Coping with Infidelity: Part 4
Introduction:This column is the last in a series on infidelity. The first was, "How do Affairs Begin," the second was "How Should Affairs End," the third was "How to Rebuild a Marriage after an Affair Has Ended," and this column is how to overcome resentment. If you have not read the other three parts of this series, you may wish to read them first (the titles in this paragraph are links to those columns).
A spouse's unfaithfulness is one of the most painful experiences anyone can have in life. So almost everyone feels betrayed, used, abandoned, and very angry when they discover that their spouse has had an affair. After all, an affair is hatched with full knowledge of how much pain it will inflict on an unsuspecting spouse after it's discovered. It reflects a wanton disregard for the feelings of someone that was supposed to have been cherished and protected for life.
The first reaction of most, after discovering a spouse's affair, is to end the marriage. Most people cannot imagine having a normal relationship after such violation of trust. And the image of a spouse making love in the arms of the lover is not only sickening, but also infuriating. Resentment is an understatement of what is actually felt whenever those memories come to mind.
But, remarkably, most affairs do not lead to divorce. In fact, most couples try to reconcile, and usually succeed, after an affair. But even after a reasonably successful reconciliation, resentment often lingers on.
You might think that after a husband and wife rebuild their love for each other after an affair, all would be forgiven. Well, all might be forgiven, but all's not forgotten. In fact, many couples find that the memory of the affair haunts them decades after it happened.
How can the memory of that affair be erased? That really can't happen, unless all memory goes along with it. But resentment that is associated with that memory can be overcome, and that's the subject of today's column.
I am posting three letters this week to illustrate what a problem resentment is for many
people. As I did in all of the Q&A columns of this series, instead of posting my
answers to them, following the letters I will explain how to handle resentment in this most
Dear Dr. Harley,
I recently learned that my husband had a short-lived affair a little over a year ago. I am devastated by it, and am trying to come to terms with it. I know that my reluctance to make love to him prior to his affair may have contributed to his temptation, so I am trying to do a better job fulfilling his needs. The problem is that even though I still love him very much, I can't stand for him to touch me, let alone have sex with me. Whenever we try to have sex, all I can think of is the other women he was with, and I can't continue. He says that the affair was over long ago, and I have to learn to let go of it, but because it is so new to me, I can't. What can I do to begin to heal?
Dear Dr. Harley:
My husband and I were high school sweethearts. We married right after graduation, and had our first daughter almost immediately. When our daughter was two years old, and I was 20 years old, I had sex with another man, just once, after which I felt terrible. My husband was very hurt, but we reunited and stayed together. Then, we had two more children.
After much contemplation, I feel that the reason I had sex with the other man (who I have not seen again since), was that I felt neglected and unattractive. The largest mistake I made back then, I feel, was not communicating those feelings to my husband, before I took it upon myself to be with another man to make me feel admired and attractive.
Over 10 years has passed. However, through the years, my husband has never forgotten about this. It is as fresh in his mind today as if it just happened. I feel in my heart that I have truly learned from that past experience. I was young, foolish and immature. But whenever we have a disagreement, particularly when I don't feel like having sex with him, he brings it back up. I have had to live with the reminder of my mistake, many, many times in the past 10 years.
We have had many loving, close moments since then. Along, with many arguments, always leading to my past infidelity, and the fact that I can never be trusted again. But have never separated, and have always been strong, loving parents to our children.
Please lend advice if you can. My husband is my best friend, and I know that our love runs deep for each other, as well as for our family. What can I do to help him and us get over my mistake.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I have been married to my husband for 12 years and we have three children. Three years ago he confessed that, two years earlier, he had an affair with a woman, at a company business meeting (she's from another state). I was about to discover the affair on my own when he told me about it.
After this he said that he was sorry, he didn't care for her and that it was just sex. Surprisingly, our marriage became better than ever. My attitude towards him changed and we both began to respect each other and become much more considerate of each others feelings.
Then, last year he again confessed having an affair with a woman, this time with a close friend. This affair was exposed only because the couple was going through a divorce and the husband was threatening to tell me everything. At the time I was told the affair had been over for almost a year. She says she did this to get back at her husband for having an affair earlier in their marriage.
Once again, my husband begged me to forgive him. I couldn't understand how he allowed this to happen. This second affair began before I found out about the first affair. Yet, he allowed it to continue 2-3 months after he had confessed to the first, and after we began to really work on our marriage. He says that he felt trapped and afraid that she would expose him if he denied her advances. Right!
After this second revelation, we saw a counselor who told us to be honest with each other because our marriage could not continue based on lies. At this time he confessed 4 other affairs, mostly women that I knew. By this time I was so numb I could really feel no pain.
Last but not least, he confessed that one of the women had gotten pregnant. She was a friend of mine. She didn't know if it was his or not but called him for money to get an abortion.
These four affairs took place within the first 6 years of our marriage. I feel that he has been very honest and has not hidden anything else from me.
Our marriage is wonderful now. I love him and I feel he too has realized how much he loves me. My problem is that I think of his affairs almost every day, and whenever I do, I become very angry. Once in a while, I even tell him to leave, not because I don't love him, but because I get so angry when I think about it.
I feel that none of my memories belong to me, they only remind me of the women he was with at the time. Every event - the birth of our children, Christmas, summer vacations - I associate these things with a time frame that he was sleeping with some woman.
Will I forget? How do I move on? I finally have the husband I have always wanted and needed, yet his very presence reminds me of the pain he has caused me. I love him very much. I just don't know if I can live the rest of my life with him, carrying the pain I have inside of me. I also have a very hard time believing that I can ever trust him again. Yes, now he loves me and is devoted to his family but what happens during his mid-life crisis when he's 40? I just don't feel you can be married to a person and not trust them. Isn't that a big part of the relationship?
I know that in the beginning our marriage, sex was a great factor in his having the affairs. I did not provide his sexual, emotional, or supportive needs. But I still have a problem sleeping with him. Whenever we make love I think of his unfaithfulness. I just need you to tell me that time will heal my pain. How do I continue with the man that I love, now that we have both become what each other needs?
One of the most remarkable discoveries of my career as a marriage counselor is that marriages can thrive after infidelity. I would never have guessed it, based on what I assumed would be my own reaction. My wife, Joyce, let me know early on that if I ever had an affair, she would not divorce me, she would KILL me. My own response to an affair by Joyce would not be as drastic. I wouldn't kill her, I'd just never see or talk to her again. That's what I thought I would do. But having counseled thousands of couples who have actually had that experience, I now know that I would probably do what they have done -- try to reconcile. And Joyce would not kill me if I had been unfaithful.
Almost all couples feel that infidelity would end their marriage -- before it actually happens. They can't imagine living with someone who's been unfaithful. But what people think they will do, isn't what they usually do in this case. Surprisingly enough, after the dust settles, most couples are willing to make an effort to reconcile.
In the first three parts of this series on coping with infidelity, I have given you advice as to the best ways to recover from an affair. But an issue that I have left for last is one that can ruin an otherwise stunning recovery -- resentment.
This topic is one of the most difficult topics to address in marriage. On the one hand, resentment is a normal reaction to someone who has caused you to go through unbearable pain. It is your emotion's way of warning you to avoid people who have hurt you in the past -- they may hurt you again in the future! But, on the other hand, resentment can also be an irrational reaction to something that is no longer a real threat. In fact, resentment itself may become a greater threat to your happiness than what it is you fear.
Those who have written me understand how damaging their feeling of resentment is to their happiness and to the future of their marriage. But they seem unable to stop it. It's a great subject for a psychologist, who is supposed to know how to help people control their emotions. But, I must admit, this is a tough one.
I have answers to some parts of the problem, but not all of them. So to help you as much as I can, I will lay the problem out to you and give my advice wherever I can.
The more there is to resent, the more difficult it is to overcome resentment.
Both B.A. and S.K. think about their husband's affair when they try to make love, and it prevents them from having a fulfilling sexual experience. And they both learned about the affairs within the past few months. But there's quite a bit of difference between them. B.A. has only one affair to think about, while S.K. has six of them, many with her closest friends. As a result, other things being equal, I would expect B.A.'s resentment to fade much more quickly than S.K.'s resentment.
The resentment of B.A. and S.K. is a normal emotional reaction to the pain they suffered. The pain was directly associated with their husbands, so now, every time they make love, and lower their emotional defenses, they feel that pain all over again.
But emotional associations fade over time as long as there are no further associations with new painful events. In both cases, their husbands have not had an affair after the revelation, and so I would predict that if they have a normal recovery, where they learn to meet each other's needs, avoid Love Busters and learn to apply the Policy of Joint Agreement and the Policy of Radical Honesty to their decisions, the resentment would fade away.
If, on the other hand, either husband were to have another affair, the association would be much harder to extinguish. In fact, when a couple goes through a recovery after an affair, and then experience another affair, the resentment is often more intense and more persistent after the second recovery. With multiple affairs and recoveries, resentment is almost impossible to overcome. But then, in those cases I usually feel that the emotional reaction of resentment is not irrational at all. Emotions are telling the person that it's not a good idea to continue the relationship, and I would agree.
But there is more to resent than just the number of affairs a husband had in the past. In many cases, an affair is discovered while it's going on, and the unfaithful spouse makes matters worse by choosing to be with the lover and abandoning the spouse and children. That thoughtless act is a huge source of additional resentment for the victimized spouse. He or she not only goes through the pain of discovering the affair, but must also go through the pain of being rejected. The unfaithful spouse often moves away to be with the lover, leaving the spouse all alone to face the terror of abandonment.
Then, if all of that weren't enough, the unfaithful spouse explains that he or she needs time to "sort out" feelings, whatever that means. It actually means that the unfaithful spouse will go to the highest bidder. Whoever makes the unfaithful spouse feel the best, the lover or the spouse, will win the prize of the unfaithful spouse. So he or she spends some time with the lover, and then spends some time with the spouse. Back and forth, trying to "get in touch" with feelings. Can you fathom the resentment that would follow such a horrifying and humiliating experience?
But there's more. After vacillating back and forth a few times, the lover gets sick of it all and tosses the spouse out for good. With nowhere else to go, the unfaithful spouse comes back home. It wasn't his or her choice. It was the lover's choice. How would you feel being chosen because you were the only one left. Resentment doesn't begin to describe the feeling.
Finally, there's all the lies. Your spouse looks right into your eyes and lies to you about everything. Faced with undeniable evidence, he or she grudgingly and defensively admits to one lie after another, rarely accompanied by apologies. How can there ever be trust again?
B.A. and S.K. went through only a small number of the possible painful experiences that lead to resentment. Over time, their resentment will fade, and a passionate desire to make love to their husbands will grow. Both husbands should be patient, and give their wives a chance to overcome the worst of their resentment, before expecting much from them sexually. But a woman in love is usually a great sex partner, and I doubt that either husband will be disappointed if they do their part in meeting their wives emotional needs. I predict that within a year from now, both of these wives will have almost completely recovered from their feelings of resentment.
But if they had gone through the other experiences I had mentioned -- abandonment, vacillation between spouse and lover, returning after being rejected by the lover, and the many lies -- I would not be as optimistic about them overcoming their resentment quickly. It would take much more patience on the part of the unfaithful husbands. But even with all of this past pain and suffering, they too, could have a marriage that would be relatively free of resentment.
Some people are better at remembering than others
I read recently that estrogen replacement significantly improves memory in women. Great! That's all I need. A wife that can do an even better job remembering everything I've ever done to offend her.
It's true that the better your memory, the more difficult it will be to overcome resentment. That's because resentment is tied to memories, and if you forget the painful event, the resentment is lost along with it. One of the reasons I'm not so keen on dredging up the past as a part of therapy is that it brings up memories that carry resentment along with them. If I'm not careful, a single counseling session can open up such a can of worms that the presenting problem gets lost in a flood of new and painful memories. If the goal of therapy is to "resolve" every past issue, that seems to me to be a good way to keep people coming for therapy for the rest of their lives. That's because it's an insurmountable goal. We simply cannot resolve everything that's ever bothered us.
Instead, I tend to focus my attention on the present and the future, because they are what we can all do something about. The past is over and done with. Why waste our effort on the past when the future is upon us. Granted, it's useful to learn lessons from the past, but if we dwell on the past, we take our eyes off the future which can lead to disaster.
I personally believe that therapy should focus most attention, not on the past, but on ways to make the future sensational. And when a spouse comes to me with unresolved feelings of resentment about something their spouse did in the past, I tend to put it on hold and focus on issues that prevent mistakes of the past from recurring. I ask them to trust my judgment, and see what happens to the resentment when the marriage has a chance to become fulfilling. In almost every case, resentment fades, as I predicted. While the painful memories are not entirely forgotten, the most recent marital experiences which are fulfilling and enjoyable, dominate a person's thinking, and resentment becomes weak and infrequent.
Recovery may not be complete
Resentment usually appears when an experience of the present reminds us of a painful experience of the past. For example, if a wife had been abandoned by her husband after a fight on a vacation, left to find her way home alone from Jamaica, the resentment of that experience would pop up whenever her husband walks out the door during an argument. Very often, continuing resentment means that whatever it was that caused the painful experience is still lurking in the background. And it jumps out every once in a while when evidence of it's existence surfaces.
The procedure for recovery that I suggest usually eliminates the root causes of infidelity, and that makes it unlikely that present experiences will remind a spouse of experiences associated with an affair. If the only time you feel resentment about a spouse's past affair is when your needs have not been met, when your spouse is engaged in a Love Buster, or when the Policy of Joint Agreement or Policy of Radical Honesty has not been followed, then it's the completion of recovery that's your problem, not resentment.
Using resentment as a way to control and punish a spouse
I'm convinced that what's kept the resentment of S.R.'s husband alive for so many years is that he has found it to be an effective way to control and punish her whenever she doesn't do what he wants. Whenever they have a fight, he brings it up, and it causes her such guilt that it gives him a decided advantage in winning the argument.
By this time, I don't believe that her affair is the problem that she thinks it is. Instead, it is an issue that her husband is using to get the upper hand in his relationship with her. It probably shows up the most whenever she has been reluctant to have sex with him. It throws her off balance whenever he mentions it, and makes her feel guilty, wanting to make it up to him somehow. He may also bring it up whenever she is winning in a power struggle he is having with her.
What she describes to me in her letter is abuse, pure and simple. There is no excuse for the way her husband keeps bringing up her moment of weakness she experienced years ago. He is disrespectful and abusive.
I suggest that she look him right in the eye and say to him, "Listen Buster, do you love me? Do you want me to love you? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with me? If the answers to any of those questions is 'yes' you sure are going about it the wrong way. You are not doing things that I admire, you're doing things that I find disgusting!"
What if he says, "Fine, then lets just get a divorce and end it all."
To that I would say, "It's up to you. I married you for life, but if you want a divorce, it's your call. If you want to be in a love relationship with me, however, you're going to have to treat me much better than you have been treating me. You must never again bring up my affair, and if you are upset with me, you will have to treat me with respect until we can solve the problem. If you are upset with our sexual relationship, I want us to discuss it as adults and solve it with mutual respect. I refuse to be treated like this, especially by the man I love."
My advice to her husband is to never mention her affair again. It's a good example of one of the enemies of good conversation, dwelling on past mistakes. Whenever you keep bringing up your spouses past mistakes, you not only make your conversations incredibly unpleasant, but it cannot possibly lead to a resolution of a conflict you may be discussing. And as soon as his resentment doesn't pay him any dividends -- no longer helps him get his way -- he will find that it hardly ever occurs to him.
Hanging on to an unpleasant thought because it helps us somehow is what psychologists call "secondary gain." It means that even though the thought is unpleasant, it gets you something you need, so your mind keeps it around for its usefulness. There are many unpleasant thoughts that have this characteristic, and I have helped many people let them go by helping them destroy the usefulness of the thought. Making sure that S.K.'s husband never gets what he wants by bringing up her affair will help him overcome his resentment.
I'm running out of room to adequately address all aspects of resentment about affairs (I try to keep these Q&A columns reasonably brief), but there are a few other important topics that I will briefly mention.
One topic is loss of trust. How can a spouse ever trust an unfaithful partner again? My answer is that the spouse should never have been trusted in the first place. I shouldn't be trusted by my wife, and I shouldn't trust her. The fact is that we are all wired for infidelity, and under certain conditions, we'll all do it. The way to protect your marriage from something that has been common to man (and women) for thousands of years is to recognize the threat, and do something to prevent it from happening. Basing a marriage on the Policy of Radical Honesty and the Policy of Joint Agreement goes a long way toward preventing an affair. Being each other's favorite leisure-time companions, and not being away from each other overnight are also important safety measures. Meeting each other's most important emotional needs, avoiding Love Busters and building an integrated lifestyle, free of secret second lives, are all ways to affair-proof your marriage. With these measures in place, we end up trusting our spouses because an affair becomes almost impossible to achieve.
Another topic that I will briefly mention is obsessive thinking. Some people feel that if they stop thinking about something terrible, it will happen to them. While it's not all that common, it effects certain people known to be obsessive, where regardless of the low probability of risk, they treat some thoughts as if they were an ever-present danger. Those who compulsively wash their hands for fear of being infected by germs are an example of this type of person. The solution to their problem often lies in medication that helps them overcome obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. There are some very effective medical remedies that a doctor trained in obsessive thinking can prescribe that often help a person rid themselves of pervasive resentment regarding an affair.
Admittedly, I have not covered resentment regarding an affair completely. But it's a start. If your problem with resentment is not covered in this column, e-mail me issues that you are still struggling with, and I will try to help you with them.
Resentment seems insurmountable when an affair is first discovered, and as it unfolds, with its attending lies and thoughtless acts, it's amazing that anyone can actually overcome resentment. But it's a fact that people usually do, especially when the core problems leading to infidelity are resolved. It's a good illustration of how our instincts lead us astray when trying to resolve our marital problems. Most of us cannot imagine overcoming resentment after a spouse's affair, but those who have gone through it know that it's not only possible, but it's likely that resentment will fade away.