Can There Be a Silver Lining Around
The Cloud Caused By An Infidelity?
Section I: The Hurt & Pain Of Infidelity
By Reuben E. Gross, PhD, ABP, ABPP, LMFT
Please note: In this article, I use the terms "marriage, spouse, relationships, and partner." All of my points are equally applicable to any couple in an exclusive relationship. Similarly, "infidelity and cheating" are used interchangeably.
There are so many challenges, varying in the extent of their difficulty, that a couple faces during the course of their marriage. Sometimes, the couple can manage the problems by themselves, but at other times, the problems are too great for them to solve without professional help. One of these great challenges to a couple is the problem of infidelity. Sadly, this type of transgression is committed by both men and women and various studies point to a rather high frequency. One study claims that as much as 50 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women will cheat on their spouses at one time or another. However, not all studies agree; some give lower (and some give higher) figures. Note, of course, that it is hard to get accurate statistics on this subject, for obvious reasons, so let's take what we hear with a grain of salt; but that doesn't mean that the problem should be ignored.
I am writing this article because I would like to share some of my experiences and thoughts on this heartbreaking, all-too-pervasive and sensitive subject, and to discuss the question posed in the title of this article. From time to time I will refer to case histories of couples with whom I have worked to illustrate whatever point I am making. In each case, I have changed some details to protect the privacy of the couple.
The Pain and Hurt of Infidelity
It is always sad when one or both members of a couple come to the realization that their hoped-for happiness in marriage has not materialized. But it is particularly heartbreaking when one of the individuals begins to question his or her partner's fidelity. This terrible fear, or realization -with the consequent sense of betrayal, very great pain, and a wide range of many other very negative emotions, can occur with either member of a committed couple. The conviction or suspicion that a person has been betrayed by his/her partner with an act of infidelity will cause great harm to the relationship. It casts a thick cloud over the marriage and will throw the relationship into an unparalleled major crisis… but need not destroy it. In fact, if treated appropriately, and the couple is carefully led through the healing process, there can be a silver lining around this cloud.
Although infidelity occurs with both men and women, since this behavior is more common among men, I shall present my experiences and thoughts on this subject within the context of an unfaithful male partner.
Understandably, not all women react the same way to their husband's infidelity --be it a physical and/or an emotional relationship. There is considerable variation both in the range and intensity of emotional reactions and behaviors on the part of the hurt spouse. Some women report a sense of overwhelming sadness and even depression which affects their ability to eat, sleep, concentrate or focus on their responsibilities, including their job, children, family members and friends, household chores as well as their other routine responsibilities. They also report loss of interest in life, and very little pleasure even when they try to immerse themselves in formerly pleasurable interests and activities. Many feel totally devastated, cry a lot at home, and even on the job. They are in a state of shock, disbelief and bewilderment that this could have happened to them. They become disillusioned about their marriage. Their dream of total love and faithfulness has been shattered.
Wives who formerly thought that they were something special to their husband now fear that they are not. Some wonder whether their husband will eventually choose the other woman. Others feel discouraged about the future of their marriage because they are disgusted with their husband and don't know if they will ever trust him again, These feelings cause them to lose faith in the relationship and they consider separation or divorce. Many women experience disrespect, belittlement, a loss of self esteem and see themselves as considerably less important or valued than they had seen themselves before the infidelity. They wonder in what way they have failed their husband thus leading him to stray. They wonder if they are as precious or desirable as they have thought of themselves until now. Some feel embarrassed before family, friends and neighbors, not knowing which people of this group know about the infidelity, what their thoughts are and their opinion of how the hurt wife is handling the situation, Are they wondering "Why doesn't she just throw him out, why is she putting up with this?"
Together with the feelings described above, there may be enormous feelings of anger, even rage and a desire for revenge. One wife told me that she felt like running over her husband with a car; another said that she felt like pushing him off a cliff. Others have told me that they want to go to their husband's boss and get him fired (especially if his affair was with a coworker, often against company policy). Still others say: I ought to go out and do the same thing and see how he likes it.
Other emotions include a sense of rejection, disrespect, great hurt, powerlessness, and above all a sense of abandonment and betrayal. Frequently, the hurt spouse feels like she's being twirled around by a tornado since her feelings may change from hour to hour and she feels like she's lost control of herself. At one moment she may seek out her husband and feels as close to him as they were when they were first dating but the next moment she is so disgusted that she wants him out of her life. It is perfectly normal for women whose husbands have been unfaithful to be in a heightened state of emotion as they feel twirled around by their emotions. This unpredictability of what she will feel from day to day or even hour to hour, confuses many of these hurt spouses, and adds to the pain of this event.
A Final Decision Should Not Be Made In The Heat Of Anger
The goal of the counselor in marriage counseling is to help people make their own decisions about their lives, after considering many factors and as many options as possible. Hopefully, in the case of infidelity as with any major problem that comes into one's life, the person evaluates the situation at length taking both feelings and rational processes into consideration. The final step in coping is to come to terms with the event, and after considering the outcomes of the various options open to them, deal with the problem in terms of their best long term interests.
One lawyer whose husband had an affair with a coworker said: "If I had the (divorce) papers before me right now, I would sign them!" In response to this woman, I said that it was perfectly normal and self protective to want to detach herself from this man who had hurt her so much. I explained to her that I empathized with her emotion, but at that moment she was in the heat of anger and that she was under the control of the emotional part of her brain. I suggested she put off a final decision until the logical part of her brain is brought into the decision making process. Feelings of rage, betrayal, depression and a host of other painful and often contradictory emotions are perfectly normal.
As an aside: I remember the lawyer mentioned above very clearly. A mere three months later, she and her husband walked out of my office holding hands smiling and happy as they had even been before. In another couple that I saw, the woman, a school teacher, was so devastated that she couldn't stop crying and was virtually falling apart. She did go to work but was barely effective in the classroom, By the time they were finished with counseling the man said to me "In the past, we had nothing to say to each other, could barely keep up a conversation for five minutes; now, we can't stop talking. "Last weekend, we drove to Washington, D.C. and talked the whole way. We are so affectionate in public that our (grown) children are embarrassed and tell us that we are acting like teenagers."
How Could He Have Done This To Me?
When women ask me "How can he have done this to me?" I often say: "He didn't do it to you. He wasn't thinking of you when he did what he did. He blocked you out of his mind. He was thinking about himself and what he was getting out of the affair." The wife then replies: "But isn't that selfish?" And I reply: "Very selfish. If he had thought about you and the devastating consequent ramifications to you, the great harm to the marriage, its possible dissolution, and the negative consequences to himself, he never would have done it. But he was affected by his hormones and under the control of the emotional part of his brain. Casting logic to the winds, he was 100 percent sure that neither you nor anybody else would ever know. And when he did think of you, he fooled himself into believing that you will never find out and "what she doesn't know won't hurt her" (nor did it occur to him how much it would hurt him). There are multiple reasons for affairs. Often, the emotions are so powerful that personal values are cast aside at great cost to self and others.
Would the former Governor Elliot Spitzer have ever scheduled a tryst with a call girl at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC if he had assigned due weight to the severity of his infidelity and the consequences? Did he ever envision the far ranging media blitz about this one night stand and the concurrent disclosure of other activities that embarrassed him and brought about his resignation from his position as Governor of NY State just a few days after the discovery was made? The emotional part of his brain (the limbic system) simply took over and totally excluded the prefrontal cortex, the seat of logic and reasoning.
Did the former Governor John McGreevy ever think through the consequences of his extramarital behavior? Would he have ever risked the shame of having to resign from his exalted position as Governor of NJ if he had thought the matter through?
Another sad saga involved General David Petraeus who served our country honorably as the Chief Commander of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and was later appointed head of the C.I.A. Did this highly respected, worldwide and very knowledgeable gentleman consider the possibility that in this high tech era his crossing a marital boundary would be discovered and bring about such personal pain, and devastation to his wife, himself, family and loss to our country (it brought about his resignation from the C.I.A.)? I'm sure that he did. Unfortunately, his logical brain was pushed aside; it was hijacked by his emotional brain. His behavior was not guided by his thinking which surely said to him, "This is morally wrong and there's no way you can keep this a secret." His behavior was not governed by his thinking, but was governed and blinded by his emotions and ended up devastating so many people, in addition to ruining his own honorable, heroic and patriotic career. One man put it to me very simply: "I was not in control of myself."
Sadly, there are many other highly elected officials who have suffered the same embarrassment, pain, and fate. Surely, all of these highly intelligent and accomplished men, very much in the public eye, would have rejected the temptation when they considered the consequences to their wives and themselves should the matter became public. But they foolishly convinced themselves that those consequences, the great hurt and great damage, would never take place since they wanted to believe that their behavior would remain a secret forever and never hurt anybody. And what happens to those above, happens to those below, and to people in every walk of life, every profession, educational and income level and every ethnic group.
In most cases, both spouses still love each other and both are in a state of shock. Even the errant husband is in a state of shock since he never thought that he would be caught. Hence he is not prepared for the tremendous consequences of his behavior which hit him like a ton of bricks.
The wisest of all men, King Solomon, says in Ecclesiastes that there is no person alive who has not sinned. Some two thousand years ago, the Talmud spoke of personality forces that are essential for the promotion of society, but when uncontrolled bring havoc to the world.
Dr. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, warned against a run-away id (that part of the personality that harbors aggression and sex) when unmonitored by the ego (portion of personality that exerts logic, reason and planning), and the person's superego (conscience). More recently, Albert Ellis, PhD, father of REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) focused on the interplay among the rational, emotional and behavioral aspects of each person while continually noting that we are all fallible.
Please note: Nothing written here should be used to justify marital infidelity. Crossing a marital bound by a husband or a wife is morally wrong, psychologically destructive to the hurt spouse and the violator, breaks a crucial element of a relationship: trust; and creates a massive problem for all concerned.
In many cases, the husband is just as devastated as his wife when he realizes the enormity of his behavior and the horrible pain he has inflicted upon her, his children and others. He may also suffer great shame and he, too, may fear for the future of the marriage. Husbands who love their wives, begin to feel the enormity of the hurt and harm they have done to their wives, and as the healing process progresses, begin to feel their wife's pain, and suffer their own pain due to remorse and guilt about their infidelity. These men are willing to do anything to repair the damage to their wife, regain her love, and restore, as much as possible the confidence and trust that she once had for him.
Other husbands, for a variety of reasons, are less sensitive to the pain they have caused but are well aware of the havoc they have caused. They, too, have no thought of divorce and are also willing to seek out professional help and do what they can to help, but perhaps with less enthusiasm. No two cases are the same.
End of Section 1: The Hurt and Pain of Infidelity
Click here for Section 2 "An Infidelity to a Marriage Is Like an Earthquake to a House"
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