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After Infidelity - On Walking Through Fire

Not every marriage is worth saving. But no marriage deserves to be abandoned during the most stressful point in its lifetime.

I recently became enthralled with the podcast Alone: A Love Story by Michelle Parise produced by CBC Radio. She has the breezy, mellifluous voice of a hopeless romantic and we fall easily under the spell of her storytelling. She eventually marries a funny scientist who lends levity to her ruminative life. They have great sex and raucous arguments. Though the relationship is clearly moody, he sounds like her perfect compliment. But we know they’re going to fail – after all she’s the eponymous alone narrator. Just how they will is what the first season tensely leads up to.

She sees clues to his infidelity but doesn’t confront them head on until after an argument drives her husband from the family home to overnight with the significant coworker. After ‘The Bomb’, as she calls it, I assumed there would be multiple episodes of coming to terms with their disconnect. Instead, Parise goes straight to the real estate broker. “We have to sell the house. This week.” The only work that made sense for her in response to her husband’s cheating was to pack boxes.

There’s likely a lot to the story she doesn’t share with us. But I felt sad and furious, mostly because they were raising a precocious four year old and parenting should require a more super-glued layer of commitment from a couple. I was hoping for contrition from him and forgiveness from her, or at least some amount of unpacking why neither had made a concerted effort at reconciliation, preferably with a tough therapist between them. Instead, she moves into a new season and a new apartment, a single woman looking for love and doing little to consider, out loud at least, how she might avoid repeating a pattern. As earnest and hurt as she was, I couldn’t let go of my nagging question:

Why do people so easily abandon each other after infidelity?

Infidelity is the penultimate transgression and all the world will side with the aggrieved. But why is the indignation around cheating so difficult to work through? A friend of mine described modern infidelity as a ‘get out of marriage free’ card. Esther Perel, author of ‘State of Affairs’ even suggests reconciliation is now considered a weakness.“Once divorce carried all the stigma. Now, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”

If we don’t work out the reasons for infidelity (and there are so very many reasons) aren’t we cheating ourselves of acquiring the skills to avoid the same thing from happening again? If we keep walking away from these relationships aren’t we perpetuating Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”?

Not long ago on Twitter, a man contacted me to ask advice. I told him I wasn’t a professional but he roped me in anyway. He’d suddenly become sexually insatiable in his mid-fifties. His wife hadn’t expressed any interest in sex for years. They were still raising five boys together (“Five boys?!” I exclaimed. “No wonder she can’t be bothered with sex.”)  and he was having a string of casual affairs. I reminded him that in a court of law it doesn’t matter if your wife hasn’t slept with you for a decade, he should consider the possibility of a big, messy divorce if he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. But he was on the road a lot for work so he took his chances. Then one day his wife found the condoms in his suitcase.

But here’s what happened: She didn’t freak out, he didn’t make excuses. She didn’t give him an ultimatum and he didn’t blame her for not sleeping with him. According to him, it was a tense time, but no lawyers were consulted. And recently for their 30th anniversary, they shared a weekend away and experienced a level of intimacy and sex they hadn’t had for years. This man’s wife demonstrated a super human level of grace. He was able to express his love and regard for her while grappling with his libido surge. It’s not all rosy. But their family hasn’t fallen to pieces.

Some people do the enormous work of repair after infidelity and come through it feeling as though they have a better marriage. As Esther Perel has said, in the aftermath of infidelity, ‘That marriage is over. The question now is whether your next marriage will be with the same person.’ In addition to her books, Perel has a two-season podcast called Where Should We Begin, recorded sessions with couples in crisis. It’s riveting. It should be required listening for anyone attempting to be in a relationship, in other words, all of us. Because the true test of love, I believe, is getting through shit with your partner. And if I were the world’s benevolent dictator, I would make Perel’s podcast a requirement before issuing any marriage license.

Putting in the effort doesn’t mean it always goes well. A friend who discovered her husband’s affair a few years ago isn’t sure her marriage will survive despite her taking a generous look at her own responsibility for its fragmentation. She allowed herself to rage and revenge fuck. But she didn’t throw in the towel. She’s hoping they might agree upon a platonic Parenting Marriage. Her wherewithal demonstrates a maturity which cares more about the collective whole than the injured one. And that is the fair thing to do, especially when kids are involved.

When we leave our partnerships we lose a shared history. Marriage is a team sport and beset with injuries along the way. Certainly, it can feel we’re not on the same team. But those are the challenges of marriage. Working those things out is honing a skill that will serve us in any number of relationships, not to mention impart something valuable to the next generation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve burst into tears in the car after dropping my son with his dad, knowing I would never share a history and parenting experience with my ex again. I don’t regret my divorce – we tried hard. But I have lost something valuable.

Not every marriage is worth saving. But no marriage deserves to be abandoned during the most stressful point in its lifetime. We seem to have lost sight of the difference between a good life and a happy one. Happiness is an accumulation of uplifting moments. But a good life is realized through trials and mistakes and small acts of redemption. We are all dealing with the same crap, some of it as tough as infidelity. How we handle the hard stuff reflects our character. A good life might be more valuable than a happy one, though if often requires hard work. Do the work.

Love, Karin

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