A reader of the August newsletter sent in this question. “I’ve been dating a guy for a little over two years and I think that he has loyalty issues. A few months ago I noticed that he started to share things I have said to him when we are out with other couples. These are things I have shared in private conversations. When he does this I feel embarrassed and hurt but when I tell him that, he says I am too sensitive and I should just laugh it off. It is getting to the point where I don’t feel comfortable sharing as much. Could you please explain what loyalty means?” — Feeling Betrayed in Madison
Betrayed –let me begin with a quote from George Elliot, “Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words but pouring them out just as they are…” The operative word here is “safe”. In order to build and to maintain intimacy within a relationship, each needs to help the other feel safe; both physically and emotionally. When I speak of intimacy I am not just referring to sexual intimacy though that is one of many. I speak about the pouring out of feelings and thoughts about various topics at a deeper level than one would do with a casual friend. Because this opening up of ourselves can leave us feeling vulnerable we need to be certain that this person whom we have shared will value the confidence we have place in him or her and see it as a gift. We need to know that they will not use that information against us in any way.
My definition of loyalty comes from several sources that roughly define loyalty as “protecting and not betraying another person’s dignity, self-respect or reputation by being accountable in thought and deed as not to demean or embarrass your partner in any way in front of others.” The origin of the word loyalty comes through old French from the Latin word, lex, which means to bind or be obliged to as in a pledge of allegiance to. So, based on that definition I would say that your guy has broken the loyalty code when he shared intimate information that left you feeling embarrassed. And the question isn’t “are you too sensitive?” but rather why is he unaware that he is being insensitive to your reaction to being exposed.
President Woodrow Wilson said it well, “Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice.” Loyalty is really about that –self-sacrifice. When we put the welfare of our partner ahead of our own self-serving interest to fit in or to put someone else in a bad light so we look better; we are being loyal. In other words –in the presence of all others we stand united. We support one another because being loyal gives our relationship strength. It is easy to understand this when we think of the loyalty of a dog. They love us, help us and even defend us when needed and all they expect in return is that we love them back. And, they do this even when we fall short of acting in their best interest.
“Don’t air your dirty laundry in public,” This was a way of saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” or what happens in the home should stay there. These statements are urging people to be loyal to one another. When couples are angry at each other and they bring the fight out into public view they are not only making the unfortunate bi-standers uncomfortable, they are also creating a situation that might shut down open and honest communication at home in the future. This doesn’t mean couples shouldn’t have disagreements. It means that in public you support each other and maintain a united front as a couple. Then, when you are out of earshot of others, you address the problem –in private.
All that being said there are times when loyalty is neither healthy nor productive. If your partner is abusing drugs or alcohol, is abusive to you or is having an affair then by all means find someone to talk to who can help you get the strength to confront the problem or even get out of the relationship. It doesn’t matter if this is a good friend, a pastor, a doctor or a therapist. What is important is that you trust them to support you as you take steps to address the problem.
So back to your friend. Begin by speaking to him in private about this problem. Let him again know how you feel ( embarrassed, hurt and betrayed ), what you think about this problem and that you need this to stop if he wants you to continue to intimately share with him. Give him an opportunity to see if he can and is willing to change his behavior. And if he is not, then you may want to consider what a future relationship with more of the same will do to your comfort and sense of safety when going out together –not to mention your self-esteem. You deserve to feel safe.