Sunday, July 31, 2011

Guest Spouse: Infidelity is Abuse. Period.

       [Rabbi Sean Gorman and I met on this site here, where he commented to a betrayed wife that all cheating is abuse. I disagreed and our conversation began. Though I maintain that, in my case, the infidelity was not a form of abuse (though I can see aspects of it as such), I nonetheless appreciate the expertise and compassion that Rabbi Gorman brings to the issue and invited him to post here. I'm sure many of you will recognize your situation in what he describes...and I hope you'll find his views help clarify and strengthen your understanding. In any case, as always, I invite you to share your story and your thoughts.]

As a married man who has never gone astray and whose spouse has never gone astray, I feel a little out of place writing for betrayed wives.  Elle, the owner of this blog, invited me to write here after we disagreed on another blog.  The invitation is most flattering.

            The disagreement that led to this article has to do with whether or not adultery is spousal abuse, specifically emotional abuse.  I maintain that it is, in all cases.  For now, we can certainly agree that flagrant adultery is.

            What led to this conclusion?  A friend had a husband who was a philanderer.  He made no effort to hide the indiscretion.  Cell phone records and e-mails stayed visible.  Some of those phone calls took place during dinner.  The lightning flash was when I realized it was abusive.  After he physically attacked her, it became easier to point out the adultery as part of a picture of abuse.

            What is abusive about adultery?  Let us take a look at some of the blatant lies adultery attempts to present as truth:

            1.  The other one is better in bed.
            2.  What you give only to me, I can get anywhere.
            3.  You bore me.
            4.  You do not “put out” enough.
            5.  I will come to our bed when I am good and ready.
            6.  Being in someone else’s bed is more important and more meaningful than being in our own.

            The constancy of those statements demoralizes and humiliates the target.  The sneakiness of the tawdry behaviour leaves the betrayed spouse wondering if the perceived reality is correct.  Such demoralization, such humiliation, and such wondering about reality are all constants in abusive situations.

            We would not accept such statements in any other room of the house.  We would not accept constant statements about our cooking or our driving.  No matter what the subject, that type of statement is humiliating and demoralizing.  Nothing has changed just because we are talking about sex.  In fact, the statements are more insidious for being of that subject.  No other piece of our marriages cuts as much to the very essence of who we are. 

            Furthermore, it is a violation of the one room of the house we share with no one else.  We can have guests in the kitchen.  People can sit in the living room.  The marital bedroom has a lock on the door.  No one else is allowed in.  When one member of a couple unlocks that door, it states that the one part of our lives that is not for open consideration means nothing to the one who opened the door.  Sacred intimacies (and more) are thus bared to the world.

            When Elle asked me to write for this blog, she suggested that I write about how people recover.  The first step to any recovery is to label the problem.  Labeling adultery as abuse yields the immediate response.  In a relationship that is physically abusive, the first step is to ascertain safety – stop the immediate abuse.  The second step is accountability – appropriate apologies that mean something.  The third step is taking actions that build trust and prevent future abuse. 

            It applies here.  Stop the adultery.  Make sure that the offending spouse admits guilt and understands the impact of what happened.  Put rules – yes, marriage has rules – put rules in place that prevent it from happening again.  Verify that those rules are being followed and that they are accomplishing what they need to accomplish.

            A wise pastor once taught me that we should not confuse forgiveness with reconciliation.  These are two separate steps.  Forgiving a philandering spouse does not mean that all is better immediately.  As betrayed wives, you should not feel pressured to reset the clock and clean the slate.  That will take time.  Trust is hard to build.  It is even harder to rebuild.  For your husbands to expect that everything will immediately go back to the way it was is naïve, as well as a continuation of the abuse.  It is often difficult for an adulterer to understand that a shower and a couple of counseling sessions cannot wash away the scars of such an injury. 

            In any case of abuse, we do not blame the recipient.  An abused spouse did not fail at various parts of the marital role, thus leading to the next outburst.  Accepting blame for the actions of others is not appropriate here.  Do not fall into the trap of accepting blame for actions you did not commit.

Rabbi Sean Gorman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Pride of Israel in Toronto.  He is also a US Navy Chaplain attached to 218 MEFREL.




  1. I had to read this post a few times to wrap my head around this notion of abuse and I'm still not sure I really get what Rabbi Sean is trying to communicate. The more I think about it infidelity does seem abusive but my struggle is whether it was intended to be abuse.

    In my situation, the utter lack of respect for me and our family could be considered abusive, I suppose. The humiliation and demoralization do feel that way. But, did my husband intend to be abusive is where I get stuck. If he did, I should leave right now. However, I do feel he is sorry (I hope for more than just getting caught) and he is trying to do the right things.

    While the infidelity was abusive, thinking about it that way does not make me feel any better.

    1. If such clear explanation about bedroom violation by Rabbi has not been enough to convince you that it is indeed an abuse, let me take you the academic way dear. As far as definition of "abuse" goes: “Abuse is the improper usage or treatment for a bad purpose, often to unfairly or improperly gain benefit” (Courtesy: Wikipedia). Now, if you were in a monogamous marriage (at least that’s the values you went in the marriage with), it is improper usage and it is bad purpose (intended or not intended to hurt doesn’t actually matter). And in most cases of cheating and associated pathological psychology/ behaviour there are elements of unfair/ improper benefit gained often clubbed under entitlement etc. So, cheating is an abuse as per the standard definition of “abuse” :)

  2. I too have read and reread this post.

    I read it and I do agree with his points but I still find myself hesitating to label my husband's infidelity as abuse.

    Why? I don't know. I just can't put my finger on the reason that I agree but disagree.

    Maybe I, like so many don't want to admit that I have decided to stay with my abuser and therefore must minimize that aspect. It is easier to believe he made a mistake, he didn't really mean it, etc.

    1. I've seen very few clear and upright logic on such issues. You've answered it (why you find it hard to digest), already. It is "dissonance" within you dear!

    2. Hi to everyone!
      All of us here went or goining through hell... I know very well how it's feel.
      I discovered my husbands affair (whom I by the way adored) in Jan. of 2012. ... And aguess what ? The affair is still on!!!! And he "loves me" and he dont want divorce!!! After all I came up with some sugestions. I realize long time ago that it is actually emotional abuse! Cruel,selfish and without any hymanity in it! And than as now I'm wonder why out there is no low against it- . Anything for such cases?? Why not some legal sanction for a cheater and in same time some let's say small statifaction for other side? I think that would help a lot. At least cheater would hide better and his mate would not suffer as much as he/she suffer when "Big Man" do not even hide?! Or some of them would think harder then they did, and might make different decission?! Maybe... Well, that would save at least some lives... I do not think literally but people who are going through this type of abuse they living a hell every minute of their lives and person who cause it having a fun! Don't tell me that there is exit, like divorce. I know that. All of us know that as much as it sound simple it is not. Any thoughts on this?
      Maybe I m not in the right state of mind now thinking about it on this way...

    3. Nena,
      While I think a lot of us here think there should be laws against this, the fact remains that at this point, nobody's going to jail for it. So it's up to us to take care of ourselves.
      Whether or not your husband wants a divorce, what do YOU want? I can't imagine it's okay with you for your husband to carry on his affair and stay married to you.
      It's time for you to get clear on what you will and will NOT accept...and take the necessary steps. I know divorce isn't easy. But surely it's preferable to a husband who flaunts infidelity in your face. That IS abuse.


  3. Dear Rabbi,

    Your attempt to simplify a very complex issue makes your understanding of the subject appear naïve at best. For you see, dear Rabbi, before one uses labels such as “abuse” to define the infidelity, one needs to fully comprehend the root cause in each specific case. Each and every case is unique, as is each and every human mind. Just as our finger prints are all unique so too is the wiring in each of our brains. You yourself admit that you have not been in such a situation; this could indicate that your brain is wired such an idea has no neural pathway and the temptation to act in this way is very weak or indeed no-existent. This makes you a very fortunate person in our society that judges infidelity as wrong and immoral. However for another man whose brain is hardwired to seek other relationships outside of wedlock, the drive to do so may be overpowering for his pre-frontal cortex to override.
    Neuroscientists have discovered that “the brain of love” is rooted in the brainstem together with our other survival drives such as hunger thirst, the need to sleep etc. This means that it is not part of the limbic system which sits in the middle of the brain and controls emotions, and certainly not in the cortex which is the seat of thought, reason and morals. Love is a drive, not an emotion, the human race could possibly survive without happiness and sadness but it could not survive without sex just as it could not survive without water. Rooted somewhere in this drive is romantic love, which is to be infatuated with one individual in order to preserve energy. It is a built in mechanism to ensure survival of the species. What drives one to be infatuated or obsessed with one particular member of the opposite sex is presently being researched by neuroscientists; it is one of the mysteries of the animal brain. Why for instance a penguin will desire a certain mate rather than another, baffles scientists we simply do not know the answer.
    Now it could be that a man whose pre-frontal cortex has decided to marry a certain woman, may be in disagreement with the pathways in his brainstem where his romantic drive desires another. There is a conflict between his natural drive and his intellectual appreciation of right and wrong, moral and immoral. Which part of his brain will win?
    We all know that for the most part anger is undesirable yet when we get angry our thinking brain seems to go awol. The reason for this is because the limbic system floods the cortex with chemicals that do not allow the neurons in the cortex to make the necessary connection to facilitate logic thinking. The same applies to romantic love, but the only thing is that it is so much more powerful being that this love is rooted in the brain stem and is a powerful drive rather than a mere emotion such as anger.
    Am I saying that it cannot be controlled? No I’m not! There are ways to train the cortex to overcome emotions and even drives; we fast don’t we? However what I am saying is that to label infidelity as abuse is not always correct. The definition in the cortex of a spouse is to treat rough and cruel way. One who is overcome by his drives, not having equipped his cortex to deal with and to control the urge to love another woman; is neither being rough nor intentionally being cruel to his wife. He is merely following his natural drive as does an animal. We don’t view a lion as being cruel when it makes its kill on a young and weak animal, because the concept of cruelty only exists in the human pre-frontal cortex and not in the animal brain. If a man’s cortex is shut down when he commits infidelity we cannot deem him to be cruel. He may be an animal but he is not a cruel human being.
    Please understand I’m not condoning infidelity, I’m merely explaining why it is not always a case of abuse.
    Yours truly,

    1. Beautiful dear! Sociopaths and serial killers...and so many such individuals...even those who physically abuse women and children are all having some trouble in their frontal or backyard cortex!!! So, theirs is not an abuse!

    2. Elle, Rabbi, et al....

      I humbly apologize for not tracking this discussion as clearly as I should have. I am the author of the original article. Hi Elle....I hope all is well with you.

      Rabbi - your post here is already four years old. I hope that you have gotten the assistance you need. I checked your blog. You have not posted anything new in a long time. Please note: I do not know your denominational affiliation, or even who you are. Both the RA and the CCAR have confidential hotlines for rabbis in distress. Colleague to colleague, I strongly urge you to speak to someone. You are not obligated to maintain the duplicitous life to which you seem to have fallen victim.

      That being said, my pre-frontal cortex is wired to eat. I do not touch pork, even though it is more readily available than foods I will eat. The question is the degree of control we attempt to exercise over that pre-frontal cortex. Trust me when I tell you that I am aware that there are other women out there. Some of them merit more than a passing glance. But I make the choice for my wife. Most of us do.

      "Rough" has more than one definition. To treat someone badly in an emotional way is rough, even if no physical damage occurs.

      Have a good day everyone.


    3. RavSean,
      It was so nice to see your name pop up in the inbox. I hope you're well. All fine here...still doing what I can to support women who are where I was those years ago. And arguing with rabbis when I see fit. ;) Hope you'll continue to share your wisdom when time permits.

    4. I had to respond to RavSean...very briefly. From what you have written I will deduce that you are not a Neuroscientist, I am and your hypothesis is not substantiated and incorrect in many regards. You may want to investigate even the harmful effects 'on men' using pornography let alone following through with sex..... how it affects the Striatum...dopamine, vasopressin, oxytocin...... and actually is sexually detrimental to men and how their brains respond to sex.....mapping inappropriate 'bonding' with images and can cause sexual dysfunction ED . Fidelity in an intimate relationship, benefits a man maps his brain to increase oxytocin, dopamine.

      Even if a woman does not know of her husbands infidelity, yes, most definitely it is emotional abuse. A woman's sexuality responds to sensuality and in turn promotes a mans sexual response. Men who are cheating or even thinking of it, change how they respond intimately with their wives. This drops a woman's feelings of sensuality, he then becomes less appealing, her sense of sensuality is affected (any woman knows this) ...because he becomes more goal orientated and sexually changes his approach, women pick up on even subtle changes, he often being unaware...the man then uses this to ralionalize his further interest outside the marital bed, blaming the woman. Catch 22.

      There is too much of societal excusing of men's behaviour as 'natural' and too many woman being pressured to believe it. When women recognise that deceit is abuse and cheating is deceit, they will honor themselves more and in so doing, will show men that personal integrity will benefit their health in every way and yes, better sex with true intimacy.

  4. I agree that it can be abuse. It's one thing to catch your spouse cheating, them feeling remorse and guilt, and never doing it again. Maybe then it's not abuse, and can be chalked up to immaturity, animal instinct, whatever BS people want to come up with to make themselves feel better about the situation.

    BUT to be a repeat offender, to once again cheat on that same spouse after seeing the extreme pain and madness that it caused is when it constitutes as abuse. It proves that the betrayer enjoys the victim's pain. It's a rush for them not only to have sex with another, but such a rush to be caught and to have such power over another human being that they can destroy that person's heart, mind, and soul so easily. It makes them feel so important to be that loved by another person. Repeat offenders are sick individuals who are usually drug addicts, alcoholics, or mentally ill.

    I'm stuck in this situation right now. For the people out there who have been a victim, please imagine for a moment if the betrayer did it again, and whether or not you would feel it as abusive or just another accident when they tripped while naked into another naked person's genitals.

    My husband does repeat cycles. He becomes distant, cheats, gets caught, begs for forgiveness, swears his undying love, lies about cheating to make it less than what it was, becomes extremely nice to me to make me look like the crazy bitch (yeah betrayal makes you mad), and once I've eventually calmed down for the most part after a couple years the cycle repeats.

    He won't leave when I catch him, because he is "so in love with me" and it's hard for me to divorce him, because I'm so desperately trying to hold onto whatever reality there is left without slipping into complete madness.

    Continuous infidelity has left me a broken, pathetic woman full of hate, depression, worthlessness, and hopelessness; so broken that I have no strength to leave the monster that has stripped away everything in me, leaving me a shell of the person I once was. Tell me that I haven't been thoroughly abused and I would call you naive.

    1. Flaca,
      I'm so sorry for your broken-ness. I know that pain.
      But I'm going to ask you some hard questions only because I know you're worth saving. I want you to know to you're worth saving. And saving yourself isn't going to be easy but it is necessary.
      It means leaving. It means insisting that his behavior is absolutely not okay with you and will no longer be tolerated. It means treating yourself with respect in order to teach others how to treat you.
      You're telling us that this guy has done nothing but cheat, deceive, manipulate and then repeat. I really do know how emotionally drained you are right now and how exhausted you are at the thought of fighting for your life. But the alternative is to always be this emotionally drained. The alternative is to waste your love and your heart and your soul on someone who isn't worthy of it.
      Whether or not he is "so in love" with you isn't the point. His actions aren't lining up with his words. Love isn't a feeling, it's a verb. It's what we DO every day for that other person. It's protecting them with our love.
      You know exactly what you need to do. Get yourself to a lawyer and/or a therapist and get a plan in order. Then put one foot in front of the other until you're free of him. It won't be easy. It might just be the hardest thing you've ever done. And the most important.
      We'll be here for you every step of the way.


    2. Dear friend anonymous. This is said for you "Life is beautiful, please don't waste it away on this unfaithful man!"..."Leave a cheater, gain a life" is for people like you. I would wish that you leave but if you can't then do two favors to yourself. 1)Get into some therapy to get your sagging spirits up 2)Understand that there are some strong (and valid) reasons that you continue this marriage. Put the blame on that reason and on your spouse for being the "wreck" that he is. Spare yourself. No you are not crazy. He is making you crazy day by day.

  5. I told my husband once that I feel he would have hurt me less if he'd thrown me into a wall. At least then I would have had a clear picture of what was going on (he was a closet porn addict since before he met me). And if I'd know, I'd have left.



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