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Men, Love and Betrayal

An Interview with John Amodeo

Copyright © 1994 by Bert H. Hoff


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John Amodeo is author of Love and Betrayal, a book we reviewed favorably last Spring. At Shepherd Bliss' suggestion Bert interviewed him while he was in Seattle promoting his book.
Love and Betrayal book cover
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Bert: Perhaps the way to begin is to ask you to talk about love and betrayal.

John: I've noticed in my own life, as a counselor for 17 years, and watching my friends over the years that we all want to be loved, understood and cared about. But often what we get, instead, is a feeling of being misunderstood, rejected and betrayed. My book is about how to deal with these major betrayals so we don't get stuck in blame, bitterness and cynicism, and to carry this forward into our new relationships. The book is also about how to create a climate of trust in our relationships, so we minimize the prospect of betrayal and concentrate mote on being loving and being loved.

Bert: If I feel I've been betrayed, I'm certainly less open to love in the future. How do you open yourself up to love in the next relationship, so that betrayal doesn't come up?

John: People need to learn how to grieve the hurt of betrayal, so they don't carry forward those hurts, close down and become bitter. That's the real tragedy of betrayal, when people close down and become bitter towards life. When they close their hearts. It doesn't have to happen that way. We need to learn how to grieve the hurt so we can open our hearts again to another possibility, another relationship.

In society we're taught it's not OK to feel pain or hurt. Men, especially, feel they're not strong is they feel pain or hurt. It's crucial that we allow ourselves to feel those vulnerable feelings, because we can't heal them unless we're willing to feel them.

Bert: Robert Bly talks about the 'descent into the ashes" as part of that process.

John: Yes! People often want to avoid the shadow, the dark side of love, betrayal. But if we can't deal with the dark side we're not going to find the love we might want in our life.

Bert: One of the things that struck me in the first part of your book was the many forms of betrayal that we might feels in our lives.

John: There are the obvious ones, like infidelity and breaking the commitment to be monogamous, or an agreement to stay together. But there are much more subtle forms of betrayal. I call these breaking unspoken agreements. One is the agreement to be honest, to tell the truth. Every time we lie, mislead or deceive, that's a little betrayal. There's also disrespect, not showing respect to people but, instead, shaming them or judging them.

We all do these to one degree or another. It's important to pay attention to them.

Another kind of betrayal is withholding or withdrawing, so we don't really share our feelings and what's going on inside of us. Our feelings, our hopes, our fears, our longings, our hurts. We keep them secret from the other person. That creates distance rather than intimacy in a relationship.

Bert: So when I agree to "love, honor and cherish until death do we part," there is an unspoken agreement that I will be fully committed to the relationship, that I will be there all the time, sharing the intimacy.

John: Yes, exactly. I call that a "process commitment." It's a lot more than just being committed to staying together forever, which is perhaps a questionable commitment to make in the first place. That may be more romanticized than realistic. What we can really do is to be committed to the process, being honest, being open, being real, being vulnerable, working through conflict as it arises, respecting each other, respecting our differences without trying to change, manipulate or control our partner.

Bert: As we speak, I'm typing up my notes of the interview that Bernetta and I did with Aaron Kipnis and Elizabeth Herron. One of the concepts they bring out is that the man needs to retreat to the cave to process, just as the woman needs to talk it our and socialize. Their book Gender War, Gender Peace focuses in on understanding the "other culture" on the other side of the "culture gap." In that context, my need to retreat to the cave is perceived by my partner as a betrayal of the relationship, because I'm not being intimate and close.

John: Yes, that is withdrawal. That's a good, important comment. I think men often do need time to process things in solitude, taking time to be alone. It's been my experience that women want to battle it out more. I think there are times to process by communicate verbally, and there are times to be in solitude to get clear. To reconnect with our soul, reconnect with our self and get clear as to what's really going on, so we can come back renewed and communicate more of the essence, the kernel, of what's going on for us. Then you cut through many of the painful and difficult confusions that often happen in a relationship. The talking that gets nowhere, that seems to go on endlessly. That tends to get into blaming. I find that a lot of couples that aren't really clear as to what's going on in their depths get into blame, criticism, and unproductive communication that can be very hurtful. It can cycle more and more out of control.

Sometimes when men aren't allowed to take time and takes space, when a woman shames a man for taking time and space, there can be more of a tendency towards physical violence.

Bert: "Leave me alone, or I'll clobber you."

John: Needing time to be alone, but being pulled on, to have to hang in there in the conflict, to talk about it. Needing some space, needing a cooling-off period.

Bert: I wonder what the other side would look like. Here, it's the man needing space and the woman sees it as betrayal. What is the kind of thing a woman might do, that's normal for her, but that the man feels in betrayal?

John: It could be mistrust. It could be not being understood. He might feel she's unwilling to understand his need for space. She's trying to meet her needs for contact and connection, but not honoring his. It could be steamrollering over his sensibilities, his feelings, his needs, his wants.

I think we can learn from each other. Men can benefit from coming out more and being willing to share their need for feelings, and to give the woman some reassurance that he does need space, but that he just needs a little time right now, but that he wants to come back to complete this with her. Some verbal reassurance to her might enable her to give him the space that he wants.

Bert: But sometimes when a man says he wants to go retreat to a cave, what he really means is that what he wants is to just go away and pretend that the problem isn't there.

John: Exactly. That's the dark side, that the person who says he wants space might, instead be avoiding the conflict and the difficulty. I've been guilty of that myself, withdrawing because I'm uncomfortable with conflict.

Bert: So I might not be so much a matter of wanting to come back and completing the conversation, as it is that if I have enough warning I agree to come back, because I know it's important to you.

John: Yes. This is difficult for me, but I know that it's important, and I'm willing to come back and complete this. Just give me a little space first. Let's talk about it tomorrow night again.

Bert: What are some of the other ways that these issues of betrayal come up, especially for men?

John: One way that it comes up is in self-betrayal, when we cut off feelings of being shamed when we were growing up. We've been betrayed in the past by being humiliated, shamed, disrespected for having our fears, and now we continue the tradition by not acknowledging the feelings to ourselves and, therefore, to our partner. We don't allow intimacy to happen, because we're cut off from our deeper, vulnerability.

Bert: You had said earlier that one of the ways to recover from betrayal is to go through a process of grief, to come to grips with having been betrayed. So if the betrayal is self-betrayal, does that suggest that we need to go through a grief or ritual around our self-betrayal? We need to betray loss of ourselves?

John: I think so. I think there's often a deep sadness in us that has to do with not having ourselves, or being allowed to be, who we fully are. Maybe one way to manifest this is that we become very dependent on women for our sell-being. We try to please, accommodate, be the hero, instead of really asserting our feelings, our needs, our wants. I think men tend to get very dependent on women, and don't want to rock the boat or shake up the relationship. They're afraid they're going to lose it, because they're so dependent on it for their well-being.

Bert: There's another kind of reaction that can come up, that I think I've seen in men. I can just pretend that all of this stuff is not really very important to me at all, that I have suffered no loss.

John: You mean, that the relationship isn't that important?

Bert: The self-betrayal.

John: That I'm fine, everything's fine?

Bert: Yes, that I'm not missing intimacy in my life, and I can get along very well without it.

John: Men suffer great denial about that. Their unhappiness leaks out in different ways, through drinking or numbing ourselves through spectator sports or TV. Overworking, pursuing money and career and losing our personal life.

Bert: John Lee was up here recently. He read a very moving poem by Alden Nowlan, "He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded." In that poem, a young woman at the school came up to Alden and said "I want a hug." He worried about the headlines: "Journalist accused of sexually accosting school resident." Where he took the poem was to suggest that deep down, all of us feel at a childhood level that all we wanted was to be hugged, held and loved by our parents, mother as well as father. In the absence of that, we learn to pretend that being hugged and held is not important.

John: "Don't be a sissy." "You don't need that." "That's for wimps and weak people." This denial of our needs is a great tragedy. Men are so susceptible to being shamed. We're made to feel humiliated growing up, around our having any needs. We have to cut them off in order to survive. We learn that we're not valued when we have needs and wants. They become a threat to us.

Bert: We don't express those needs and wants. That could bring up another form of betrayal for men. The aspect of not being seen. She says, "You never tell me you love me." He says, "What do you mean? I mowed the lawn. I washed the car. I went to work today." He's demonstrating love by doing, because that's the only way he can express it. He can't actually say those intimate things. So would he view the woman ad betraying him or betraying the relationship by not recognizing the gifts that he does give?

John: Yes. He might feel a sense of betrayal, that he's not being understood for what he is offering to the relationship. If she is willing to acknowledge the gifts he is giving, he would be more willing to hear what she would still like from him. A lot of this can be worked out through delicate communication and through honoring each other. Trying to listen to each other's perspectives as much as possible.

Bert: But then something else happens and the communication has fallen apart. He feels totally, irredeemably betrayed. Maybe the partner has had an affair, and the other one can't handle it. So the relationship breaks up. You sit there feeling betrayed. What does it feel like, and what do you do about it?

John: People often say they can't believe it; they had no idea this was going on. They're totally shocked. They sit there in shock and disbelief, wondering how this could have happened.

Then after the shock wears off, of course we're angry. We might also feel a sense of shame. How could I be involved with somebody that would do something like this? Wasn't I loving or desirable enough? Then, beneath all that, there is often a sense of hurt, which we ultimately need to embrace.

We need to let the other person know how hurt we feel. It's also important to express the anger, too. I don't want to minimize that, but some people get stuck in the anger. They express the anger in a blaming way, which alienates their partner more. We need to share our pain instead of our blame. We're more likely to be heard, and to get a sympathetic response.

Bert: The case I'm talking about is where the relationship is broken. He moves through this anger, and into the hurt, and now he's alone and hurting. He just got his divorce papers yesterday. That's a point where a lot of men decide it's time to do Men's Work. They start coming to Wisdom Council.

John: Yes, that's very helpful. Men are willing to look at some new possibilities and get the support they need during that period. Often it's during the crisis that people are willing to grow. It's a spiritual opportunity.

Men can choose to get support and look at what happened in the relationship, so they don't repeat the betrayal. Betrayals that aren't understood are betrayals that are repeated. Or, sadly, they close down. They don't trust again. Or they have brief affairs. That's sad.

Bert: This process sounds very similar to C.G. Jung. He says that everyone who comes in at middle age, when things are not going very well, either recognize that this has a spiritual dimension and see it as an opportunity for spirit and soul, a transformative experience to move to someplace else, or else they just kind of muddle along, lead their life in the same way, and feel a very empty life for the rest of their lives.

John: Exactly. They feel like victims. They've given up on life. They betray themselves and betray life. Yet it's an incredible opportunity to grow, to open up spiritually. All of this has to be done, of course, with some kind of pain. That is the challenge. It becomes like a welcomed rite of passage into a new stage of your life.

Bert: That's one theme that I've been picking up on the mythopoetic side of Men's Work. We talk about initiation as if I go through initiation once, and now I'm a warrior. I've gone from boy to man. But any number of people in this area, from Martín Prechtel, the Guatemalan shaman, to Michael Meade, describe life as a series of initiations.

John: Exactly. I think that's true.

Bert: What Robert Bly talks about, in the "descent into the ashes," theologians might describe as the "dark night of the soul." Then there's the light, the breakthrough. What does that look like for a man, say, who hasn't labeled this as a spiritual process?

John: People need to be willing to work with that darkness. People I interviewed for the book said they found a great strength that they didn't know they had, by working with the pain. Hanging out with it long enough, expanding our tolerance for that pain long enough, so that something can shift. Even if one doesn't have an overt spiritual perspective, just a simple commitment to the process, to life, can find tremendous opening and learning.

One person, for example, found in the "dark night of the soul" an insight into the betrayal. His wife had had an affair for several years. He realized he was always good at arguing, but he wasn't good at just listening to her feelings. He realized that in a new relationship he had to be committed to being willing to listen, not steamrollering over her feelings with his opinions and perspectives.

Bert: In this situation, what he saw as betrayal, the woman might have seen as a self-defensive, survival mechanism.

John: Yes! She probably felt a sense of betrayal that he wasn't there to listen to her feelings.

But he found some meaning out of the betrayal and the pain. He could extract some meaning from it, that it wasn't just a random tragedy that just happened, but something that awakened his feelings in life. This transforms our entire experience of the betrayal.

Bert: Marion Woodman uses the term, "holding the tension of the opposites." Staying with the pain. If you have one leg on one side, and the other on the other side, and you're absolutely being torn apart, if you can hang there without having to go to one side or the other to step out of the pain, then some third alternative that you never would have dreamed of will emerge.

John: It's surprising what can emerge out of that place. Yet the pearl gets formed through the irritation of the sand on the oyster. Something beautiful can come out of that process. It's very helpful to have faith and trust in the process.

One other thought about betrayal in the relationship. It's so important for people to feel safe with each other. We need to find some safety in ourselves. The relationship is never going to be completely safe. But we need to find people we can feel safe with, so we can be vulnerable with them, to practice the things I'm talking about. To share our feeling and hurts. That's where Men's Work can be really helpful. People often don't have other people in their life they feel safe with, to share their vulnerability. In a men's group we have a place where we can feel safe and express our authentic selves. That can be incredibly empowering.

Bert: We like to feel safety in the relationship. But if safety in the relationship is the only safety I have, and a sense of betrayal comes up in a relationship, I can no longer feel safe in sharing in that relationship. So I'd darn well better have some other environment where I can feel safe to share my vulnerability about the betrayal.

John: Exactly. Absolutely. That's so crucial. Otherwise we get totally dependent on that person. If they become our whole life, and they leave us or die, we're totally lost.

Bert: There's a delicate balancing act involved, because that brings up issues around jealousy. If I am being safe in another environment outside the relationship, that could be perceived as taking my intimacy elsewhere.

John: Taken as a rejection. Avoiding this takes tremendous trust and understanding. We need to understand that we and our partners need other intimacies in our lives. We need to trust that they will do that in a responsible manner, that's not going to threaten our connection but will, in fact, enrich it.

But there are no total guarantees, either. We need to accept that when somebody goes out, there's always the risk that they might actually meet somebody they feel really in love with.

There's always some risk, but the alternative is much worse. The risk is greater if we don't give our partner the freedom to create other connections out there. There's the risk of stifling each other, of becoming so dependent on each other that you destroy each other. We need to break out of that dependency. It becomes very limiting.

Bert: But ultimately, the person I need to feel the safest with, and express my own vulnerabilities with, and look to for the nurturing and understanding, is myself, in my own individuation process.

John: Yes, exactly. If I have that loving, nurturing connection with ourselves, then it's easier to give our partner that freedom.. Love and freedom go together really closely. If we trust we have the connection with ourself, with life, with God, then we have an anchor in the relationship and it becomes easier to give slack to our partners. And the more fulfilled we feel, the more live we have to give our partner. What real love is, is wanting our partner to grow. Being really committed to the soul growth of our partner. It takes a lot of giving, of getting beyond our narcissism to do that. Maybe that's what all this healing from betrayal is all about, learning how to love more fully, more richly, more deeply, in spite of the risks. More intelligently, more wisely. As we become more multi-diimensiional, more mature, we can walk the tightrope with a little more finesse, more balance, more perspective.

More interviews

Men, Spirit, Soul and Shadow

Audio Cassette Tapes with Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade, John Lee, Malidoma Somé,Marion Hillman, Clarissa Ponkola Estés and many others

Books by these people available on-line


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