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.

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