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It's a Question of Loyalty

by on February 10, 2014 7:00 AM

I had one of those pit of the stomach reactions last week.

I came to realize that a person who I thought was one of those inner circle, accept everything about you, loyal to the core people that we have in our lives, is actually not.

Sigh. I wish that people could be more like the Labrador retrievers who are sitting at my feet as I type this. Accepting and unconditional in their love. Tolerant of the inconsistencies that make us human. Happy to be a part of the pack. Loyal.

But what does it mean to be loyal? Is it keeping that secret that a friend shares with you? Is it staying in the relationship when the other person is going through a bad time or making changes? Is it being a champion in a friend's absence and defending him or her when others are not?

Loyalty as an attribute in human relationships is a quite a bit more complicated than in our relationships with our four legged friends.

In much of the research on loyalty, scientists looked at longevity. In other words, how long a person stays in a marriage, buys the same brand, remains in the same job or follows the same sports team have all been examined as a concept of loyalty. The research indicates that people who remain committed to or "loyal" to external groups such as employers or sports teams demonstrate better health, better job performance and greater levels of life satisfaction than those who jump from job or team or partner.

But how do definitions of loyalty that include pulling out the Penn State tee-shirt on game day even after you've moved to Columbus, Ohio and everyone around you is wearing red, differ from the loyalty that is an expected part of a relationship with a friend? How does loyalty -- defined as staying at the same job or repeatedly choosing the same products in the supermarket -- apply to the concept of loyalty from someone you thought was a friend who doesn't champion you in your absence?

The research on loyalty as a relational construct is still in infant stages and has its basis in how we define and evaluate our relationships and therefore assign "heat" to rejection or betrayal.

Think of all the people that are in your social network. Those in the concentric circles immediately around us are more intimate and we often invest more time and emotions and have more frequent contact than those in the circles farther out. Some of the more distant relationships in our social circles are not really all that important to us; the person could come and go and it would have very little impact in our lives.

Rejection or betrayal in those relationships would likely be a blip on the computer screen. We wouldn't expect loyalty from those folks. Similarly, our work relationships almost have their own rating system and while rejection or betrayal in the workplace can have consequences, they aren't really "friends" so it doesn't mean as much to us personally.

We hold our family and close friend relationships closer, so their betrayal or our learning that we can't trust them creates the most psychic pain.

A student broke down in my office last week because her boyfriend of three years had dumped her for someone else and she was falling apart -- missing assignments and falling back on her coursework. It sounds so obvious but if he made the same decision in the early weeks of their relationship, her sense of betrayal and the emotional damage would likely have been minimal. Rejection. Betrayal. Loyalty. We have different expectations for different relationships and at different stages in those relationships.

However, if we match apples with apples in terms of the situation, people within the same situation sometimes respond differently to betrayal or perceived disloyalty. Scientists have attempted to assess individual differences in how people view loyalty within similar situations through the use of "loyalty scales." Are some people more loyal than others? Can how one views or values loyalty be measured like other personality traits? Is it gender? Is it age? The answer to all of those is maybe.

Preliminary results show that when we pair personality tests and the loyalty scales, people who are more socially focused, conscientious, altruistic, warm and who have positive emotionality -- and who also demonstrate greater levels of possessiveness and jealousy in relationships -- value loyalty as a relational construct more than their peers who are aloof or more self-focused. In other words, just like some people have short tempers or a quick wit, there may be evidence that some people score higher on the loyalty scale. Situations like a shared stressor can impact our loyalty (i.e. the military or all of us after 9-11). Because of the way we are socially wired, it is said that women often place a higher value on relationship and friendship loyalty.

When I was a senior in high school, a friend who was mad at me decided I was off the invitation list to a party for which she and her boyfriend had rented a fraternity and invited everyone in the senior class. We weren't that close, so her "betrayal" didn't really bother me although it was admittedly awkward to be the only one excluded. The best part of this story is that a classmate who I had just started dating made the decision to not only not go to the party but asked me to go to a movie with him instead. That classmate and I will celebrate 27 years of marriage this June.

Loyalty is high on my list of priorities.

My personality, my family history, and my core value system mean I put a pretty high price tag on loyalty. Not unlike those Labradors who are still at my feet, I have a tendency to stick by the people I care about. I get disappointed when coaches leave to go to the NFL or friends I've known for 20 years say mean things about me and it gets back to me.

Unlike my four-legged companions who, if they get yelled at, ignored or when I forget to feed them, keep coming back for more, humans can and should be a bit more cautious. When someone I care about violates my trust or seems to betray our relationship, I have a hard time wagging my tail and saying "That's okay."

I'm learning that as I get older, being able to really count on someone is extremely rare and therefore should be treasured when you find it.

A friend on Facebook posted one of those inspirational posters that sums it up pretty well. It said "The mark of a true friend is one who respects you, is loyal to you and has your back at all times -- especially when you aren't anywhere near them."

For me, the focus is loyalty.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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