Sunday, March 20, 2016

Are You Weak for Staying?

One common feeling that hurt spouses have when they discover an affair and decide to stay to rebuild with their spouse is they feel they are being weak. Weak because on the face of it, society would suggest that if you don't have the strength to toss them out or leave them after such a betrayal, you are too weak to do what needs to be done. You are accepting their behavior.

Added to the fact that many hurt spouses already have a self-esteem attack due to the affair, such feelings can magnify that effect. They feel that giving the unfaithful spouse a "pass" by forgiving them gives the unfaithful spouse no "punishment" for what happened. They get to have "fun" while the hurt spouse suffers.

The problem with that perspective is it doesn't paint the whole picture. It only describes one path a rebuilding attempt can take. Certainly it can be a bad perspective if that is what is going on, but it doesn't define all rebuilding situations.

So what really makes a hurt spouse weak or strong?

What makes a hurt spouse weak has nothing to do with staying or leaving. It has everything to do with whether the hurt spouse hides from reality to preserve a fantasy, or faces the hard choices and seeks to deal with it in a constructive way to resolve the problems whether or not they stay or leave.

Before we break that down, first we must make an important distinction. For rebuilding to work, both the hurt spouse and the unfaithful spouse have to be strong. Much of what I'm about to say applies to the unfaithful spouse as well, but on the other side of the coin. So in addressing the hurt spouse on this issue is not to indicate the unfaithful spouse gets a free ride. As a matter of fact, if the hurt spouse follows the following perspectives, he or she will require the unfaithful spouse to be strong as well if rebuilding is to be successful. In other words, just because the hurt spouse is strong in the following ways does not mean the rebuilding will be successful. That requires the unfaithful spouse to be equally, if not more so, strong.

In what ways is a hurt spouse strong or weak in rebuilding?

1. A hurt spouse is strong when they refuse to accept blame for the affair.

Having an affair was a decision of the unfaithful spouse and in most cases, their affair partner. The hurt spouse was totally left out of it and had nothing to do with them making that decision. The unfaithful spouse, and in most cases the affair partner, are 100% responsible for taking that action and need to own it.

"But what if the hurt spouse is a horrible spouse, doesn't respect me, doesn't seem to love me, or even abuses me?"

First, if real physical and emotional abuse is going on, first thing you need to do is contact your local social services and find out what support and help you can get to leave the spouse. That is the correct response to such abuse. Having an affair is a weak response as well as further destructive to the unfaithful spouse as well. The old childhood saying, "Two wrongs don't make a right" applies here. I can understand the need to be loved, but first you have to take yourself and any children out of danger. Resolve that before you dive into another relationship.

The fact is that while an unfaithful spouse may feel justified in having an affair because their spouse is (fill in the blank) in our marriage, it is not a solution to any real or perceived problems in the marriage. Rather it is like throwing gasoline onto a fire. It only complicates or makes the problems worse. It is a running away from facing the reality of those problems by indulging in a fantasy life.

In short, having an affair is rarely, if ever, a solution to any marital problem. It is always a wrong choice.

This is why a strong hurt spouse will refuse to accept blame for the affair. The unfaithful spouse may say, "I had an affair because you never tell me I'm pretty and look down on me." Whether there is any validity to their feelings in whatever they say or not in what motivated them, the decision to violate their marital vows and bond with the hurt spouse is the path they chose to deal with it, not the hurt spouse's.

How do hurt spouses accept blame for the affair? Primarily through accepting any blameshifting from the unfaithful spouse or doing it to themselves. In the grieving process this is known as the bargaining stage, right after denial and anger. The motivation to accept some or all of the blame is often encouraged by society at large. "Well, if he had taken better care of her, she wouldn't have run off with that man." It may have been a message communicated from your parents during childhood by word and/or deed.

Indeed, hurt spouses often think to themselves, "If he had an affair because he wasn't getting enough sex from me, if I start having more sex with him, he won't stray." Sounds logical but it doesn't work that way. Sounds appealing to the hurt spouse because if true, then they see an "easy" way to fix the problem.

But that is the problem. It fails to address the real problem which is with the unfaithful spouse's failure to respond to their issues in a constructive manner. Instead, it sweeps those real issues under the rug and attempts to fix the disease by treating a symptom of a different problem. Consequently, it allows the unfaithful spouse to also be weak by not facing their real problems and it all stays under the rug--enabled by the hurt spouse--festering until the next episode of "Who wants to have an affair?" rears its ugly head again.

A strong spouse will realize the problems in a marriage are an issue to deal with, but that the unfaithful spouse's decision to deal with them by having an affair was a wrong and destructive choice they made. The hurt spouse will not accept the blame for the unfaithful spouse deciding to have an affair.

2. A strong hurt spouse will honestly evaluate their own participation in marital problems and work to address them.

Doing so isn't an admission that a hurt spouse is to blame for the unfaithful spouse's affair. Rather, if the unfaithful spouse is going to do an honest evaluation of their issues and decision to have an affair, among other things, it will be one-sided improvement of the marital relationship if the hurt spouse does not cooperate in that process.

Using an affair as an excuse to hide from the demons of the hurt spouse as it relates to the relationship is a road to rebuilding failure. Just because an affair is a really big fire in the relationship-house does not justify ignoring the smaller fires which can also threaten a marriage.

For example, let's say a spouse is hiding from their better-half some financial purchases and/or often does not consult them on purchases of significance. That is a non-transparent relationship trust issue that can destroy a marriage as well. Then the other spouse ends up having an affair, maybe even citing the lack of trust and disrespect by the secretive financial dealings as a reason the affair happened.

The hurt spouse would be correct that the financial secrecy issue did not "cause" the unfaithful spouse to have an affair. The hurt spouse would be wrong to say because of that, they should ignore that fire and focus only and exclusively on the infidelity fire before the rest is addressed.

Let's qualify that a little. When a hurt spouse first discovers an affair is happening or happened, it often puts them into the the emotional "intensive care unit." The shock of discovering it and the emotional fallout can be massive, and they will not be able to focus on much else than the infidelity for weeks to come. To use our analogy above, a firefighting team would focus on the biggest part of a fire first. Then they work down to putting out the smaller fires.

A strong hurt spouse will not hide from the fires they have created in the relationship just because the unfaithful spouse's fire is bigger. Indeed, maybe not right at first, but if the hurt spouse does not join the unfaithful spouse in evaluating the whole marital picture whether it played any direct or indirect motivation in where the marriage ended up at currently, any rebuilding effort will fall flat. The whole marriage is being rebuilt, not just renovating a room.

A strong hurt spouse, while demanding the unfaithful spouse will not rug sweep, will refuse to do so themselves and instead, pull the rug up and deal with whatever is under it.

"But what if I fix all my part of the marital problems and he doesn't fix his and we end up divorced anyway? Haven't I done all that for nothing?"

To ask that, assumes that improving one's relational skills and themselves is a waste if it doesn't save their current relationship. It should be obvious that whatever improvements a hurt spouse make to themselves are going to carry over into the rest of their life and any future relationships. While one short-term goal of working on one's marriage and fixing their part in any problems is to save and make the current marriage work, if it doesn't, the effort itself is of value to the hurt spouse personally. It makes them a stronger person, and aids in being more successful in future relationships. That isn't a waste, it should be a way of life.

3. A strong hurt spouse will place the responsibility for healing the wounds of the affair on the unfaithful spouse.

One of the big reasons I believe our own marriage rebuilding was so successful is because I did this at the very beginning. I'd not read any books that told me to do this, it just seemed natural and obvious to me.

Within the first week after I discovered the affair and we decided to rebuild, I told my wife, "My healing from this will be in direct proportion to your healing." This didn't mean I didn't have any part to play in my own healing--there are attitudes and behaviors I could have done to make her efforts ineffective. It did mean if she didn't heal herself, there was no way I could heal from what she did.

It should be obvious why this is so. The bottom line as it relates to what an affair does to the marriage is it creates a lack of trust in the hurt spouse as it concerns the unfaithful spouse. Trust is what makes love possible. It is the oil of a healthy marital relationship.

But trust is a fragile thing. It is so easily broken in seconds, but takes months and years to rebuild. The fact is the unfaithful spouse is the one who destroyed that trust and love-bond, they are the only one who can repair it by being faithful, loving, transparent, and trustworthy in all areas as it concerns the relationship. It is impossible for the hurt spouse to rebuild that trust within themselves because it is based upon an experience of being able to trust the unfaithful spouse. If the unfaithful spouse doesn't provide that foundation due to secrecy, non-transparency, remaining emotionally closed to them, the hurt spouse has no way to generate trust out of thin air.

One of the craziest things an unfaithful spouse can say to a hurt spouse, especially within the first year or two of rebuilding and longer if the unfaithful spouse has done nothing to rebuild that trust, is to say, "Why can't you trust me?" Often said when a piece of incriminating evidence is discovered by the hurt spouse. The answer should be obvious. It is because the unfaithful spouse has failed to or yet to rebuild that trust again.

Without the unfaithful spouse working hard to rebuild that trust by addressing head-on their own short-comings and failures, especially as it relates to the affair, it is impossible for the hurt spouse to heal and for the relationship to heal. If the marriage is going to be saved, it starts with the unfaithful spouse doing what they need to do to heal themselves, as I've laid out in "Healing Steps for the Unfaithful Spouse" on this blog-site.

For this reason, the strong hurt spouse will both not accept blame for the affair, nor for fixing the direct damage it has done to the marriage. It is the primary responsibility of the unfaithful spouse to repair that damage in a way that enables the hurt spouse to also begin healing and addressing their issues.

Hurt spouses, this means you cannot fix the unfaithful spouse. If they refuse to heal the cancer they caused, you cannot make them do it.

4. A strong hurt spouse will give the unfaithful spouse motivation to heal instead of viewing it as a punishment.

It isn't usually a matter of the unfaithful spouse plotting and conniving to hurt their spouse. There are some that do, but most often it was a matter of opportunity meeting inner self-based desires that countered rational decisions and assessing the consequences of those actions. In the heat of a moment, a person can find all kinds of ways to justify why they should have something they desperately want, even if internally they know it is wrong.

In most cases, not all, the unfaithful spouse is sick and needs healing rather than a criminal that needs punishing. Even in the other cases, it could be said their punishment should be motivation for healing rather than to seek revenge and to destroy them.

Which is easier? To endure the pain of cleaning out a wound so it can heal, or to be scolded and left to rot? For the hurt spouse, it is obviously an easier route to avoid assisting in the cleaning the rot out is to leave rather than staying and helping. For the unfaithful spouse, it is easier to ignore it and hope it heals on its own in time, because to even touch it creates a lot of pain, not to mention taking a cloth and antiseptic, and scrubbing it clean.

One of the most painful things a hurt spouse can do to and for the unfaithful spouse is to create an environment that motivates the unfaithful spouse to go through the struggle of cleaning out their wounds and healing them.

Providing them the promise of your love and support for them to heal themselves is not saying to them, "What you did isn't that bad, I'm okay with it," but that hurt spouse is providing them motivation to do the right thing both for themselves and for the hurt spouse. A promised reward for going through the pain of healing themselves.

Indeed, if this is combined with the other strong points, it continues to keep the ball in their court to heal. The hurt spouse is simply on the sidelines cheering them on. Of course, this is assuming the hurt spouse still wants their spouse to be healed and for the marriage to survive, that they still love them and want what is best for them.

A strong hurt spouse will not be a punisher, but desire the redemption of the unfaithful spouse and act accordingly.

5. A strong hurt spouse will not be an enabler, but a loving partner.

This means two things.

One, if the unfaithful spouse is cooperative, the hurt spouse will reward and encourage the unfaithful spouse's efforts to heal and celebrate their victories in healing.

Two, if the unfaithful spouse is not cooperative, the hurt spouse will provide corresponding consequences that encourage the unfaithful spouse to change directions and begin to heal, the opposite of enabling. By "corresponding consequences" I mean, as discussed in "Healing Steps for the Hurt Spouse - Uncooperative Unfaithful Spouse" article, that for each wrong direction they take, the hurt spouse responses in kind. That includes up to if they continue the affair after adequate time has passed to stop, that the hurt spouse be willing to leave and if necessary, divorce.

"But I love my spouse! I don't want to leave him? I want to save our marriage."

If one loves a person, they want what is best for that person. That includes refusing to participate with them in behaviors destructive to them and oneself, and any family. It is selfish and unloving to enable their acceptance of having an affair because they "know she won't leave me."

Even the father in Jesus' parable of the "Prodigal Son," didn't refuse to give his son his inheritance even though he knew it was the wrong thing to do. The father let the son leave. He didn't force him to stay. Was it unloving of the father to do that, or should he have refused and locked the son up in his room so he couldn't escape? Even though it broke the father's heart, he knew his son had to go through the pain of losing it all before he'd come to appreciate what was important.

Likewise, when a spouse has an affair, whether they intend for it to happen or not, it is a call to end the marriage. If physical intercourse is involved, it is the equivalent of divorcing and remarrying the affair partner. No matter the intentions, the practical outcome of an affair is to damage and tear apart their current marriage. To respond in kind is in essence to acknowledge that damage, that they refuse to take the steps to heal it, and accept their call for a divorce because mentally and physically, they've already divorced the hurt spouse.

A weak hurt spouse will either be too focused on their own pain to be an encouragement to the unfaithful spouse to heal, and/or make the tough decisions to respond in kind whether it is due to a lack of transparency or not discontinuing the affair. It takes a strong person to decide to leave when they so desperately wanted the marriage to succeed. It also takes a strong person to accept the unfaithful spouse's efforts and successes in healing despite the pain they caused the hurt spouse. A weak person ignores and hides from either route, but takes the route of least resistance.

A Hurt Spouse is not necessarily weak by staying to rebuild a marriage destroyed by infidelity.

Are we getting the picture here? Staying to rebuild in and of itself doesn't make one weak, nor does leaving make one, by default, strong. It isn't a matter of whether the hurt spouse is "letting them get away with it" or not. That only indicates a misconception that what they did was good for them. Like getting sick enough in the head that they would accept an affair that is destructive to them and their marriage is a good thing they "got away with." Like the hurt spouse is thinking, "I never got to do that! No fair."

The reality is more that the hurt spouse is attempting to keep them from stabbing themselves and their spouse because they are sick and need healing and redemption. Running away from that task is easier, weak, and selfish if all it boils down to is avoiding the pain of healing.

Rather, the hurt spouse is strong when they face the reality of what is going on, painful as that may be, and seek to find a way to heal themselves through either encouraging their spouse to heal with them, or to heal without them, because the hurt spouse can't stay bonded to someone who continues to bond with another and expect to heal either the unfaithful spouse or themselves.

If you're staying in a relationship and healing is happening for both spouses in the wake of an affair, it is because you are both being strong enough to face the damage and work to repair it. Likewise, if you're leaving a relationship because the other spouse would not be strong enough to face their shortcomings, you are still being strong, doing what is ultimately in the best interest of both by not enabling and participating in their destructive behavior.

Being weak is hiding, ignoring, and sweeping under the rug the core issues of each person in the relationship that are contributing to the breakdown of the marriage. No one can ignore a cancer for long. They either attempt to heal it or they die. Simple as that. Ignoring marital problems, especially infidelity, by either spouse, will kill the marriage and any other relationships if not dealt with.

Now, go out and be strong.