Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Self-Esteem: Infidelity's Biggest Trigger

Self-esteem and infidelity are like wind and fire. They both feed off each other.

Low self-esteem is often cited as a core issue within the unfaithful spouse in deciding/allowing an affair to take place. Makes sense, since a lot of the draw for affairs is that the affair partner makes the unfaithful spouse feel good about himself in ways either their spouse isn't or can't do.

Likewise the discovery of a spouse's affair leads to self-esteem issues of competency on both sides of the fence. The sinking of self-esteem by an affair often leads a hurt spouse to be embarrassed, as if its presence was a statement on his ability as a marriage partner to keep his spouse "happy." It leads the unfaithful spouse to avoid dealing with the fallout of the affair in a productive manner because being reminded of it is evidence of their failure and being a "bad" person.

Therefore, it is an important topic to explore in relation to healing infidelity, not only for the above reasons, but because so many people don't know the correct way to think about this issue, and so head down paths to deal with it that never fix it, only put a band-aid on it.

First, let's establish what we are talking about when we use the term self-esteem. It refers to the perception of worth an individual believes they have. There are two primary sources we tend to derive this perception: how we believe others perceive us and how competently we believe we have accomplished a given task. The two sources often overlap, as we may believe a person thinks we have done a good job or a bad job.

Often, the diagnosis is we have low self-esteem, and if we developed some high self-esteem, it would fix the problem. However, it doesn't tend to work that way. As long as our perception of our worth is based upon our belief of what others think and our accomplishments or lack thereof, our self-esteem will shoot up only to fall back down. We can always find someone who doesn't like us or thinks we don't know what we are doing. Most of us cover that up by acting like we don't care and/or putting on a "macho" attitude. But inside we are wilting.

The real solution to this problem isn't to work to make yourself feel better, but to base your self-esteem, your self-worth in reality, not on what others think or how well you can do something. It goes back to forming a foundation of your own belief in your worth as a person divorced from our perceptions.

The reality is most fameously enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...

The fact is no one person is inherently worth more or less than another. It is the belief that some are worth more than others that accounts for many of the ills in our society, past and present. It used to be a popular belief that the color of one's skin made a person worth less. Used to be women didn't have the right to vote; their voice was not worth as much as a man's. Still is if a woman doesn't have a particular set of dimensions to her body, she is not worth as much. Still if a man is not perceived to be manly enough, he is looked down on in some circles. Still is that certain sins are seen as making one less of a person.

Therefore, the goal of healthy self-esteem is not merely avoiding a low one, nor to raise one's self-esteem, but to get the self out of esteem.

That is realize and believe that our esteem is based on being a member of the human race and not on what we believe others think of us or what we succeed or fail at. It is not founded on the good or bad choices we make in life. In short, the route to healthy self-esteem is to take your focus off of "me" and put it on "us." When you are no longer the center of your worth as a person, your worth will be based upon the whole group of which no one is worth more or less than another.

You'll notice I said your self-esteem is based in this reality. It isn't that the other things won't affect one's self-esteem, but they won't serve as the foundation for it. Your worth as a person won't change with each failure or when the boss chews you out. No one likes those things and they make us feel bad, but it is a mistake to treat them as forming our worth as a person.

It is when those things form the foundation of our self-esteem that we can feel good about ourselves one day and bad the next. It creates the vulnerabilities to be swayed by someone treating you special, or want to run when not everything is sunshine and roses. It allows your self-esteem to go into the pits when your spouse has an affair because your first thought is, "What did I do wrong?" Especially if blame shifting goes into high gear. 

For those in Christianity, there is an added reality. Not only did God create us all as inherently worth the same, but the message that He came and died to redeem us says a lot about what we are worth to God. The core of the gospel message is that God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son to redeem us from death. For the Christian, that is the basis for our esteem.

I honestly think this mindset is the reason my self-esteem, while it did take a hit due to my wife's affair, wasn't severely wounded. Rather, I focused on the fact that my wife was in danger and how could I help her. Not on myself. Not on how this would look to others. I evaluated my failures as a husband without feeling less of a man or person, or accepting the blame for my wife's bad choice to cheat on me. Those things don't define my worth, as bad as they are.

The road to a healthy self-esteem is to take the self out of the esteem equation. How to do that? Next time we will look at an approach that at first may sound counter-intuitive: humility. "The Path to Self-Esteem." Trust me, it isn't what you think.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Forgiving Yourself

In our book, Healing Infidelity, I have a chapter in the hurt spouse section on forgiveness in the healing process. You can also read the article on the web. It is a tough subject. More than once I've heard a hurt spouse say, "I'll never forgive him." Granted, that may come from the anger of the moment and their attitude can change, but sad because forgiveness is part of one's personal healing in this pain. A necessary part for full healing.

But I wanted to focus on something I touched on toward the end of that article that was more directed to the unfaithful spouses: self-forgiveness.

For about three months after discovery day (the day I found out about the affair), my wife lived in an emotionally stoic state. I even commented once that she hadn't exhibited any sorrow, remorse, or sadness. In words, yes. But not with her emotions. She resided in an emotional state of shock. Probably because neither of us knew if we'd make it or not, even though we were both committed to rebuilding, and she took a few weeks before she fully came out of the affair fog.

However, about three months out, it hit her big time. The walls of compartmentalization came crashing down and guilt ran roughshod over her. She cried everyday while cleaning houses. This went on for the next six months. I became worried she might drown in it. I tried to reassure her that I'd forgiven her, and God had forgiven her, but she said she had trouble forgiving herself. So she kept punishing herself. She felt like she couldn't just "let herself off the hook" for the horrible thing she'd done to me.

Yes, what she had done to me was horrible. She owed me a debt, so to speak. I forgave that debt both for my own sanity and because I didn't want to hinder her from healing and rebuilding our marriage. What happened was done and could not be changed. As long as we were building toward a secure future, I didn't want to add my own "punishment" onto the difficult consequences she would be facing.

But once the magnitude of the damage she'd done to me, herself, our marriage, and our family hit home, she struggled with self-forgiveness. What is self-forgiveness and how does one accomplish that?

First, let's remind ourselves what forgiveness is. Webster defines it: "To pardon; to remit, as an offense or debt; to overlook an offense, and treat the offender as not guilty." Note, assumed here are two parties: the offended and the offender. Also assumed is that the offender has committed a real wrong to the offended. Both elements are needed for forgiveness to be needed and effective. As noted in my article, forgiveness is the treating of the offender as not guilty by the offended.

However, it doesn't negate the real consequences of the wrong. Those must still be addressed and healed. Forgiveness doesn't mean the hurt spouse won't be forced to deal with triggers, go through depression, grieve his losses. That is part of the hurt spouse's healing process and isn't necessarily his attempt to throw what you did in your face. He's been through a trauma, expect healing to take years, not weeks or days.

How does this apply to self-forgiveness? For starters, in most cases, what someone means by those words is not what they think it means. Literally, it takes two people for forgiveness to be a real remedy. To speak of self-forgiveness, literally, is like owing yourself money, and not able to pay yourself off. Does that make sense? If you owe yourself a debt, where's the need to pay yourself back? There is none. It is when you owe someone else a debt that you have need to pay it back.

What the unfaithful spouse is really experiencing is not being able to receive offered forgiveness, and incorporate that as a reality into his life. Instead, having pronounced himself as guilty, he punishes himself in behalf of the hurt spouse because he feels he deserves it. Because he hasn't accepted his spouse's forgiveness.

There are three basic reasons an unfaithful spouse may do this.

1) Like the hurt spouse, the unfaithful spouse must go through the stages of grief. They have experienced a loss as well. Maybe of their own making, but a real loss once guilt hits. They recognize they have destroyed something precious that they can't get back. So they will experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. It may not be until the unfaithful spouse reaches acceptance that he is emotionally in a position to accept forgiveness for his guilt and stop punishing himself.

2) The hurt spouse has not offered forgiveness. Often because the hurt spouse is not finished healing and still going through the stages of grief. If a hurt spouse has not forgiven the unfaithful spouse, there is no forgiveness to receive. It is necessary for that to happen at some point for a successful rebuilding, but some hurt spouses get stuck in the grieving process and never reach acceptance and the ability to forgive.

3) The hurt spouse doesn't know there is anything to forgive. If he has not discovered the affair(s) on his own, or you have not told him, he cannot offer forgiveness when he is not aware of the wrongs committed against him. On top of that, an unfaithful spouse in that situation adds to the guilt by keeping such a critical secret and potential long-term deception. Until he knows, there is no opportunity for him to offer forgiveness that only he, as the offended, can offer.

Is there any sense where true self-forgiveness happens? Can't a person offend themselves? Yes, they can. My wife, in the midst of her affairs, referred to her "good girl" and "bad girl" personalities. In part, she experienced anger at herself (bad girl), for hurting me, herself (good girl), her marriage, and family. One could say that she was punishing herself for what she did.

However, the basis of her self-punishment and anger still resided in the fact she had hurt others. If her actions had only hurt herself, it is doubtful she'd experience much guilt over that or feel a need to punish herself. It is only because her actions hurt others that she experienced any guilt and "unforgiveness" toward herself. So the healing of that guilt and self-punishing still resides in getting and receiving the forgiveness of the ones she hurt.

To recap, one finds "self-forgiveness" by owning up to the wrong, confessing the wrong, receiving and accepting forgiveness for the wrong, and thereby discontinue any self-punishment which is a sign one hasn't accepted any offered forgiveness.

So what does one do if the hurt spouse refuses to forgive or cannot be told? The unfaithful spouse must work through the stages of grief to acceptance. That won't totally deal with the guilt, but can bring you to a point of learning to live with it.

One other avenue in dealing with the guilt is a spiritual consideration. Those of faith usually have an avenue of seeking forgiveness from God. While that won't be forgiveness from the offended one, it can help relieve and deal with the burden.

The last remedy can also greatly aid in accepting forgiveness. My wife finally felt release from guilt and acceptance of my forgiveness when our priest gave her absolution. The concreteness of hearing those words made real to her the forgiveness already offered by me and God.

Do you have other ways to deal with the guilt caused by having an affair? May you find forgiveness in dealing with your guilt, whatever that might be.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Should I Tell, Reloaded

In our book, Healing Infidelity, I included a chapter directed to the unfaithful spouses who have cheated but haven't told their spouse about it. Usually don't plan to. Usually these are spouses who have ended their affair or in the process of doing so, though sometimes a guilt-ridden unfaithful spouse in it up to their necks can struggle with this question as well. Naturally, to read that chapter, I'd suggest buying the book. But if that isn't practical, you can read the article on the web.

In that chapter, I looked at whether to tell or not from the perspective of healing. In short, as long as this secret remains hidden, it will act as an untreated cancer. It is only when it comes into the open that it can be effectively dealt with and the relationship fully healed by applying the needed medicines.

To that end, I gave a couple examples of when an unfaithful spouse might have valid reasons not to tell. One, with an abuser. Telling would give the abuser more emotional control over you, and the more pressing problem is getting out of that relationship, not healing this one breech, as wrong as it may be. IOW, there are bigger fish to fry.

The second generated a little more disagreement among my fellow hurt spouses. I suggested another time one might not tell is if the marriage is essentially over, divorce has happened, in process, or is a foregone conclusion. From a "I want to heal our marriage" perspective, telling at that point would be pointless. Telling is certainly not going to heal the marriage, only accelerate the breakup.

But my hurt spouse friends disagreed, saying that even in that situation, they would want to know the truth and telling would confirm to them they weren't crazy in suspecting something was off. It would bring a sense of closure to the separation as well. I can see that aspect. That, however, is not going to be a compelling argument to an unfaithful spouse to out himself. Is it the right thing to do? Yes. The other spouse has a right to know what was done to them, just as an employer has the right to know a former employee embezzled money from the company.

That said, for some hurt spouses, they wouldn't care to know. You get some of those when they are married and regretted finding out. These are certainly in the minority among hurt spouses. Most hurt spouses, overwhelmingly, are glad they discovered the truth, despite the hurt and the trauma. But I'm sure that number would go up significantly if it was about a former spouse. A relationship that is over and done with. Why waste emotional energy on discovering a former spouse was cheating? Personally, I don't think I would care to know at that point because I can see no practical benefit to me knowing. So I feel there would be a lot more hurt spouses who would rather not know if there was no chance to fix the marriage.

For me, at least, the decision on whether to tell or not centered around healing of the relationship. If telling only added another nail into the coffin, then why drag the hurt spouse through more pain and potential trauma? But if not addressed, the hidden secret can eat away at a marriage that is otherwise not teetering on the rocks of divorce. Better to get it out in the open and work together to renew the relationship as a team.

But I'm adjusting this a little. There is a reason an unfaithful spouse would want to tell in that instance. It still centers around healing. Not the relationship, if that is gone, but one's self.

One unfaithful spouse posted one time that she was having a problem dealing with her guilt. She had ended her affair, but hadn't told her husband. She was asking for ways to deal with her guilty feelings short of telling him, which she had vowed she would never do. I spent an hour writing a response to her, only to have the Internet chew it up and spit it in the garbage, never to be seen again. But here was the gist of my message, which would apply equally to a divorced or headed that way marriage, or simply troubled but no one thinking they wanted out.

After suggesting some things she could do, I boiled it down to a simple fact. To deal with the guilt effectively required forgiveness from the one you offended. Until you received his forgiveness, guilt would tend to hang around, and healing of yourself from what you've done would not only be near impossible, but would be dragged into any future relationships. Not telling prevents any of that from happening. It is hard enough for unfaithful spouses to "forgive themselves" when their spouse knows and has forgiven them. It is near impossible when your spouse hasn't a clue about the damage inflicted upon them.

So I'll amend that to say from the unfaithful spouses' perspective, there is reason to tell even if the relationship is in the throes of dissolving. You may not heal that relationship, but it may be the only route to healing yourself and not infecting future relationships with this destructive dynamic.

Telling is a hard and brave thing to do. What are other situations where you think telling would be unproductive?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Blame Game

One of the main reasons I don't recommend the book, After the Affair by Janis A. and Michael Spring is because if fails to accurately and consistently convey the understanding of blameshifting. There are a couple other reasons, but this is one of the main ones. This is not to say the book doesn't have value or isn't worth reading. It presented a couple of concepts I found helpful. A couple of times it accurately makes the distinction, but too often it sounds as if they are casting blame on the hurt spouse for the affair.

First, for those unfamiliar, let's define the term blameshifting. The word can be applied to any situation, but concerning infidelity, it means when the unfaithful spouse attempts to shift the blame for having an affair from himself to the hurt spouse. Usually by pointing out some marital deficiency that "drove" him into the arms of another woman.

This is often encouraged by friends and family when they convey the thought, "Oh! He had an affair? She must not have been keeping him happy." In other words, if she'd done her job as a wife, he wouldn't have felt it necessary to jump into the arms of another woman. Likewise, as the book After the Affair shows, some therapist either believe the same thing, or even if they don't, convey the concept that the fault for the affair falls at least in part on the hurt spouse.

Rather in my book, Healing Infidelity, I show how marital issues might increase a spouse's temptation to have an affair, while not being the cause or justification for having an affair. In the recommended book, Getting Past the Affair by Douglas K. Snyder, they make the same distinction except instead of using temptation, they refer to it as increasing the vulnerability toward having an affair.

This distinction allows investigating what conditions may have led an unfaithful spouse to make the decision to have or allow an affair to happen without suggesting that the hurt spouse is to blame for their spouse's decision. Or to put it another way, the hurt spouse is in part to blame for the condition of the marriage, but not for the unfaithful spouse's decision to have an affair. The latter is the unfaithful spouse's inappropriate response to perceived marital issues. An affair doesn't solve any marital problem. It only complicates it.

The reason a couple will need to investigate these issues is while they are not to blame for the affair, it could be the affair was an inappropriate response to them. In that case, investigating where each partner contributed to marital problems is important in learning how to address them appropriately. Doing so provides another layer for the hurt spouse's security in the relationship that the hurt spouse is less likely to respond inappropriately again, and foster the stronger relationship needed to go through the painful process of rebuilding.

Let me illustrate this dynamic with a different but common scenario. I know a lady, well shaped, who had a practice during the summer of mowing her lawn in her bikini bathing suit. One summer a man started stalking her after seeing her mowing. For a period of time, she was scared that the man would try to rape her. Someone commented to my mom that perhaps she shouldn't have been wearing a bikini while mowing. Her response was along the lines that what she wears isn't to blame for the guy's behavior, and the suggestion that she shouldn't have worn the bikini was tantamount to blaming the lady for the guy's behavior.

This is also what hurt spouses immediately feels when a therapist suggest that addressing marital issues is needed in addressing the affair. But that attitude happens when they fail to distinguish between increasing temptation and the primary cause. Let's return to our illustration to show what I mean.

Most men driving by the lady mowing her lawn in a bikini would glance, maybe stare, as they drive by. It is the kind of thing that will catch a guy's eye. Some may think some lewd thoughts, but rare would be the person who would consider stopping and doing much more. Most men would keep their thought to themselves and not act inappropriately, if they think much about it at all. Only a small percentage of men would make the decision to take action on that temptation to stop and watch, or stalk, or rape. Most men respond to it appropriately, but a small number don't.

So it is the stalker/rapist who is to blame for their own actions. True enough. Seeing a woman in a bikini and being tempted by it is no excuse for a man's inappropriate actions in response to that temptation.

Still, the suggestion that the lady not wear a bikini while mowing is valid. It is not blaming her for the man's actions, but the fact of the matter is she increased the man's temptation. She caught his eye whereas a different outfit wouldn't have. The fact is wearing something less revealing would have reduced the risk of him noticing her and responding inappropriately. She is perfectly within her rights to wear whatever she wants without breaking public nudity laws. But she has to be aware that wearing revealing clothing puts her at a higher risk of being selected by one of these small percentage of men who don't know how to behave. Consequently, suggesting she not mow the lawn in her bikini is a risk-reducing measure she could take if she is worried about it. It doesn't mean she is to blame.

In the same way, the hurt spouse tends to assume he is being blamed when his part in marital problems come under the light of dealing with the affair. Yet, it should not be about who's to blame, but what measures can we reasonably take to reduce the risk of another affair in the future. Reducing the risk provides more security for both hurt and unfaithful spouses.

With that said, there needs to be a balanced perspective. The fact is that even a good marriage where marital problems are at a minimum, where the couple love each other and are committed to each other, can end up succumbing to an affair.

The first reason for this lies in the fact that no one is free of temptation, no matter how well their spouse treats them. Having a happy marriage will reduce the risks, but it won't eliminate them.

Second reason is all marriages, from the best to the worst, have their ups and downs. Likewise the worst of marriages have their bright spots. The risk of temptation is a constantly moving target, no matter how good you think your marriage is. Anyone can find themselves tempted, no matter how bullet-proof they think they are. It is when temptation meets opportunity that trouble begins.

Third, because the primary cause of affairs is not marital issues, but a person's inability to respond constructively to their temptations. Whatever is a temptation for you, it makes you personally vulnerable when opportunity presents itself to participate in that temptation.

At the risk of appearing to make myself a saint, I'll illustrate this with myself. Early in our marriage, my wife had trouble making time for sex with me. At one point, it became so bad I felt as if I repulsed her, and she didn't want to have anything to do with me. As I sat one night lamenting my situation, one of the options I considered was to cheat on her. I even had a girl at work who had confided to me the problems she was having with her boyfriend. I saw in her eyes how she looked at me that it probably wouldn't take much to end up in an affair with her. I had opportunity. I had motivation. I suppose many men in my situation would have gone for it. If my wife sexually rejects me, don't I have the "right" to get it elsewhere?

However, I wasn't highly tempted. Why? Because I was more concerned with how it would effect my wife and kids and my own life to commit that sin. I'm not saying I'm a saint, only that I wasn't wired to be tempted by that. I have my temptations in other areas of my life. The point of attack for any unfaithful spouse is identifying their weaknesses and temptations and developing strategies to deal with them so they can successfully battle them, no matter how bad the marriage gets. Who wants to worry about their spouse cheating every time the relationship isn't on top of the mountain?

It is one of the reasons I'm seriously thinking of a sequel to Healing Infidelity which I would title, Healing Infidelity Through Faith. Because it isn't about the blame game. It is about identifying weaknesses on all fronts and working to reduce the risks of a repeat performance.

How do you process your healing steps without blameshifting?