Her beautiful blue eyes fill up slowly, from the bottom to the top. Then the tears spill over and she starts listing for me all of the clues she has ignored for the past several months. My heart just breaks for her as she unspools, in the clarity of hindsight, all of the unbidden questions (Where is he? Why did he say that? Who is he with now?) that she had dismissed in favor of trusting her husband.
Of course, it is not always wives who sit in my office, shell shocked, confused, equal parts angry and sad, describing the slow and tortuous trail that led them to the ultimate discovery of betrayal by their spouse.
The husbands come in, too. Just as surprised and embarrassed. Ashamed that they did not catch on sooner. Furious at being fooled by someone they trusted. Man or woman, they are almost always plotting two simultaneous yet mutually exclusive outcomes. In one, the affair becomes the couple’s wake-up call. Their reminder that this relationship, this marriage, matters to both of them and only they can save it. In this reality, we’ll call it ‘Plan A,’ the parties take stock of the small slights and errors that snowballed into this moment, and start themselves in a different direction on a fresh path.
Years from now the ‘Plan A’ couple will look back at this moment and smile fondly at how silly they had been “before” and how happy they made themselves and, more importantly, each other “after.”
Then there is the alternate universe of ‘Plan B’ in which the adulterous spouse is publicly eviscerated and left in the center of town for crows and stray dogs to peck out their eyes and chew on their entrails.
Sadly, as an attorney I can provide my clients with neither outcome. I have known couples in both categories, so I know that the ‘Plan A’ outcome is possible and the ‘Plan B’ outcome while it might be possible is currently illegal in this country.
We all know couples who have survived the affair (or affairs) and made their own partnership stronger as a response. Couples who can put their anger, hurt feelings, and distrust aside thoroughly enough to address and resolve the core problems which brought them there in the first place. Granted, these are rare couples, but they do exist and claim to have benefited from the experience. They have worked hard, together and separately, on problems and behaviors that likely date back to each party’s childhood.
They have taken on a huge challenge, trusted someone they do not feel safe trusting, and engaged in an exhausting process to get the results they want.
More common are the couples for whom an affair is the final straw on an already dysfunctional camel’s back. These couples have a steep uphill climb ahead of them, too. They will not be working on their own problems, they will be fighting against their spouse’s issues. They will have no partner to help them through the work, only an adversary. They will accept as little of the blame as possible and look to place the lion’s share on anyone but themselves.
Sentences like, “I would not have cheated if I felt appreciated at home;” and “we have been living like roommates for years” will bounce off of each other in courthouse hallways across the country.
Thankfully, there is a third course, ‘Plan C.’ Once the initial hurt and anger have subsided, this is where we acknowledge that both parties brought the entire mess to where it is. Maybe the affair is what the parties needed in order to finally put a suffering relationship out of its misery. This is trickier work in some ways – it is designed to help the parties grow and mature without the goal of fixing their marriage.
Transition focused marriage and family therapists, attorneys trained in collaborative or cooperative divorce, and neutral social workers can help divorcing parties use this time as an opportunity to become stronger and healthier individuals. It might not be a time to save a marriage or destroy a human being. It might just be a chance to move up and move on.
What We Love: There are the obvious ways of responding to crises, and they might be the right course for you. But, if not – until you find the way that feels right, keep looking.