It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe.
John was beyond angry. His wife Elizabeth had had an affair with her personal trainer for the last 7 months. When they started infidelity counseling, John was wrecked mentally and emotionally. He was incredulous that Elizabeth could’ve betrayed him in such a way.
Their marriage had been in a rough place for years, ever since their first child was born. John and Elizabeth had fought a lot when their daughter Sofia was born, and they had become fiercely competitive with one another over parenting issues, marital issues, and in-law problems. Elizabeth tended to blame John for everything and John reacted with anger and defensiveness. Around and around they went, ending many evenings with Elizabeth sleeping in the guest room and John alone downstairs watching TV late into the evening.
After Elizabeth’s marital infidelity, John felt he deserved some kind of retribution. Elizabeth felt she didn’t deserve the punishment she was receiving. He was, in her eyes, the bigger part of the problem and had been for years. John was tired of being “the problem” and felt he now had grounds to make Elizabeth out to be “the problem.”
Slowly, over time, John grew more and more weary of these going-nowhere fights about who was “really” to blame. He realized there was no end to them. Slowly, over time, he was able to stop himself from starting them. He was able to shift from his focus on what-he-thought-he-deserved to what he believed. And what he began to believe was that he wasn’t going to be able to connect to Elizabeth in the way he really wanted until he first learned to focus on his own reactivity…his own anger…his own responsibilities.
John was beginning to realize that the affair wasn’t as big of an issue as how he had been handling it. How they had been handling all of their marital issues.
Belief #2: How a couple reacts to the affair creates more challenges than the actual affair.
I have asked many couples over the years what was worse for them—the affair itself or the aftermath. Everyone, without exception, has said the aftermath. The lies, the fear, the rage, the urge for revenge. It is only when a person begins to understand that their reactions are serving, in part, to make coping with infidelity less possible, that they can begin to move forward with their lives. This goes for both the betrayed and the betrayer.
Of course, a person cannot rush the emotional process. The rage, the fear, and insecurities cannot be stuffed. But sometimes, a person realizes he can get a hold of it more than he thought he could. Without repressing, a person can learn some self- control. This is most powerfully done when a person has a goal in mind. Something worth fighting for. For John, it was closeness. He loved Elizabeth. He wanted to create something meaningful with her. And besides, he was sick of fighting.
In review, affair recovery is not about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe and what you ultimately stand for (not so much what you stand against) when you have been wronged. Here are the beliefs we’ve covered so far in this series that have turned the tide for real couples I’ve worked with:
Belief #2: How a couple reacts to the affair is usually worse for them than the actual affair.
Stay tuned for the next post on how Brian and Wilma stumbled upon a broader view of marital infidelity and how it made surviving infidelity so much more doable!