The pain of infidelity

April 7, 2008 — Leave a comment

The call came in after 9:00 p.m. . . a friend terribly distraught over the spouse’s acknowledgement of infidelity which had come earlier that evening. Even though the affair had happened several years ago, the emotions of the moment were heart-wrenching indeed. Now in its wake lay deep-seated questions that beg for details the heart is hardly prepared to hear. . . not now. . . perhaps not ever.

In the moments of disclosure or discovery, time seems to stand still. The offended party may feel a burning sense of rage, a disturbing level of foolishness, and a nagging suspicion that maybe this is not the first time such an egregious act has taken place. The whole world seems to turn upside-down.

Infidelity is one of those things that seems increasingly rampant in our society. Counselors and attorneys are seeing more and more cases of infidelity, and the taboos against it seem to be disappearing. What innocently begins as friendship can quickly cross boundaries into something that has the capacity to shatter hearts and lives.

I happen to believe that the vast majority of married people took their vows seriously on their wedding day. And of those who break their vows, most would have thought such action unthinkable.

Infidelity is a serious offense because it rattles the very foundation on which relationships are built. Many people are living in marriages without trust. Whether for sheer financial convenience or obligation to their children, some couples have decided to stay together in veritable roommate situations — with no passion, no trust, no intimacy, and very little evidence of love. I do not condemn such a couple’s commitment to the “’til death do us part” section of their wedding vows. However, I believe that with help from a skillful and sensitive therapist, in many cases issues can be resolved and trust restored, paving the way for a marriage marked by intimacy, friendship, and faithfulness.

Infidelity has a bruising effect on individuals. And in an endlessly connected world, the avenues for infidelity are more available than ever before. With cell phones, e-mail, text messages, and chat, an invitation to unfaithfulness is as close as the push of a button. There are also more opportunities for blurred boundaries today, and it is necessary for couples to decide together what is acceptable and appropriate. One thing is certain: protective boundaries are necessary for marriages to survive and thrive in our ever-changing environment.

In cases of infidelity, the offended partner will often ask me, “What can I do to make sure he (or she) doesn’t do this again?” The fact of the matter is that we are ultimately only responsible for ourselves. While each one of us can do things — or not do things — that contribute to any lack of satisfaction in marriage, we must draw the line at taking responsibility for the actions of others — even those to whom we have pledged our faithfulness and devotion.

In my counseling practice, I tend to view all problems within a marriage as the couple’s problems. Even if only one person is responsible for a certain issue or offense, the issue will surely benefit from the efforts of both individuals to identify root causes, minimize the opportunity for recurrence or relapse, and set in place an environment conducive to accountability, healing, restoration, and success. No such environment is possible without the input and active engagement of both parties.

Marriage is a precious gift. Just as a gardener would never leave his most prized flower alone and exposed in a storm of wind, hail, and other extremes, those of us who are married must take special care to protect our most significant relationship in a society that finds marriage increasingly vulnerable.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some ways to protect our marriage relationships. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights.

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