"In truth, we never know our partner as well as we think we do. ...even in the dullest marriages, predictability is a mirage."
From Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
I would have told you that my husband would never cheat on me. I suspect you would have said the same thing. With very few exceptions, every woman on this site was absolutely shocked when she discovered her husband's affair. Despite statistics that indicate that more marriages are affected by infidelity than aren't affected, we nonetheless think we're among the lucky few. Delusional, yes?
I've long thought that willful blindness is part of the problem around infidelity. It's what happens in other marriages, we believe. If we discuss it at all, it's in absolutes. Don't cheat on me or it's over, we tell our spouse (or our spouse tells us). But, as Perel also says in her fascinating book, "the most complex issues tend to polarize in a flash, and nuance is replaced with caricature."
Infidelity caricature tells us is that cheaters are low-life Casanovas who feel entitled to sex with whomever, whenever. It tells us that wives are frumpy nags who don't like sex. That the Other Woman is a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Glenn Close.
The truth, as too many of us know, is far different. But our culture's adherence to infidelity caricature makes it hard for us to push back...especially when we're reeling from disclosure of our spouse's affair. It makes it difficult to make our own choices within the context of the marriage we're in...rather than the one culture thinks we're in based solely on a spouse's infidelity.
What's more, we're also reeling from the recognition that our spouse, whom we thought we knew inside and out, had a life completely apart from us. It's unnerving. It threatens everything we believe we know about our world.
But, as Perel suggests, it shouldn't. It should be simply understood that we can't ever completely know another person. It's something that I've come up against when I've responded on another Web site, one that purports that all cheaters are narcissists and abusive, and that the best remedy is to cut them from our lives. A one-size-fits-all response to infidelity reduces it to caricature. It disallows nuance from the conversation.
And God knows, we need a conversation around infidelity. We need to acknowledge, publicly, just how rampant it is – and we need that acknowledgement within the context of a non-judgemental conversation. Not a conversation that says, necessarily, that infidelity is okay; simply a conversation that says it is. That says all people who cheat are not bad people. All women who stay with their unfaithful partners are not doormats. And all cheating isn't remedied by throwing the cheater out. Infidelity caricature implies that, by removing the cheater from our lives, we'll somehow be protected from future pain. Or that, by removing the cheater from our lives, we won't have to deal with the pain of healing. We won't have to cope with the uncertainty of will he do it again? True, perhaps. But the only way to completely protect ourselves is to close our hearts to not just our cheating spouse...but the world.
Life is uncertain. It's messy. It's a truth writ large when we're healing from betrayal.
And by acknowledging that our spouse has parts of him that we don't know, we not only face the possibility of infidelity (again), but we also open ourselves to the pleasure of "new". As Perel writes, that compromise we believe we must make in a long-term monogamous relationship – that in order to have the safety of fidelity, we must give up the excitement of the "new" – isn't necessary. It's possible, she proposes, to have both fidelity and the thrill of "new" by recognizing that our spouse is constantly evolving. That we don't know everything about him.
It's something a lot of us learn post-infidelity but few understand before: healing from betrayal can include the reinvention of the marriage into something exciting and fulfilling. Rather than sounding the death knell, infidelity can be the spark that ignites a new passion. We can see our spouse in a new light. Not always flattering, at least at first. But if we're open to it, we can rediscover our spouse in a way that encourages the rebuilding of our marriage.
That's not to say I'm an advocate for infidelity. The pain it creates is simply too devastating. The cost to families is just too high.
What I am saying, however, is that if we could open ourselves to the recognition that long-term monogamy can be stultifying, that even good spouses can feel deadened by the day-in, day-out demands of marriage and parenthood, we could have that difficult conversation – beyond "if you cheat, I'm outta here" – with a deeper understanding. We can't inoculate ourselves from pain by trying to frighten our spouse into good behaviour.
Being tempted isn't a sign that the marriage is dead. It's a sign that we're alive. Temptation is a warning to turn back toward our partner. To ask ourselves what we can do to make the long-term partnership more appealing than the lure of a new partner. To make the choice, again and again, to work on what we have rather than risk it for what we don't.
To do this is to face our fear of abandonment, a fear that runs deep in many of us. By talking about infidelity, we don't make it more likely, we make it less likely. Pretending we're immune to it doesn't make it so.
Let's agree that we can't possibly know everything about our spouses. And let's allow that to make us curious about them, not frightened. It requires a leap of faith. But choosing to stay with a spouse who has betrayed us is all about faith. In him, yes. But more importantly, in ourselves.
Having that faith in myself, though, is one of the gifts that arose from the pain of my husband's infidelity. I learned, the hard way, that the only person I can ever really trust is myself. At first that struck me as sad. But a deeper look made it clear how liberating that is. I can be the rock upon which I build my life.
And I can open myself to the unpredictability that is everyone else.