It’s possible to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
When I was in high school, I learned that the father of one of my closest friends had had an ongoing affair with his coworker, and I was dumbfounded. I’d always thought my friend’s mother was more than enough as a wife with her captivating good looks and vivacious personality. As a 16-year-old under the naïve impression that the respectable thing to do to a cheating spouse is walk away, I was certain that a divorce would follow.
“Choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame,” relationship therapist Esther Perel acknowledged onstage at her 2015 TED talk, Rethinking Infidelity.
Perel described the inability of one of her clients to disclose to friends her husband’s affair out of fear that they would judge her for not instantly leaving him. After all, isn’t it impossible to ever truly reconcile after a spouse shares something as intimate as lovemaking with someone else? I remember my disbelief when my friend timidly revealed that her mother was considering giving her father a second chance.
“The fact is,” Perel explained, “the majority of couples who have experienced affairs will stay together. But some of them will merely survive and others will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity.”
What sort of “opportunity” could something as heartbreaking as infidelity possibly provide? Well, for one, Perel reveals that the victim of the affair often feels liberated in no longer having to hold back from acknowledging his or her own dissatisfaction in the relationship. “A lot of couples,” Perel explains, “in the immediate aftermath of an affair, because of this new disorder that may actually lead to a new order, will have lots of conversations with honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades.” She adds that, “Something about the fear of loss will rekindle desire and make way for an entirely new kind of truth.”
In other words, the individual who had an affair can greatly alleviate the fears of his or her partner by being mindful of what circumstances trigger insecurity and mistrust, and being sensitive and reassuring when they arise.
As for the partner who was cheated on, Perel advises surrounding oneself with activities that “give back joy and meaning and identity.” But more importantly, she warns against giving in to the curiosity that probes for specific details of the affair. Questions about such particulars as where or how often it took place “only inflict more pain and keep you awake at night,” Perel says. She suggests instead asking questions that serve a productive purpose in rebuilding the marriage such as, “What did this affair mean for you? What were you able to express or experience there that you could no longer do with me?”
Perel’s experience helping couples heal after infidelity has given her a unique perspective on it. She reveals a forgiving outlook on unfaithful spouses by stating, “Sexual betrayal is only one way to hurt a partner. In other words, the victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.” She sums up her position by saying, “I look at affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side; growth and self discovery on the other.”
It’s been more than a decade and my friend’s parents are still married. What’s more, there’s a youthful joy and mutual respect between the two of them that wasn’t there originally. It’s as if all the work they put into preserving and nurturing their marriage gave way to a brand-new one that’s even better than before.
As Perel states, “Every affair will redefine a relationship and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be.” Infidelity, of course, is always a heinous violation of the precious bounds of matrimony. There’s no denying the unimaginable pain that ensues when a spouse shares intimacy with someone other than his or her partner.
But how beautiful is marriage in its ability to not only keep a husband and wife united in the sacrament following such a betrayal, but actually to create for them a stronger, more invigorating bond than before?