The first words out of Marianne’s mouth after telling me that her husband cheated on her for most of their marriage were, “I was such a fool to have trusted him all those years.”
Apparently, her husband had been leading a double life with not only a steady girlfriend (his secretary), but also going to strip clubs, traveling to far away lands with several different women, and staying late to “work.”
He was a good liar. He never let on that he was being unfaithful or that he was unhappy in the marriage. He was a great dad and he and Marianne even enjoyed a healthy sex life.
She had absolutely no reason to suspect that he was philandering. It wasn’t until she got an anonymous letter in the mail telling her that she needed to keep a closer eye on her husband that she decided to check up on him.
The first place she started looking was at bank statements. Alex has always been in charge of the money and she never had any reason to question him. The bills are always paid on time, she had access to any money she ever needed, and again, he never showed signs of deception. Marianne had seen the regular bank statements but she never thought to look at the credit card statements.
She was shocked to see his blatant misuse a family funds. Numerous restaurants and bars were listed as far back as she could see, but so were local strip joints, Strip clubs in other towns, hotel rooms that were different than where he had reported he was going, and far too many entries at different establishments in Las Vegas (a place he said he hated and would never go).
Rather than confront him as a first course of action, Marianne decided to enlist the help of a private detective. She had a sneaking suspicion that if she asked him about what these charges were, he would deny everything or have a phony story. She wasn’t up for playing games or being insulted by his lies. She wanted proof.
Within two weeks, the P.I. contacted Marianne telling her that her worst fears were confirmed. He had pictures as well as some video and even a little bit of audio recordings. If Alex tried to deny that he was leading a double life, she had plenty of ammunition to come back at him with. Not only was she not stupid, now she was really angry.
She waited until the weekend and then, at the breakfast table, she slid a photo of him hand-in-hand with his secretary in line at a coffee shop near his workplace. She waited for his reaction. Of course he was shocked. Alex jumped up and said, “what is this?”
Marianne replied calmly, “it’s you and your girlfriend.”
Just as she had predicted, he began to protest and deny any wrongdoing, saying that the man in the photo was not him and that she was mistaken. But he could not continue to lie once she began to play the audio tape of their conversation. Apparently, the private investigator followed them, snapped a photo, and then stood in line behind them with his recorder going.The jig, as they say, was up.
Rage, devastation, terror, sadness, depression, shock. Marianne felt all of these emotions at once. In the days that followed, she felt these feelings to a greater or less or degree in a very jumbled way. She was a mess but she was clear that she had no interest in staying with someone who could be this pathological.
Once these betrayals were revealed, she began piecing together parts of her past that, at the time made no sense but, given that he had been having an affair with his underling, explanations for certain incidents begin to fall into place.
Although Alex didn’t want his marriage to end, Marianne filed divorce papers and within nine months, the entire legal process was completed. Materially, Marianne got most of what she had asked for. Aside from having to share custody of their 16-year-old son, she had nothing more to do with her ex-husband.
The End of the Marriage Isn’t the End of the Pain
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story in terms of wreckage. Marianne had been so traumatized by this experience that she just hurt all the time. She began to isolate more and more, partly because people were no longer calling her back when she would reach out in pain, but also because she got tired of her own story. It was easier to just keep to herself.
Her trauma went untreated for almost 2 years. She lost hope in ever having a community again and, God forbid, being interested in dating another man. She honestly felt there was nothing that would enable her to get close to anyone ever again. She remained angry at herself for how stupid and naive she had been. Marianne became extremely depressed and it wasn’t until her cousin suggested she contact me to join a group that she reached out for professional help.
It was therapeutic for Marianne to tell her story but what was more healing was to hear the two other women in the group who had similar stories (I will say that, unfortunately, this story is becoming more and more common). This brought her out of her isolation and shame but it would still be quite a while before she worked through the deep level of pain she had experienced. She described it as feeling like every bone in her body was broken. Imagine the pain one would feel in that situation. Imagine how long it would take to heal all that. Every time Marianne turned around, she saw something that reminded her of either her husband or of his acting out. Everything triggered her upset.
While the group was helpful, I knew she needed more. I referred Marianne to a trauma specialist and continued working with her on a group level.
How Could I Have Been So Stupid to Trust?
The comment, “How could I have been so stupid to trust him or her?”, is a common one. It’s a normal reaction to having your vulnerability shattered. Yet, I believe this question comes from the victim’s inner critic. It is a self protective mechanism but it unfortunately primarily serves to perpetuate shame and bad feelings about oneself. My response to this statement is always the same:
You didn’t do anything wrong. You are supposed to be able to trust the person to whom you are married. It is not pathological to open your heart and expose your inner being.
What is pathological are the lies and deceit, living a double life or acting on an impulse that may have devastating consequences, not just to the spouse, but to the entire family, as well as friends, neighbors and others in the community. The onus of wrongdoing belongs to the person who perpetrated the pain, not the one feeling it.
Why did this happen?
After the emotional roller coaster and self deprecation, the question of why this happened in the first place tends to show up.
What may be surprising is that, while some people begin extramarital affairs because they want out, more often than not, the cheating spouse has no desire to end the marriage. According to a 2012 Washington Post article entitled, Five Myths About Cheating, the belief that people stray because they no longer love their spouse is inaccurate. Eric Anderson, the article’s author writes, “Rather, they cheat simply because they desire sex with someone else, even if they want to preserve their relationship.”
With estimates ranging anywhere from 30% to 60% infidelity rates, it’s worth trying to understand what is behind and hurtful behavior. As the Five Myths article points out, in the not so distant past, cheating was more simple: it was defined as having sex outside of marriage. Today, with the advent of the Internet, cheating has broadened to include things like watching porn on the computer, engaging in sexting, going to strip joints, and participating in adult chat room discussions. Emotional affairs abound as well (relationships that are not necessarily sexual ones but where there is a strong emotional pull toward someone outside the marriage). Everything in our world is more complicated today than it was even 25 years ago.
Are we supposed to just accept that this is happening and let it go, or is there some way that we can address what may be becoming an epidemic? I recently wrote an article entitled, Is Dishonesty In Relationships the New Normal?, posing this question. I believe we need to start looking for solutions to this dilemma because untold numbers of people are being traumatized.
I’ve Been Cheated On. Now What?
In times like this, it’s natural to not know what to do next. Should I stay and forgive him? Should I leave her? This is not an easy question to answer. There are so many factors to consider. Here are a few:
1. Do you want to stay married? This is a different question than do you feel you need to stay married?
2. How strong is the foundation of your marriage? Do you have something to build on?
3. Have there been other breaches like this in the past?
4. Is your spouse willing to stop having the affair?
5. Is your spouse willing to go to counseling individually and couples?
6. Is your spouse a sex (or sex and love) addict? Will s/he go to treatment?
7. Will you be angry at yourself later if you stay? If you go? (This is obviously more of a rhetorical question since you can’t know the answer).
If you can, put off the decision of what to do with your marriage until your emotions calm down and you can see more clearly. That tends to make for better outcomes. Implementing a therapeutic separation or a parenting marriage agreement for 6 to 9 months (or more) can give you perspective you don’t have in the immediate wake of the event.
Marianne was very clear that she had no interest in being with someone who would break her heart and her confidence, regardless of how remorseful Alex was. His having cheated on her was painful but it was really all the lies and dishonesty that she couldn’t get over. ”If he could do it once, he could do it again,” she felt. She also knew herself well enough to know that she would probably be looking over her shoulder for the rest of their time together and that wasn’t how she wanted to spend her energy. She held out for a mature mate and she did some deep inner work that she had never done before.
There is Healing for Individuals
Slowly but surely, Marianne’s wounds began to heal. It was amazing to see her resilience and how she could get on the other side of something that might otherwise have impeded her for the rest of her life.
Without the help of a support network, and the right treatment that specifically addressed her trauma, Marianne may never have gone on to feel “normal” again. Two years after joining a group, and doing trauma recovery work, Marianne met another man. She was able to let her guard down enough to get into a new relationship that she is still enjoying today. Not only did she see that it was OK that she had trusted her husband, she developed is healthy self love out of this experience that enabled her to set the bar higher for what she was willing to accept in a mate. It was important for her to be with someone who had done their own inner work and who had as much integrity as she did; someone who would be transparent and reassuring and understanding of what she had been through.
Marianne was young and naïve when she married Alex but she had gotten a hard life lesson that would transform all subsequent relationships—including her friendships. As she grew and got stronger in herself, she surrounded her self with others who were healthier and more mature. Her connections with everyone went much deeper than they ever had.
Can We Fix the Bigger Problem?
I don’t believe that we need to accept lying and cheating as acceptable behaviors but we need to come to terms with the fact that betraying the trust of one’s spouse is no longer an aberration (I know some of you may argue it never was. Either way, we need to address it).
People like Marianne are not wrong to trust their spouse, but we need to have more open and honest discussions about whether the concept of monogamy is working. If we take away the expectation that all relationships need to be monogamous, those who truly don’t want to be monogamous won’t have to make promises they can’t keep.
Meanwhile, those who do want monogamy may be less at risk of being cheated on if they find a partner who wants the same.
The bottom line is that the sexual acting out isn’t necessarily the cause of the greatest pain. It is the deception. We currently have a marriage model that sets 30% to 60% of people up for failure. If we could take the lying out of the equation by having couples speak openly about whether monogamy works, I believe that would be a start.
Of course, there will always be those who lie. That may be just who those people are and it definitely says more about them than it does those they deceive. But I believe there would be less deception, less hurt and less pain by naming what is really happening and focusing on solutions. Let’s fix the problem at the source: Opening our minds to a new way of being in marriage.