The Affair: A Symptom of Marriage Rot or A Rotten Spouse?

Affairs Come In Colors: Not all infidelities look alike. The red-hot mega-media adulteries are not the prototype for most unfaithful Coupledoms. The shades of color for the common household variety of betrayal are in grays, not black, white or red-hot. Yet folks on either side of the betrayal highway feel more comfortable thinking in black, white and red: black is the one who does the deed; white is the one who doesn’t; and red is the flame that fires everyone up. All fired up but perhaps still “clueless.”

Rot or Rotten? Decades ago, a couple whom I knew socially asked to meet with me privately. The woman had discovered that her husband was having a romantic and sexual relationship with another woman. This was not one of those nebulous discoveries, where terms such as “friendship” or “emotional affair” are batted about to obfuscate and distract from the “betrayal” facts of the action. No, this was infidelity, clear as day. That information put me in a tough spot, not permitted to do treatment as these were friends, yet wanting at least to send them away with something until they entered treatment with a couples therapist (and knowing that there were children waiting at home). So I asked the wife, “Do you think that your husband is basically a decent guy?” Now some would say that is an oxymoron: an adulterer who is a decent guy. But I didn’t think so. What was rotten here? Was it something rotting in the marriage or was this a rotten spouse? Big difference.

Time To Out The Marital Secrets: Many couples who end up in divorce court — because one member hooked up and got caught — shouldn’t be there. Not if the marital rot had been outed early enough to prevent someone from crossing over that deepest of all betrayal lines: a sexual relationship with someone other than their spouse. The essential question to be raised, once that line has been crossed: is there any other recourse but divorce? Yes, if the couple, despite the damage, can begin to view the affair as a symptom of marriage rot. We all have heard of this and many a betrayed spouse is accused of a pivotal role in their partner’s alliance with another. And many a betrayed spouse has a hell of a time owning that piece in a useful fashion, so distracted by the broken trust and narcissistic injury to their self-esteem, self-image and self-worth that real digging and reflection is constantly waylaid by rage, fear and sense of failure.

The Critical Piece: Now we come to the fork in the road. If the spouse who had the affair really doesn’t want to leave, perhaps for multiple reasons that are normal and of value — “We are a family”, “I still love you”, “I am sorry” — then it is up to the betrayed spouse to figure out if this person is rotten or if it were the relationship that was rotting. History can help here. What do you know about your partner? Over the years, have their actions, up to this point, matched the general expectations of moral conscience and honesty in their transactions in your life together? A deep exploration into the spouse’s qualities and history of their behaviors, the important ones with you, your children, the extended family, should tell you something really crucial: who they are as human beings, so that one is not surrendering solely to the most primitive gut reaction of “Cut, Run And Blame.” There are other options here. Remember, when you throw away the riches of a shared life, you never get them back…and though they may be beaten up right now, if you give them up, they are not just bruised but gone, without benefit of a healing restoration.

Narcissistic Injury and Broken Trust: Two of the deepest gashes to our psychological safety are those that slice at our self-regard/self-image and basic trust. Healthy narcissism (healthy self-regard, not inflated or exploitative) can be tested mightily when a betrayal, i.e. rejected for another, occurs. The wound is deep. For someone already scarred early in life by such injuries, a partner’s affair can present an almost insurmountable hurdle but one that can be challenged if the spouse is willing to look at their past to conquer its potentially crippling influence on their future. Trust, if broken earlier in life, when hit again, can present an image of human relations as intolerably painful and best avoided or manipulated. Here again, what may seem insurmountable can be opportunity knocking for tremendous psychological growth for the betrayed party. But this undertaking requires an ample supply of courage and willingness to take an emotional risk, because what may be saved still has value, and perhaps even promise.

Growing Up Is Hard To Do: Really, which is easier, growing up or breaking up? Take your pick. And get help to do the former before you hire someone to do the latter.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W. L.C.S.W. 2011

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