again. We become angry; angry at the accused and the accusers for ruining our belief and trust in this person. We may be angry that the truth has turned our world upside down. And sometime we get stuck in these stages. When we see someone we care about who is stuck, patience, education and support are more effective than anger and ultimatums in helping them get unstuck.
How do we, then, come to resolution with betrayal? We must first trust ourselves and what we know to be the truth, even if we don’t like it, even if we feel stupid for trusting in the first place. We must hold people accountable for their behavior both, past and present. A person who owns their past behaviors and choices without blame and minimization, who apologizes with that foundation can earn our forgiveness. That doesn’t mean everything goes back to normal. We are now in a new normal with the betrayal as part of our history. And what about the person who continues into a cycle of perpetrating and apologizing, over and over again? We may have to move away from that person for they are becoming toxic to us. As Maya Angelou once said: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
So, we may all be betrayed at some point and we all struggle with how that makes us feel. I will always struggle with my fondness for Bill Cosby’s comedy and his character of Heathcliff Huxtable and my sadness about the behavior of the man behind the comedy. This too is part of life as we know it.