Tom (a composite portrait) came to see me because he was troubled by an extra-marital affair he was having. It was a serious affair and he was considering leaving his wife, Susan, for his affair partner, Karen. He had been married 20 years and had two teenage children, a boy and girl. Tom felt guilt-ridden about contemplating breaking up the family and perhaps becoming alienated from his children. He was worried that he would be perceived as “the bad guy.” Tom and Susan had been in and out of marital therapy for years, but it hadn’t done any good. Tom assumed that his parents and in-laws would blame him as Susan was a very nice person, but Tom felt that he just didn’t connect to her the way he did with Karen. Was it right to put his own romantic happiness ahead of what might be best for his family? Tom didn’t know what to do.
Several months into the treatment, Tom accidentally texted his wife a message meant for his affair partner. Susan was understandably hurt and humiliated. She was still open to reconciling if Tom was willing to immediately end the relationship with Karen. At the moment of truth, Tom decided to separate from Susan, so that he could be with Karen. Susan told the children and her parents that Tom was leaving her to be with another woman and his children as well as his in-laws stopped speaking to him. Karen was ambivalent that Tom had left his wife for her. She didn’t want to feel like the homewrecker and still wasn’t sure about Tom as her future life partner. Karen was a divorced woman with two children who had made a life for herself as a working mother and wasn’t sure how Tom would fit into her life as a full-time live-in lover. Some of his appeal was that as a married man he wasn’t available.
Tom was depressed, ashamed, and guilt-ridden as it seemed he had made a big mess of his life as well his wife’s, children’s, parents’, and in-law’s lives. Even Karen felt unwanted pressure for a greater commitment now that Tom had separated from his wife as Tom wanted reassurance that subjecting his family to so much upset wasn’t for nothing. Maybe he only had himself to blame as certainly it seemed that everyone else blamed Tom for ruining their lives.
Listening to all this it was certainly tempting to moralize by saying: “Now that you’ve made your bed you’ve got to lie in it.” Yet I realized that would have been judgmental and unsympathetic and unlikely to help Tom move forward in his life in a constructive way. How could I help Tom learn from his mistakes and rectify his mistakes to the degree possible rather than just beat himself up for his misdeeds? Infidelity, as opposed to consensual nonmonogamy, is unethical because it involves violating a commitment in a deceitful way, so it is a betrayal of trust. Thus, it’s only natural to feel shame and guilt about the hurt, sometimes of traumatic proportions, that sexual betrayal causes the betrayed partner as well as others. Only individuals relatively low on empathy like narcissists and psychopaths don’t feel that much shame and guilt when their deceitfulness hurts others and unfortunately, they do cheat at higher rates than others.
From a therapeutic viewpoint, it is never too late to learn how to live more authentically. Authenticity has been defined as being willing to take risks for intimacy and believing that deception is unacceptable. Moving forward Tom could begin to recover his self-respect by learning to live more authentically:
1) Assume Responsibility: Tom could assume full responsibility for the sexual betrayals by apologizing to his wife, children, parents, and in-laws.
2) Show Empathy: Tom could be sympathetic if others took his apology as an opportunity to vent their hurt and anger at the ways he had been a disappointment to them.
3) Let go of Entitlement: Tom shouldn’t expect or feel entitled to forgiveness or second chances from anyone or get angry if he doesn’t get it. Tom could also make clear to Karen that she didn’t break up the family, that he did what he did of his own volition, so she shouldn’t feel pressure to commit to him.
4) Be Honest: Tom could learn from his mistakes and going forward in life he could live honestly and honor his commitments regardless of the self-sacrifices involved in living authentically.
All Tom could do is try to make amends as best he could for the hurt that his dishonesty caused others. A year later Tom is still with Karen and their relationship is a work in progress. Tom has no regrets as he doesn’t see himself ever going back to Susan. Susan doesn’t see herself ever going back to Tom as she has a new boyfriend. Susan’s relationship with Tom is civil but cool as co-parents. The children have begun talking to Tom again. His in-laws want nothing to do with Tom, though he liked them, and his parents have adjusted to their disappointment in him. Tom lost a few friends who remain close to Susan. Compassion, rather than moralistic judgment, is more likely to help unfaithful partners assume responsibility for the harm they have caused others and help them move forward in life as someone who lives honestly and honors commitments even if it requires self-sacrifice.