Regrets – The Fine Line Between Contributing to Marital Problems and Causing a Spouse’s Infidelity
Dear Anne – I am noticing that I am entering a new stage of grief. I am struggling with finding the line between contributing to some of our marital problems, and causing his infidelity. My heart and brain say 2 different things. Can you explain this?
Answer: The more I learn about extramarital affairs, the more amazed I am that society generally fails to see the elephant in the room when it comes to the causes of infidelity. When you discover that your spouse has been unfaithful, most people ask themselves “What did I do wrong?” (The answer is nothing, but we can’t grasp that yet, neither can our friends, neither can our spouse, and often times neither can our therapist.)
The people in our lives help us blame ourselves. I don’t know how many times I was faced with a well-meaning friend asking, “Anne, I wonder what you did to cause Brian’s affair?” Then we ask our unfaithful spouse, “Why did you do this to me?” They are usually ready with a list of grievances of how unhappy they were and can readily tell us what we did to cause their infidelity.
When you go as a couple to see a counselor or therapist (devastated and desperate for support, love, and empathy), you will usually be faced with this statement: “Let’s not talk about the affair. Let’s talk about what was wrong in the marriage to cause the affair?”
The very premise of the question may lead you astray from finding the answer you need. Often nothing was wrong in the marriage to cause the affair. Why do we not get it that even in happy marriages, especially long-term relationships, it can feel enticing when a 3rd party starts paying attention to us. Most unfaithful spouses are unaware of what’s happening at first. The beginnings are often very subtle.
Of course since there are no perfect marriages and no perfect people, when we go looking for the “problem in the marriage,” or the problem with the faithful spouse, we can always find something on which to blame the affair.
One woman came to my BAN group after 30 years of marriage. She was a mess. Her husband had an affair every 5 years in their marriage, and every time he had an affair, they went for therapy and discovered what SHE did wrong to cause the infidelity.
The first time it turned out it was because she didn’t keep the house clean enough and this really bothered her husband. So she became a better house cleaner, and they moved on believing they were healed. Ten years into the marriage it turned out she was a poor listener. So she became a really good listener, and that therapist affirmed them both that all was well. 15 years into the marriage it turned out she wasn’t having enough recreational companionship with her husband. So she began to play golf with him and they were supposedly healed. 20 years into the marriage it turned out that she was not adventurous enough in the bedroom, so she became a sex goddess, acquired an extensive lingerie collection, and got experimental. Why are we missing the elephant in the room here? HE is the problem. He is the one who is engaging in the unacceptable behavior. HE is the one who keeps breaking his promises.
By the time the affair was discovered 30 years into the marriage, the wife was losing her mind (testament to her high level of sanity that she made it this far). She admitted herself to the psyche ward at the hospital. When she finally realized that SHE was not the problem, she was able to heal. Had the real core issues been addressed from the beginning, this marriage may have been saved.
I DON’T LOVE YOU – I LOVE YOU BUT I’M NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU – I’VE NEVER LOVED YOU
One woman’s husband told her that in all the 35 years they had been married, he had never once loved her, not even when he asked her to marry her. Really? If this were true one could only conclude he was a total idiot.
Why would you choose to marry someone, and choose to stay married to him or her for 35 years when you never once loved him or her? After all, it was not as if she’d taken a gun to his head, right down the aisle to the altar and said: Say “I do” or I’ll shoot! He CHOSE to marry her and he is responsible for his decision.
I hear this line from most unfaithful spouses we work with: “I never loved my spouse.” It simply isn’t true. Unfaithful spouses convince themselves of this to give them permission to have affair/s, because otherwise, they would think of themselves as a “bad” person. “If I love my spouse and I have an affair anyway, then I must be a bad person,” they reason. In addition, their thinking gets distorted. They rewrite their marital history in their minds. Bad memories become bigger, and the good memories, the loving feelings, they once had are forgotten.
The elephant in the room which society is missing completely is that just because you have a good marriage, does not mean you cannot be tempted by an affair. To every betrayed spouse: YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE AFFAIR .
To every unfaithful spouse: YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR AFFAIR.
I am often asked when I appear on television talk shows, “Do you accept responsibility for your part in Brian’s affair? I answer, “I didn’t have a part in Brian’s affair, and if I would’ve been given a part I would’ve voted “no, let’s not do it.” When I stand before God to give an account for my life, one question God will not be asking me is “Anne, why did you make Brian have an affair?” I will, however, give an account for ways that I may have failed Brian in the marriage, but these things did not cause the affair.
For every marriage where we discover problems where there has been an affair, I can point to other marriages with worse problems where there has not been an affair. PROBLEMS IN MARRIAGE DO NOT LEAD TO AFFAIRS.
I’m appalled that I must state the obvious, but there are actually healthy ways to deal with problems in marriage! There are many marriages today with problems, and it is true that these marriages are more vulnerable to affairs than marriages that are happy. There are also many other factors that lead to affairs. These are the gaps. These are the things we bring forth by working in person with couples through our Healing From Affairs weekends.
You can also have access to the cognitive part of this teaching and our assessment tool, which will help you determine the root, causes of the affair in your marriage by purchasing our Healing From Affairs DVD program.
There is no time like the present, (working through the devastation of an affair), to look at what could’ve been better in the marriage, but if we label these as the causes, we’re going to be missing significant factors that led to the affair. This thinking is the reason why there are so many repeat offenders. If you don’t find the real root, it’s going to happen again. If you over simplify the answer, you’re going to make some improvements, but be missing the big picture.
Usually when the betrayed spouse asks the unfaithful spouse, “Why did you do this?” And the unfaithful spouse answers, “I don’t know.” They are telling the truth. They don’t know yet. You are going to discover this together.
When we worked through our Healing from Affairs journey, sure I discovered things I did wrong in the marriage. We uncovered many behaviors of mine that had wounded my husband. We also discovered many behaviors in my husband that had damaged and wounded me. We both made changes and that has been wonderful to make and experience those changes. However, … a defining moment for me came when Brian said,
“Anne, I appreciate all the changes you’ve made since we’ve worked through the affair. Our marriage is so much better today, and I really value that. I’ve learned, however, that even if you’d been the perfect spouse before my affair, I still would’ve had the affair, because my affair had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with my shortcomings as a man.”
This is the elephant in the room. If you are the betrayed spouse, and you are less than 6 months from the day of your discovery of the affair (d-day), please don’t push yourself to look at your contribution to problems in the marriage. It’s too painful. Do it when you’re ready. At some point, though, looking at your contribution, ways you may have failed your spouse in the marriage is an essential part of the healing.
It’s so important that we separate marital issues from affair issues. They must remain 2 separate issues if the marriage is to be healed. If they are not kept separate, the betrayed spouse struggles for ongoing years with unhealthy obsessiveness, that goes something like this: Am I pretty enough? Are we having enough recreational companionship? Are we having enough sex? Enough sexual 10’s? Am I being a good enough father? Is the house clean enough?
The list is endless, and living with this list, believing it’s directly connected to the possibility of your spouse having another affair, is like living with a ball and a chain around your leg. You may as well be in prison. No one can live this way. I’m all for spouses working towards meeting each others needs and being conscious and intentional about their marriages. I highly recommend it, but not when we attach, “And if you get it wrong on any given day, I might have an affair.”
No one gets it perfect all the time. I need permission to fail sometimes and know that my spouse will seek a healthy way of dealing with his dissatisfaction. I need to know that my failure to get it right is not going to lead to the pain of betrayal.
I hope this serves to clarify the fine line between taking responsibility for ways we may have failed our spouse vs. taking responsibility for the affair. The faithful persons failures should not be seen as the causes of infidelity.