When trust is broken

Fran Molloy
28 August 2018
Faculty of Human Sciences


The acrimony between former PM Malcolm Turnbull and senior Liberal figures is a classic example of how relationships rarely survive betrayal, whether they're personal, in business or political.
Years of tension festering behind the scenes in the Liberal Party resulted in last week’s acrimonious leadership spill which replaced a sitting Prime Minister.

Psychologist Professor Julie Fitness says the split between former PM Malcolm Turnbull, wannabe Peter Dutton and other senior Liberal figures is a classic example of how difficult it can be to negotiate any relationship break up with dignity - particularly when there has been a history of perceived betrayal and the need for revenge.

Beyond the political repercussions, however, Fitness says that there are some lessons from this very public break up which may be useful in understanding relationship ‘spills’ in everyday life.

The undermining of Malcolm Turnbull by Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott and other senior political figures is an extreme example of a relationship break-up.

Trust is a major rule of relationships whether they be political, romantic or in business, says psychologist Julie Fitness.

Expecting loyalty: Trust is a major rule of relationships whether they be political, romantic or in business, says psychologist Julie Fitness.

The simmering tensions between Turnbull and Abbott were always in evidence.

In contrast, though Turnbull and Dutton were never close buddies, the pair had a working relationship, albeit a somewhat uncomfortable one, with Dutton’s tweet that “The Prime Minister has my support,”coming on August 18 –  just days before the leadership spill.

And while the split between the Australian Prime Minister and high-ranking members of his political party makes for good TV  – it’s also an interesting and very public demonstration of the way that relationship break-ups can play out.

Account-making is a key break-up stage

“Typically there are stages involved in relationship break-ups,” says Professor Julie Fitness, a psychology academic at Macquarie.

“There’s usually a stage where you need to announce to the world that your relationship is over, and at that stage you engage in what psychologists call ‘account making’ – where you present your account of the relationship breakup.”

Most people don’t want to present a very negative image of themselves publicly, she adds.

“In an acrimonious breakdown, accounts typically are full of such messages as how badly the other person behaved and what a terrible person they were and how badly or unfairly you were treated, and you essentially attribute all the bad things and all the causes of the break up to the other person,” she says.

“Whereas in a more civil or mutual break up, the account-making will be more charitable.

In a romantic break-up, explanations might be – ‘we weren’t really right for each other,’ or ‘we came together at the wrong time,’ or cover various external pressures that existed,” she says. “There’s far less blame-shifting involved!”

However it is done, though, a public account-making is almost an essential part of the break-up because your peer group (in the case of a personal relationship) or the public (in the case of a business or political relationship) will want to hear what happened and will make a judgement on the basis of that account, Fitness says.

"But that public account won't have much credibility if it comes from someone who has a history of blatant self-interest and dishonesty."

Break-up triggers

Break-ups are often triggered by a crisis event – such as infidelity, in the case of a romantic relationship, or a perception of disloyalty in platonic relationships.

Break ups are often triggered in platonic relationships by a perception of disloyalty, says Fitness.

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“One of the major rules in relationships is around trust,” she says. “Treason is considered in many societies as one of the worst crimes, because you’ve betrayed or sold out people that you are meant to be looking after.”

In a relationship, whether romantic or business or family, there are expectations of loyalty, and if one partner perceives that these rules have been broken, if their trust was misplaced or they have been deceived, that can prompt feelings of hurt and anger - and cause the wronged person to feel they need to fight back.

“Crisis events that trigger a break-up often involve a very acrimonious kind of process,” Fitness says.

But break-ups can also involve a slow separation and stages of ambivalence, she says – circumstances that tend to be less fraught.

“They may involve what psychologists call an ‘intra-psychic phase’ - where you may be ruminating about the gap between this relationship and your ideal, or how this perhaps falls short of the expectations you have about your partner or how your relationship should be,” she says.

This process of measuring up your partner and your relationship internally leads, at some point, from an inner rumination into a more public one, she says, when a person ‘tests out’ their unhappiness within the relationship by confiding in close friends before taking the final step of announcing the separation to their partner and the world.

Negotiating the end

Relationships end in many different ways, Fitness says, whether informally – by a gradual drift away or a physical move in location, or formally by a partnership split, business closure or divorce.

“Many people manage to find a compromise, they negotiate a break up or a parting of ways, and providing everything's out on the table and you're giving respect to each another, it can go relatively smoothly.”

It’s no surprise that this is unlikely to be the case with Malcolm Turnbull, who has flagged his intention to leave Parliament straight away and was scathing about the ‘wreckers’ in his own party.

“Forgiveness isn't even on the agenda in this situation,” she says.


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