Handling Infidelity – Friendship, Intimacy, Love, and Breakup
Nature is a great teacher. A walk in a forest can teach us about life and help us to experience something far greater than ourselves. Suppose you came upon a colony of mushrooms decorating the forest floor, what would you see? At first, you may believe the hundreds of mushrooms are individual plants, but actually they are all parts of the same organism. You see, they are all sprouting from the same underground fungal network called a mycelium. We are like mushrooms. We appear separate and distinct. Yet, we all spring from the same invisible network, which in our case is called humanity. Each of us is just a small part of the whole. Once we understand that, it becomes much easier to develop close relationships. If we wish to learn about ourselves, what we are and what we can become, we have to learn about others.
As we continue our walk in the forest, we may stop to watch raindrops roll down the surface of a leaf. In their gleeful slide down the leaf, the drops of water collide and separate, traveling along different paths. Each time one drop collides with another, part of each drop merges with the other, so when they separate, each carries a part of the other. We are like raindrops. As we run into one another and interact, we exchange part of ourselves with each other. As we learn how to grow in intimacy, we exchange more and more of ourselves when we meet, each benefiting from the process, each being enriched by the other.
The young husband said to his wife, “I will work very hard for you and someday we will be rich.” And his wife replied, “But honey, we are already rich, and someday we may have lots of money too.” Yes, intimacy enriches us; it makes us rich. What is intimacy? It is what we see in the forest: two trees growing side by side, but not in the shadow of the other. Intimacy is about mutual support, encourage-ment, and growth. On the other hand, estrangement stunts growth and devalues life.
A tree that is struck by lightning falls silently, unless there is a person or animal to hear it. Similarly, a person’s life ends with little meaning, unless there was someone to share it. Can you see how important intimacy is? It may not be essential for physical survival, but it does seem necessary for emotional survival. Just as a drab landscape is magically transformed by a snowfall or crimson sunset, so does a simple friendship grow into a source of joy when it is stoked by intimacy.
Today’s topic is friendship, intimacy, love and breakup. What do I mean by intimacy? Well, intimacy is about reaching out to others, not with our arms and hands, but with our minds and hearts. It is about accepting people and sharing our lives with them. It is also about exposing ourselves, removing our mask, and dismantling the many layers of protection that we use to hide our true selves from others. Revealing our thoughts and feelings is like peeling the outer leaves of an artichoke one by one, until we come to the best part, the tender part, the very heart of the artichoke.
To be intimate is to be vulnerable. It is to say, “Here I am. This is what I am really like. These are the things that inspire me. And these are the things that inspire fear in me. Here are my dreams, hopes, and ambitions. Here are my doubts, worries, and concerns. Here are my beliefs and values. Here are my weaknesses and faults. Can you accept me for whom I am and help to bring out the best in me?”
It takes courage to open up and speak frankly to others. After all, many of us have been damaged by past criticism and have lost faith in others. Once our weaknesses are exposed, we fear rejection, betrayal, ridicule, humiliation, and loss of control. Yet, we can regain our trust in others by peeling away the leaves of our artichoke a little at a time. In fact, if we were to reveal everything at once, we may overwhelm and frighten others, causing them to distance themselves from us. So, a good rule of thumb is to proceed by baby steps, so that you and your partner slowly and carefully build a solid foundation of mutual trust.
Support builds intimacy. Criticism destroys it. If my close friend is slightly overweight, why mention it? Do I think he is so stupid that he doesn’t know he is overweight? And why is he overweight? Perhaps he seeks the pleasure of eating to escape the pain of feeling inadequate. So, if I tell him to lose weight, all I do is reinforce his feelings of inadequacy, which leads to more compulsive eating. But if I were to accept him without criticism, this would boost his confidence and reduce his need to look for pleasure in food. Also, as we grow closer, he may decide to join me at the gym for workouts, which may remove his excessive weight and give him even more confidence.
But isn’t it true that at times we should speak up? Yes, if a close friend or spouse has an addiction that is destroying their life, for example, we should use full force in encouraging them to seek professional help. Too often, however, we are tempted to ask others to change when we are the ones that need changing. We need to change by growing more accepting of others. Any advice that we offer should be used very sparingly. Buddha offers some useful guidelines: “If it is NOT truthful and NOT helpful, don’t say it. If it is truthful and NOT helpful, don’t say it. If it is NOT truthful and helpful, don’t say it. If it is truthful and helpful, WAIT for the right time.”
Dr. J. Allen Petersen also has wise words to share: “Most people get married believing a myth – that marriage [or any relationship] is a beautiful box full of all the things they have longed for: companionship, sexual fulfillment, intimacy, friendship. The truth is that marriage, at the start, is an empty box. You must put something in before you can take anything out. There is no love in marriage; love is in people. There is no romance in marriage; People have to infuse it into their marriages. A couple must learn the art and form the habit of giving, loving, serving, praising – keeping the box full. If you take out more than you put in, the box will be empty.”
Well, what do you think? Shouldn’t we see ourselves as mushrooms; that is, individuals, yet a small part of the human family? Shouldn’t we learn the secret of intimacy from raindrops, which is to give part of ourselves to our partners and friends? Then, like Alfred Lord Tennyson we will say, “I am a part of all I have met.” Finally, in our most intimate relationships, let’s live as two trees, side by side, without casting our shadow on the other.
First Intimacy, then Love
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, the subject of love is timely. However, it is also prompted by a reader’s two-part question: “Is it true that it is easier to forgive than to forget?” and “What are the challenges of love?” Let’s dive in at once, considering the questions in the order in which they were raised.
People betrayed by their spouse may say that they can FORGIVE their mate for cheating, but can never FORGET their betrayal. Their pain is understandable. However, unless we forget, it is not forgiveness. Holding on to the pain by refusing to forget merely cheats yourself of the peace of mind you deserve. If the betrayal of your spouse was an isolated event that they regret, have apologized for, and made up for, forgiveness may be warranted. But if you decide to do so, let go of the past and forget about the cheating.
You may wonder if it’s possible to forget. The answer is, absolutely! We have the capacity to forgive and forget. Did you ever see small children argue and shout at one another, “I never want to play with you again!” only to discover them playing again ten minutes later? That is an example of our natural ability to let go. We don’t have to hold on. We don’t have to hold grudges. We don’t have to be resentful. We can and should let go. True, as we grew into adults, our natural ability to let go has been repressed because of the control over us by others, but we can reawaken it.
It becomes easier to forgive if we prepare for it. That is, expect to encounter a bumpy road. Disagreements and disappointments are bound to occur. You see, early in our courtship we are blinded by the flames of passion and fail to see any of the imperfections of our partner. But, once we settle down and grow comfortable, we make the shocking discovery that our partner has faults. The only reason it is shocking is that we had false expectations and assumptions.
This hurdle is easily overcome by recognizing that we, too, have faults. Our flaws are not curses, but blessings. For they are the gateway to a deeper love. Imagine how exciting it is to be completely accepted by your partner, despite your faults. Now, reverse this image and imagine how your partner will feel when you accept him or her, faults and all. As we grow emotionally and spiritually, we will learn to first tolerate, then forgive, then accept, and finally embrace the peculiarities of our partner. As Karl Menninger said, “One does not fall into love; one grows into love, and love grows in him.”
Rejoice in your and your partner’s individual differences, for they are what make you unique, special, and interesting. We form our opinions and beliefs early in life and become intellectually rigid. However, one of the joys of a romantic relationship is to discover new ways of looking at things. Every time your partner disagrees with you, you have the opportunity to expand your vision and see things in a new light. Even if, after careful consideration, you continue to disagree on a point, you can welcome that disagreement, for it gives you the chance to prove your love by defending your partner’s opinion when it is under attack by another.
At times, even if we are big enough to forgive a terrible betrayal, our only choice will be to end the relationship. An obvious example would be of a husband sexually abusing his children. For the good of the children, society, wife, and even husband, he must be reported to the police. Yet, some women who are victims of physical or verbal abuse refuse to end the relationship because, they say, they “love” their husband. But, that is not love. Love is about respect and admiration for one’s partner. How can one respect and admire anyone who abuses another? Women remain in abusive relationships, not because of love, but because of desperation. They bvelieve they are unworthy of something better, are trapped, or cannot make it on their own. They need to seek help from the community.
Now, let’s move on to some of the challenges of love. Anthony Robbins has this to say, “Some of the biggest challenges in relationships come from the fact that most people enter a relationship in order to get something: they’re trying to find someone who’s going to make them feel good. In reality, the only way a relationship will last is if you see your relationship as a place that you go to give, and not a place that you go to take.”
Once the respect and admiration we have for another develops into love, we are ready to give to the relationship. We can begin by offering consistency, communication, and commitment. For a successful relationship, we need to express our love consistently. Here’s a bad example. A business executive is frustrated at work and can’t vent his anger on his boss, so when he returns home, he complains about the food, a speck of dirt on the floor, and the temperature of the room. Complain, complain, complain. Finally, when it’s time to sleep, he rolls over in bed, faces his wife, and expects her to be romantic. His behavior is inconsistent. Foreplay doesn’t begin 45 minutes before making love, it begins the moment he arrives home from work. We have to be loving before we can expect our partner to be loving.
Communication is one of the most powerful tools of romance. Communicating openly and honestly develops intimacy. It creates a special bond, for you both share your innermost secrets. Moreover, misunderstandings are cleared up and problems worked out by talking about them. But not all communication is verbal. In fact, when it comes to expressing love, words are cheap. Anyone can say, “I love you.” One expresses love by action such as warm caresses, hugs, and kisses, cheerfully performing one’s chores and responsibilities, and offering complete emotional support.
Love is a powerful bond because couples commit to each other. They are resolved to forge their relationship into a fortress of love. They refuse to take each other for granted or grow insensitive to the needs of their partner. They refuse to get preoccupied with themselves to the neglect of their partner. They marvel at the miracle of love and the miracle of each other. The following words of St. Augustine don’t apply to them. “Men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
Just as ordinary thread woven together can form a powerful net, so can two ordinary people joining in love form an indestructible relationship that contributes greatly to society. Along a similar vein, Barbara De Angelis has the following advice to offer. “The more connections you and your lover make, not just between your bodies, but between your minds, your hearts, and your souls, the more you will strengthen the fabric of your relationship, and the more real moments you will experience together.”
Once you have found your love, treasure it; cherish it, and preserve it with kindness and gentleness. May your love for each other be greater than your need for each other.
When Things Go Wrong
A woman reader asks, “How do you react when you find out that your mate has been unfaithful to you?” A question like this is fraught with difficulties. First, the degree to which infidelity, adultery, or unfaithfulness is condemned varies from culture to culture. In much of the world, for example, polygamy is still practiced. Second, the person posing the question represents only one side of the issue. I haven’t heard from the adulterer.
Third, the grievousness of the breach of trust depends on the circumstances. For instance, was it a onetime isolated event (a one-night stand)? Or a prolonged affair for which the husband is repentant? Was or is it a lengthy affair that he continues to conceal and deny? Did it involve sex with a minor, friend, or relative? Finally, is it part of a pattern? That is, is her mate a womanizer or philanderer?
In my reply to our reader’s question, I will try to offer some general advice that is based on sound North American thought. Perhaps she will be able to extract some useful ideas, which she can then apply to her life. The topic of infidelity is of interest to more than one reader. After all, adultery occurs at least once in the relationships of roughly 50% of couples. The fact that a commandment had to be made shows just how widespread the practice is. The problem is that too many people believe the commandment says, “Thou shall not OMIT adultery.” Although adultery has always been with us, there is a growing acceptance of it as ‘normal’ behaviour. An example of which is how sex is depicted on TV, for only about 25% of the time does TV sex take place between married couples.
Make no mistake about it; infidelity is a grievous offense because it is a betrayal by the most important person in your life. Paraphrasing what Dr. Frank Pittman said in his article on infidelity (Newsweek 9/30/96), it’s not whom your mate lied with. It is whom he lied to. Yes, it’s not about whom your mate slept with, but about whom your mate betrayed. Acknowledging the seriousness of the offense is one of the critical steps that must be made before you can take appropriate action. The second critical step is to understand that it is not the act or acts of infidelity that destroy marriages, but the underlying CAUSES that led to infidelity. In other words, infidelity is merely a symptom. The causes of the problem must be treated before we can expect a full turnaround.
One-night stands, or onetime indiscretions, are the easiest to recover from because there is little time for any bonding to occur with the other woman. Nevertheless, once your mate has broken the bond of trust, the potential exists for repeated and more serious offenses. So, swift, firm, and uncompromising action is called for. Here are the steps you must take if you are serious about restoring your marriage.
1. Separation. You need time to think clearly. If your mate stays at home, your judgment will be clouded. The separation clearly points out to your partner how serious you consider his breach of trust, and also gives him time to think carefully about the inappropriateness of his actions and their possible effects. Because it was your mate’s first offense, a short separation -such as one week may do.
2. Counseling. You should attend counseling or therapy sessions together to discover the causes that led to infidelity and the steps you both can take to resolve them.
3. Rebuild Trust. Your mate must rebuild your trust by proving by his actions that he has learned his lesson and will never repeat his mistake. If he lives up to his responsibilities, it is possible for your relationship to grow deeper than ever before.
If your mate had a long extramarital affair, even if he appears repentant, it is more serious and needs to be treated differently than a one-night stand. In this case, the steps are as follows.
1. Separation. The separation must be long enough to carry out all the following additional steps.
2. Your mate must end the illicit relationship.
3. He must enter counseling or therapy sessions to find out what led him to stray.
4. You need to have counseling to learn why you have been ignoring the signs that he was cheating.
5. If the both of you are experiencing personal growth and wish to reconcile, you need to go to joint counseling sessions.
6. As you attend therapy together, you may restart your relationship by dating (not living together), applying what you learn to the relationship, and slowly developing the intimacy you once felt for each other. You should not reconcile until your mate has proven himself and earned your trust.
If your husband cheated by having sex with a minor (child), close friend, or relative, the matter is much more serious and probably not worth salvaging. Likewise, mates that cheat and refuse to admit it are merely saying that they have no intention of stopping. You have no need for such irresponsibility and inconsideration, so drop them at once. Womanizers, which make up about 20% of the male population, almost never reform, so if you discover your husband is one, permanently end the relationship.
Note that I did not say anything about children influencing our decision whether to separate or not. This is because our primary role is to rear them to be self-sufficient. If we ‘forgive’ (accept the abuse of) a philandering husband, all we do is teach our sons that it’s okay to abuse women and teach our daughters that the ‘relationship’ is more important than happiness. Refusing to do the right thing because of children is NOT the right thing. Do what is right for you and you’ll be doing what is right for your children.
Beware of a cheating husband that refuses to accept responsibility. When confronted with the evidence of his cheating he is likely to say, “It didn’t mean anything.” (Then why did he do it?) Other excuses include, “It just happened. I had too much to drink,” or the President Clinton defense, “It wasn’t sexual intercourse.” Regardless of the excuse, refusal to accept responsibility is merely a refusal to change. To get on with your life, you must insist that the necessary steps are followed before there can be a reconciliation. If you are wondering whether you should forgive him, remember that Christ forgave the adulterer, BUT he added the stipulation “go and sin no more.” That is, forgiveness is EARNED because of a change of heart and change of behaviour. If your mate is unwilling to change his heart, he needs to change his location and move out of your home.
Let me end on this positive note, two-thirds of marriages survive infidelity. However, your aim should not be mere survival, but a return to a full and happy life, which is possible only when the steps to recovery are strictly followed. Good luck on your difficult journey.
- The Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly
Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller
- Respect, and Lasting Loveby Pia Mellody and Lawrence S. Freundlich
- by Rita M. DeMaria and Sari Harrar
His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriageby Willard F. Jr. Harley
4 Seasons of Marriage, The Secrets to a Lasting Marriage by Gary Chapman
- 8 TED Talks that just might save your relationship