Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Should I Leave or Stay?

On discovery day of my wife's affair, I contacted my priest before confronting my wife. His first question was, "Do you want a divorce?"

I'd honestly not thought about it. I knew, for the first time in our marriage, it was a possible outcome, but I had no intentions of jumping to that conclusion until I knew what my wife would do.

Yet this is often one of the first questions a hurt spouse will ask themselves. It can resurface again if rebuilding takes some hard hits. Do I rebuild the marriage or "cut my losses" and move on? Many hurt spouses will bounce back and forth between these options, unsure which way to go. Surprisingly, what I've frequently heard is a hurt spouse will say, before discovering the affair, that if he found that his spouse was cheating, the marriage would be over. But after finding out, his tune changes.

There are actually a lot of variables as to whether one might decide to leave or not, and many of them are subjective. So it is difficult for me to tell you what is best in your situation. What I can do is give you some concepts to think about so you can arrive at your own decision.

First, keep in mind you don't need to be in a hurry to divorce.

Shirley Glass in Not Just Friends recommends waiting at least three months after discovering an affair before making any "life-changing" decisions. Others have suggested waiting six months.

Point being, the weeks right after discovering an affair are so emotionally charged, it will be difficult to evaluate what directions to head. It is usually smart to allow the emotional roller coaster to slow down before trying to hop out of the cart.

The truth is you are free to consider divorce if things don't work out, but you may never know if they will work out or not until you try. Once you start the divorce proceedings, your mind will tend to go into give-up mode, not committed-to-rebuild mode.

An exception to that advice is if you are in an emotionally and/or physically abusive relationship. I would highly recommend separating immediately, and potentially considering divorce unless they submit themselves to intensive therapy and treatment. Contact your local social services office to help you, but do whatever it takes to leave that situation, especially if you have children involved.

Second, I would encourage giving rebuilding a chance.

This may be difficult. At first, your heart may not be in it. It may take you a while to get out of intensive care to move forward in healing. The unfaithful partner may not be cooperative, or either of you may start out sweeping issues under the rug to fester.

Within that first six month period, you'll get a feel whether your spouse and you can invest enough commitment to give rebuilding a chance. Some haven't seen any real growth or movement in the first year, and then things change. It can vary a lot depending on the circumstances and persons. In most cases, an attempt at rebuilding is warranted.

Third, if rebuilding isn't a viable option, start with separation.

Some people won't change until it is evident you are headed out the door. Many unfaithful spouses think you won't leave, that there are not any serious consequences to fooling around other than your displeasure when they are caught. After three to six months of separation without any real change, perhaps you'll have your answer on whether they are ready to invest in honest rebuilding or it is time to divorce.

Fourth, if the unfaithful partner still isn't responsive to real rebuilding, it is healthier to let them loose than to keep them in the marriage.

Sometimes the last resort we have for their awakening and return is to let them go.

Some Christians don't believe in divorce. I was one of them. I still don't think it is the ideal. But Jesus did say that due to the hardness of your hearts, Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be given. He was acknowledging the fact that we live in a fallen world. If one's spouse is hard of heart and won't do the things to heal the marriage, it would be for his best interest to cut him off. Like the father released the prodigal son not because he wanted his son to waste his inheritance on wonton living, but in hopes of his ultimate redemption when he came to his senses, so one might divorce their spouse out of love for them, not hate.

Fifth, some hurt spouses stay because of financial reasons or the children.

On the financial front, there are groups that can help. Check with your local social services office. You can also plan and prepare during your six month wait, in case. Get your financial ducks in a row, lay out your plan, meet with a lawyer to find out what to expect, etc. Then after six months or a year, if you have determined it just isn't going to work and you want out, you'll be ready.

With children, there will rarely be a good time. I would consider the home atmosphere. Are the children picking up that something is wrong? They can be more perceptive than you think. Such stress can be as much, if not more, of a problem for them than separating. If the marriage is miserable, the children will feel that and be insecure in the family. Some may even feel they must be doing something wrong that is causing the difficulty between you and him.

Staying for the children is often not what is best for the children. Especially when you consider what your example is teaching them about marital relationships.

Six, you know your own marriage better than anyone.

If your marriage was hanging on by a thread before learning of the affair, you may feel it is over on discovery day and want nothing more to do with him. Or you may not be ready to give up on your spouse even though everyone is telling you to. Everyone's "I've had enough" line is drawn in different places.

One member of our support group, known affectionately as "L", puts it this way: you'll know when you're done. Until then, keep working on rebuilding. If you have to ask yourself, "Should I leave?" Then you're not there yet.

One caveat to this advice. Some people are in co-dependent relationships and never hear the "I'm done" message. Co-dependency is when you feel responsible for fixing someone, especially if it is perceived they cannot function without your help.

This method of maintaining control, attempting to fix the unfaithful spouse yourself, leaves him free of responsibility. A mother-son relationship is primary, instead of a husband-wife. Such a person will tend to stick with the unfaithful spouse no matter how many times he has affairs and crosses boundaries.

If you find yourself unable to leave a spouse who often shows no progress in healing themselves for months or years, you are in essence enabling their destructive relationship dynamic. For your sake and the sake of the spouse you are hoping to fix, seek counseling to help you let go and move toward a more productive mode of relationships.

Hopefully the above guides will give you some principles to apply to your situation in making this decision. Remember, however, this is your life. Take responsibility for it and do your best not to jump into divorce before you are ready, nor stay in a marriage that will not allow a healthy relationship. Each situation is unique, and no one—not I nor an Internet advice forum/blog—can tell you when you should pull the divorce trigger.

For those who have pulled that trigger, how did you make that decision? For those contemplating it, what is keeping you from pulling that trigger?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Defining Evil

Am I evil?

This question tends to be asked by some unfaithful spouses, either outright or in more subtle ways. This often stems from an attempt to deal with guilt, and perhaps the seeming lack of control the unfaithful spouse experienced.

Punishing one's self can also be an outgrowth of this view. It can be compounded in frequent affairs, creating a vicious cycle of feeling shame for cheating, which lowers one's self-esteem, which causes them to find someone who makes them feel better about themselves, which leads to more cheating.

Then you have, in many cases, hurt spouses fresh from the trauma of discovering the unfaithful spouse's affair confirming that assessment. If a hurt spouse gets into punishing mode, the unfaithful spouse in some cases gets the clear message: "you are the devil."

But is the unfaithful spouse evil? Is even a serial cheater doomed to be labeled such all their life?

There is no getting around it. Betraying your spouse is a damaging action. One could rightly label the act evil. But one could label gossip as evil as well. True, infidelity has more serious consequences than most gossip, but that doesn't negate the fact that both activities can be called evil. As could many other damaging decisions and actions, even when such is due to human error, like a doctor making a mistake on the operating table, or even no human input, like a hurricane.

But you'll notice a key difference. We can freely label activities as evil, and most of us have committed evil acts, but are humans inherently evil for doing evil? Or is there a sickness of humanity that makes some of us evil and destined to evil works continually?

At this point, we could delve into the theological aspects of anthropology as it relates to creation. Humans were not created as evil but became corrupted and thus prone to evil. The question still to be asked, however, is the unfaithful spouse evil for having betrayed the trust and love of their spouse?

It depends upon whether you allow evil to define who you are, or allow who you are to conquer evil. 

This is more than a nifty turn of phrase. When self-esteem is based upon your value as a person instead of what you've done, as we discussed in the two previous articles on the topic, you do not allow the evil actions to define you as evil. Instead, you seek ways to conform your actions to who you know you are as a person, thus overcoming evil instead of giving into it.

But you will be tempted to give into it. Why? Because giving in is easier than fighting. Because giving in justifies that you cannot change, that you have no control, and are a victim of the uncontrolled evil person you are. Because giving in means you'll settle for the familiar patterns of interactions instead of exploring new ways of living. Because if you are just an evil person, you don't have to change. Fighting for improving yourself is viewed as a lost cause.

We've all made bad decisions. I've not paid back some money I've owed on more than one occasion. Does that make me a serial money stealer who is destined to not pay back bills, or someone who has made bad financial decisions but can do better if I address the issues that lead me into that situation?

To accept the former is to say I can't change. To accept the later allows me to take responsibility and do something about it.

Are you evil for betraying your spouse? No. Did you allow yourself to be put into the position to be tempted to commit an evil act and give into it? Yes. That, however, can be overcome and changed.

Are you using the "I'm evil" card as an excuse to continue? Something to think about.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Narrative Reconstruction

In most major wars, a country will go through a period of post-war reconstruction, especially if your country was on the receiving end of the bombs and attacks. Buildings and infrastructure is destroyed. Schools blown up and churches desecrated. To gain a sense of security requires rebuilding what was lost and healing from emotional damage.

A recent article in the New York Times, "Great Betrayals" by Anna Fels, illustrates a very key part of the rebuilding efforts in infidelity: rebuilding the story or narrative upon which the relationship is founded. If you've not read the article, take the time to do so. It is an enlightening point of view.

What is the relationship narrative? It is the combined expectations of the relationship formed through beliefs and experience. That narrative is constantly in flux, but usually changes in either slight variations or in short bursts. A romantic dinner adjusts the continuing story. A new baby creates a major shift. Usually these shifts are organic to the relationship. They meet expectations even if at times they stretch them. We find them fairly easy to integrate into the ongoing story of the marriage and its relationships.

Sometimes, however, the change is so radical and huge that it puts into question what you've always believed and expected from another person. It is akin to reading a novel, and suddenly the hero you've been rooting for turns into the bad guy you hate, and you no longer trust the author and refuse to read anymore of his books because he deceived you.

When infidelity strikes, it is that jarring, but even more so because it is your spouse and not a character in a book you can close and never revisit. Unlike that character in a book, when a person in your relationship narrative changes so drastically from the friend, lover, or partner to an enemy, deceiver, or betrayer, the hurt spouse is faced with the grueling task of reconciling these two opposite character arcs that directly bear on the relationship narrative. Those hurt spouses who are able to integrate those two people into a narrative that provides them security and trust are the ones with the potential to rebuild into a healthy relationship. Those who cannot either end up divorced or living in a marriage they regret and have given up on long ago.

This dynamic of reconstructing the relationship after the traumatic revelation of infidelity leads us to ask the question: how does a couple rebuild that narrative?

Talk about the affair.

One of the ways a hurt spouse will attempt to reconcile these two opposite messages from their unfaithful spouse is to hash through their feelings and the major events of the affair(s) in an effort to make sense of it. They soon learn that they can never make full sense of it because it didn't happen for logical reasons but for emotional ones. Yet, it is still important for the hurt spouse to gain the best understanding of that section of the story in order to integrate them into a new and continuing narrative.

Unfortunately, either through perception or maybe because there is some truth to it, unfaithful spouses often interpret this need to talk about the affair for months on end as the hurt spouse's attempt to punish them or refusal to forgive and let go of the hurt and move on with life. So they tend to run from it. Avoid it. Dodge it. Anything but talk about it non-stop.

The problem is until this happens, the continuing narrative comes to a screeching halt. No continuing narrative, no continuing relationship. Why?

The unfaithful spouse needs to keep some realities in mind. For the unfaithful spouse, while they've no doubt been on a wild ride and have all sorts of difficult emotions to deal with, they've know the full narrative as it happened. They've been in the driver's seat, even if some times it hasn't felt like it. Consequently, the unfaithful spouse has been able to integrate their narrative into their life while they've experienced it

The hurt spouse, however, has been in the dark for weeks, months, or years. In one moment of time, they discover that all they'd thought was true about their narrative for the past period of time is false. They've been deceived about who the unfaithful spouse is based on actions that violate their expectations.

The hurt spouse has to gain the unknown story before they can even attempt to reconcile them into a continuing narrative.

Getting that story takes time. Integrating it takes even longer. In my own example, for instance, my wife lived through seven months of experiences without me. She was able to adjust her narrative as she went through it. But on the day I discovered her affair, in about five seconds of time, I realized my wife was not who she pretended to be for seven months. If it took her seven months to live it, it would at least that that long for me to not only understand what happened, but even longer to rebuild enough trust and security to base a continuing narrative on. Without understanding what happened, I would have been prevented from integrating our lives into a new relationship narrative.

This is why unfaithful spouses need to be open and transparent.

Not merely about email, social network sites, cell phone passwords and the like, but also transparent about your life, your heart, and the affair(s). When the unfaithful spouse says, "I don't want to talk about it," or "You need to get past this," they are saying to the hurt spouse, "I still have something to hide. There are more secrets I don't want you to find out." Whether it is true or not, that is the message conveyed when you refuse or avoid talking about it.

That message prevents the hurt spouse from understanding the secret story, integrating it, and rebuilding a new narrative into the future. The best thing an unfaithful spouse can do is to lay it all out there and be open to discussing it as often as the hurt spouse needs to, even if they ask a question twelve or eighteen months after discovering it. Yes, at first it can feel like 24/7 all affair radio. The fastest way to get through that, however, is to openly talk about it, knowing it isn't to force you to wallow in it, but to get them up to speed where you are already at in the story, so you can both construct the rest of it together.

Some warnings about this process.

Hurt spouses, get the major outline and events, avoid getting into details. You can't un-know or un-see something once you learn it. Such things can be triggers. Knowing positions, seeing pictures, reading text of them acting in love to one another, can all stick with you. You'll never know if the affair partner was really better in bed by asking. You may not want to know the truth either. Keep it general. Get the broad outlines of the story. If you feel a need to get more detailed, be aware of the risk you are taking.

Unfaithful spouses, don't hold anything back. You aren't going to lessen the blow by confessing to only one affair when there are really three, or say it was one month when it was really ten. Any secrets at this point are ticking time bombs, waiting to destroy any progress you make in rebuilding. The hurt spouse will despair if after months of thinking he's getting the full story suddenly learns you've been hiding a significant part of it, requiring trashing the narrative he'd been building and starting over. To be transparent means no more secrets. Deal with it all, once. New revelations will only prolong the need to talk about the affairs non-stop.

To help the hurt spouse be able to continue the relationship narrative, give him time and information to learn the part of the narrative they missed out on, integrate it, and continue it into the future. Failure to do so is deadly to continuing the relationship.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Path to Self-Esteem

As we detailed in my last article, "Self-Esteem: Infidelity's Biggest Trigger," a low self-esteem often plays into the underlying reason that a person falls into infidelity (there is something missing in me that the Affair Partner completes) as well as getting in the way of successfully rebuilding once the affair is in the open (He's rejected me for someone else; I'm a horrible person for doing what I did; motivates blame-shifting and  rug sweeping mindsets). I pointed out how bad self-esteem does not equal low self-esteem, but that good or proper self-esteem removes a focus on self from the esteem equation. If you've not read that article, I encourage you to click the above link and do so.

The route most people suggest to build one's self-esteem revolve around the band-aid treatment of making one's self feel more important, more respected. Often the list includes things like treating yourself to something special, doing something for yourself, demanding more respect from others, adopt some beliefs that make you feel better about yourself, etc. These are band-aid treatments because they treat the symptoms, not the root cause. Doing those things are a temporary fix until the next message you receive from a source that you're a failure, and it all takes a nosedive again.

I suggested last time that the "cure" for an improper self-esteem is humility. Before we dig in to what this is and how to get it, first we need to clarify what it is not. Because when someone brings up humility, they tend to associate it with the following self-esteem destroyers:


True humility is not to become a doormat for people to walk over. The real source of this unhealthy relational model is pride, not humility. It is based on believing if I do the right things to make him happy, he'll like me. Hold onto your questions; I'll explain why in a moment.

Codependent Relationship

True humility does not result in a relationship where fixing the other spouse provides the spouse's esteem. It does quite the opposite, freeing the other person to be responsible for themselves, even while you are cheering them on.

Passive Aggressive Behaviors

True humility will not result in underlying resistance while appearing cooperative and agreeable in order to maintain control and get what you want. Instead, it seeks to truly serve others for the betterment of all, including one's self.

Some will look at a truly humble person and believe they are exhibiting one of the above traits. But the key difference is in the above traits, one is seeking to feel better about their self through some attempt to control the situation or manipulate people. That is always a form of pride, not humility.

Humility, on the other hand, results in not focusing on self. On not seeking to control or manipulate others to feel good about yourself. The goal of humility is to place one's self on an equal plane of worth with everyone else.

The base definition of humility in the ancient Greek is "to lower oneself in relation to another." Likewise, the base definition of pride is "to raise oneself in relation to another." In order to put yourself on equal footing with everyone else, you must view their lives and needs just as important as your own. Any attempt to focus on your own self while using others to make yourself feel good is pride. It is putting your self as of more worth because you are using others to satisfy your desires and wants.

Keep in mind what humility is lowering one's self to. It is not inherent worth. All men and women are equal. It is not respect. It is in a focus of meeting needs and desires. If we are truly equal in worth, then my needs and wants are no more important than anyone else's. So the focus of our efforts cannot be on meeting our needs and wants above others. The moment we do, we put self in a position of worth based on what we do.

How Do We Foster True Humility?

You don't become humble by trying to be humble. The moment you seek it, you end up in pride, because you are doing it to lift self to a higher level than others. "Ah, look how humble I've become!" Then we're back to putting self in the esteem equation.

The key to answering this is control. At the heart of pride is making self important by controlling others or a situation. This is true of the doormat, the passive aggressive victim, or the narcissist. Pride says, "I want to control this for my maximum self interests."

To gain humility, we do the opposite. We give the control to others. I know, I know. This goes against our ideas of proper self-esteem. Seems to open up the door to being treated as a doormat, or abused by an abuser. But not really. Here's the difference.

For a doormat person, they meet any and every need because they hope to be liked and appreciated. Or they do it to control the other person in codependent manner or subvert them through passive aggressive behaviors. For a humble person, they do it purely to meet that person's true need, with no expectation of benefiting from it. Self is out of the picture, so there is no doormat to walk on. If they are unappreciative or don't reciprocate, that is no skin off their back since they didn't do it for that reason.

What loosing control means in practical terms is obedience. We become obedient to one another in love. When you are merely being obedient, you don't have the satisfaction of being prideful.

For example, when I was a teen, I decided on my own to clean out the garage because I wanted to surprise my mother. My motivation was to see her shock and praise me for being so considerate and helpful. It became a source of pride for me to say, "See what I did!"

Now back up. Let's say before my mom left that day she told me, "Rick, would you please clean out the garage for me?" Would I have been nearly motivated to do it? No, because self wasn't going to get kudos for deciding to do it. She might say it was a good job, but she would have expected that. Because I was only doing what was expected of me, I wouldn't have been able to take pride in what I'd done inappropriately, at least easily.

What am I saying? Don't surprise your loved ones with gifts? No. Rather, if you want to remove self from the esteem equation through humility, it is done through obedience to one another.

But we need to make one more point on this to avoid confusion. It is not an obedience to their demands and wants, but to what is in their best interest. To put it in obvious terms, if they say, "Give me a gun, I want to go shoot some kids at a school," you'd be obedient to everyone's best interest by not giving him that gun. A doormat would give him the gun. A humble person with proper self-esteem would not.

So, let's put this in marital terms, which is what our focus is here. What if your spouse is abusive, manipulative, etc.? Do you just obey him?

That will depend, but as pointed out, you are obedient to his best interest. Such types of relationships are not healthy for any involved, including the abuser. Obedience in that instance would be to leave in hopes he'll get a clue and seek help to change his destructive relational patterns. It would be obedient to the best interest of the kids, if any, who might suffer emotionally under such an atmosphere, to leave.

It would also be obedient to your own protection. "But I thought you said self doesn't enter the picture?" As a motivation to control others for your own ego boosting needs, yes. But if you do not protect yourself, there are needs other than your own that will go unmet. If mom is an emotional mess because of an abusive husband, she won't be able to fully meet the needs of her kids as their mother. Taking care of basic needs for yourself is being obedient to the needs of others. If you can't function in a healthy way, you can't help others.

"But what about a spouse who is simply not humble to me? Am I to continue to obey him when he doesn't respect me?" Yes and no. Yes, in the sense his lack of desire to meet your needs doesn't affect your reason to meet his needs. You aren't meeting his needs, if it is from true humility, because you want him to return the favor. So when he doesn't, you don't stop. To do so would indicate it arose from pride and a damaged self-esteem you are trying to shore up.

But, to continue in that type of relationship for long is not good for either of you. It needs to be addressed. It needs to be dealt with an healed. You might need to force the issue at some point by making it clear the situation cannot go on without forcing you to take some extreme measures, like separation. However, letting it go on and on would be an indication of pride rather than humble obedience.

In the end, you are simply being obedient to him/her by doing what is in the best interest of all involved. By so doing, your own needs are not front and center, though your basic needs are getting met that keep you going and healthy. But you are focused on other's needs not to use them for meeting your own, but because their needs are just as important as yours.

The end result is self is removed from the esteem question. You know your esteem is equal to everyone else's. Because of that, what others think of you or your performance matters little as it has no bearing on your self-worth. With self out of the picture, you are free to respond to others and be obedient to what is in their best interest out of genuine love for them as a person of worth.

Fostering humility becomes the path to proper and healthy self-esteem that will not only allow a hurt spouse or unfaithful spouse to heal quicker, but will prevent any self-focused decisions to have an affair to happen in the first place.