My friend Jamie has been re-reading her old journals. They document her days as she dealt with her husband's affair with his assistant (Lord, these men are predictable!). And as she goes through the pages, she's struck by how desperately she wanted to understand her role in his affair. What had she done? What should she have done differently? What hadn't she done that she should have? And so on.
It's a stage many of us go through. We seem to think that if we created the problem, we can create the solution and – voila – all will be as it was.
And yet there was nothing Jamie could have done. Sure the marriage had its issues – primarily, Jamie realizes now, that she allowed her husband to behave like a child and then, when she had babies, wanted him to behave like a grown-up. But, honestly, is that an excuse for a man to have an affair?
Even as she exited the marriage and began a relationship with the man who is now her husband she was dodging thinly veiled accusations from others along the lines of "what did YOU do to contribute to the breakdown of the marriage." For a while, Jamie honestly tried to answer that question. What HAD she done to drive her husband into the arms of another woman. At a certain point, though, when her self-esteem was back on solid ground, she thought, "Forget that! I did everything I could to be a good wife and mother in the face of a husband who was barely around." In other words, she admits that their marriage was under stress but that HE was the one primarily creating it. It's impossible to have a marriage in which one of the partners is rewriting reality to suit a storyline that makes cheating seem like a viable response. It's common enough to become cliché: "My wife doesn't understand me." "My wife doesn't have the same sex drive as I. " "My wife nags me." It's, of course, one side of a story that always has at least one other side.
It's a fine balance between acknowledging responsibility for the role we play in a struggling marriage...and accepting responsibility for our spouse's choice to have an affair. The former is important simply for our emotional growth and understanding of ourselves. The latter inhibits our spouse's growth by letting them off the hook for their own aberrant behavior.
These days, as Jamie reads her journal, she's reminded of how much pain she was in and how badly she wanted to understand her husband's choice. But she can also see so much more clearly that it was exactly that – his choice.