How hurt and betrayal can be a path to mutual growth and discovery.
Is it possible that an affair could be the best thing that has ever happened to your marriage? What are the possibilities and requirements for turning a devastating crisis into an opportunity? I had long held the belief that an affair would mark the end of my marriage, until my husband had one. Once the secret was out, I saw it as an opportunity to right the wrongs, learn, grow, re-commit, and re-create a new marriage that was better for both of us.
Rethinking infidelity … a talk for anyone who has ever loved by Esther Perel is 20 minutes of new information about affairs in the digital age of romanticized marriages. I think this talk should be mandated viewing for all couples, long before a crisis hits. In fact, adultery is such a pervasive human problem universally, this talk should be obligatory viewing for any person of adult age entering a relationship with another human being. Affairs are not about sex anymore than rape is about sex; affairs are about desire. And our desires do not end when we exchange vows with another.
Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal because it shatters not only the grand illusion of love and forever, but your sense of self; anyone who has been betrayed will tell you that. As marriage has evolved from a financial arrangement of who gets the cows when the husband dies, to the current romantic ideal of believing you have found “the one,” to betray your spouse with an affair is to now destroy their identity as someones “one.” Infidelity tells your spouse they are no longer chosen, unique, or indispensable. Infidelity is a sure-fire method to trigger an identity crisis in your spouse. I know it did for me. Infidelity hurts differently these days because marriage has become a solely emotional arrangement built around choice, love, trust, and partnership, to name just a few ideals. So why would any of us risk losing everything, and destroying what we have built, for a taste of the forbidden?
An affair can be an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair is a longing or yearning for something. Recent losses, death and mortality often live in the shadows of an affair. The adulterer might have been triggered by an event to ask themselves, is this it, is there more to life, is this as good as I will ever feel? Esther believes some affairs are an antidote to death and a bid to bring vitality back. This is the first I have concretely read or heard of the link between death or loss and an affair, but it is not shocking to me at all to hear that. The 20/20 hindsight I can now use on my marriage has a significant loss that impacted my ex deeply near the beginning of the timeframe of his last affair, the one that ended the marriage. If he and I had both known that his grief was a risk factor to infidelity, could we have changed the course of the next year?
According to Esther, the sad and sorry joke is on my ex, because affairs can happen in open relationships too. His decision he is polyamorous, and would only participate in an open marriage so he could continue his relationship with his married polyamorous lover, will not protect him from suffering a betrayal in the future. Infidelity and monogamy are not the same conversation, which I think many of us believe them to be. Esther believes humans have always been lured by the power of the forbidden, and always will be. So if you aren’t required to be monogamous, how could you cheat?
Infidelity, no matter if it is a hook-up, paid sex, mutual masturbation in a chat room or a long-term love-affair, requires three ingredients to meet Esther’s criteria of an affair: a secretive relationship, an emotional connection, and a sexual alchemy. In her talk, Esther focuses on the alchemy part of that triangle because of the power of our imaginations and how desire works. I believe it is secrecy that is the true issue though. If your partner is open with you about their inclination or attraction to another person right from the beginning, there is an opportunity for conversation and exploration within the marriage that might quell the crossing of the line that begins the affair.
In her talk, Esther challenges the current belief that if your partner has brought a third person into your marriage, either the marriage was unhappy, or there is something wrong with the adulterer. Instead, Esther believes it is not so much that the adulterer is turning away from their partner by looking for another person, but that they are turning away from themselves. Two years out from my husband’s affair I have come to believe that truth. Our marriage was flawed, I am flawed, and my ex-husband is flawed, but none of those three reasons were why my ex cheated on me. I believe he was seeking and searching for something that was missing within him, and he failed to talk to me about that. He failed to turn towards me, or to turn inwards, but instead looked outwards to another to fill the pit of emptiness within him.
Can we heal from an affair, within the very marriage the affair has destroyed? In other words, can the one who hurt you also be the one to heal you? That idea goes against current rhetoric but I believe that might be the most powerful form of healing available beyond what you do for yourself. Esther claims some relationships can be healed to the point of not just surviving, but thriving. She believes good can come from an affair, in much the same way having a life-threatening disease can give you a new perspective. The fear of loss can rekindle desire in a marriage.
The perpetrator must take responsibility for the affair, no secret there. The adulterer now needs to become the keeper of the boundaries and hold vigil for the relationship in order for healing to begin. Esther goes so far as to say it is the adulterer who must bring up the affair in conversation so the betrayed does not have to.
The adulterer not only needs to end the affair, but also express guilt and remorse for the affair. Take note, there is a huge difference between the adulterer expressing remorse for hurting their spouse, and actually regretting the affair. My ex told me in the early days he completely regretted the pain he had caused me, but he did not regret the affair. I can only tell you from my experience that hearing that statement coming out of my his mouth was akin to watching vultures circling on the dying corpse of our marriage.
The deceived partner now gets to shed the status quo as well, and they can ask for more. Once the affair is exposed, the hurt partner can say, “This wasn’t working for me either,” and open and honest conversations can begin. At the same time, the hurt partner needs to mine for the meaning and the motives behind the affair, but not the sordid details. The hurt party must curb their curiosity because all those questions accomplish is keeping a person in pain. It is also the hurt parties responsibility to take on challenges that increase self-worth while surrounding themselves with love and support.
An affair is hurt and betrayal on one side, and growth and self-discovery on the other. Those are the two perspectives of the adulterer and the deceived: “what it did to you, what it meant to me”. That can also be your trajectory though as you work through your anguish and questions. You begin in a place of hurt once the betrayal is discovered or disclosed, and then you have an opportunity to move into growth and self-discovery as you heal the trauma.
Once infidelity is disclosed, your marriage as you knew it is over. Accept that. You might even embrace that reality. You will be rebuilding a new life after an affair; the question becomes, will you be doing it together as a couple, or on your own?
With all compassion for you if you are suffering, I wish you the best whichever path you take; may you not walk alone. Just remember, it will take both of you fighting for the relationship. A must read for both the betrayed and the betrayer is After The Affair by Janis A. Spring.
I also recommend the book The ZimZum of Love by Rob and Kristen Bell.
Photo:Flick/Ian D. Keating