We continue our discussion from last week about the hope for healing unfaithful marriages. I said I know maybe 14 couples that have faced and healed this catastrophe. These couples have things in common from which we can learn.
Last week we learned from The Wanderer. Today we shall learn from the Wanderee.
The Wanderee has the strength to run a gauntlet of pain that cannot be overstated. This betrayal is unique amongst marital injuries. The pain can make you act … crazy. To feel like you are losing your mind. And if that’s not enough, try this on: Any hope of healing this marriage depends on the Wanderee’s willingness to entrust his/her broken, betrayed heart into the care of the very man or woman who broke it.
Yikes. No wonder the vast majority of folks simply walk away.
The Wanderee assembles a strategic – and limited – circle of support. A sibling. A therapist. Spiritual leader. A close friend. The circle is strategic in that its members have the ability to affirm your pain without colluding in your antagonism and bitterness. Meaning, your supporters are sad for you, perhaps disappointed in your mate, but above all are pulling for your marriage, which means they are ultimately an advocate for the Wanderer, too. If you want to heal your marriage, then “Men (expletive)” or “She’s such a (expletive)” is not the support you’re seeking.
Rarely should a support circle contain your mother or father. And I cannot readily think of an exception to the strict rule that the circle should never contain the couple’s minor or adult children, even if the children have come by the truth via other means.
The circle is limited. I’m comfortable with one to three people. If it contains more than five, I have questions for the Wanderee. Are you looking for support, or do you (not quite consciously) intend to publicly humiliate the Wanderer? Shame is a powerful, necessary, yet unstable force in human healing. It must be contained if it is to serve the goal of reconciliation.
The next thing these 14 Wanderees have in common is that, contrary to every instinct, they stop snooping, monitoring or otherwise playing secret agent, private detective or undercover cop. Period. The end. No following. No checking up. No hacking into e-mail or sneaking a peek at cell phones. Why? Because there’s nothing anyone can do to make a mate faithful or truthful. That’s why.
Wise Wanderees know this, so they stop trying. Instead, the Wanderee takes all his/her energy and invests it in becoming the sort of partner that only a total loser would lie to or betray. Sounds harsh, but the Wanderee’s overriding attitude shifts from “Please, please be faithful” to “To hell with you if you can’t keep your own promises.”
That puts all the pressure right where it belongs: on the Wanderer!
The Wanderee commits to an emotionally honest ownership of fear and insecurity. Meaning, he/she avoids couching such things in derision and cheap shots. You say what you feel: “It’s really hard to have any enthusiasm about our anniversary; it just makes me so sad when I think about it,” not “So, where you wanna go for our anniversary? Or am I being presumptuous? Maybe you were still deciding who to ask.”
I understand the Wanderee’s temptation to cheap shots; just saying it’s not useful. Ask what you want to know. Say what you feel. Give the Wanderer regular opportunity to respond to your specific doubts and your well-justified mistrust.
The last one is a toughy, but then, as I’ve said, there’s a reason I only know 14 of these couples.
The Wanderee has the strength, humility and willingness to tight-rope the distinction between responsibility and culpability. In each of these 14 cases of reconciliation, the Wanderee ended up affirming two things that appear contradictory: 1) the decision to have sex with someone else was/is the responsibility of the Wanderer alone, and, 2) I, the Wanderee, am inevitably, somehow, in some way, a non-innocent, because I authored 50 percent of the marriage wherein this behavior was even plausible.
Let me be clear: there is no excuse for infidelity. The Wanderee never says, “I deserved this” or “I caused my mate to wander,” but does say, “Prior to the infidelity, there can be no doubt that I was making my share of contributions to alienation and suffering.”
If reconciliation is authentic, then there is never, in the end, only one party called to account.
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune on the art of being human.)