Before it happened to me, I believed that infidelity within a marriage would – and should – automatically result in divorce. Why would anyone stay with a cheater, right? What’s the saying? Once a cheater, always a cheater? So staying would be …well, it would be foolish. Even God says that adultery is some dastardly juju, and gives the betrayed spouse an automatic out.
When I married my husband, I believed that we had certain values and traits in common, among which were respect, integrity, commitment, faithfulness, and monogamy (at least after marriage). We spoke vows in which we promised to love, honor, and protect each other. I trusted that he was a man of his word, and that he meant what he said as much as I did. I think most of us who find ourselves in this situation started out similarly – you meant your vows, and you had faith that your spouse did, too.
So a few days after DDay, when my husband confessed to having sex with another woman, I was blindsided. Gutted. Whereas I might have understood that he no longer loved me and wanted a divorce, the notion that he would have sex another woman while he was still married to me was never something that I believed he would do. Because there are simply no shades of gray: adultery is utterly and unequivocally WRONG.
After his confession, he started to read Sharon Glass’s Not “Just Friends” and shortly after, came to me and suggested that we could work through this and remain together – that the author of the book had suggested that it was possible. He may as well have been speaking a different language, because it made no sense to me. Hell, I didn’t know why he was even speaking to me – I didn’t even know who he was anymore.
Except here I still am, more than two years later. We’ve been fortunate to have benefitted greatly from the wisdom and good examples of couples who’ve survived the crucible of healing and reconciliation after infidelity. And yet, one recurring theme from the betrayed spouse is whether or not staying after the abuse of infidelity is a self-betrayal.
For our own safety, we learn over time to stay away from situations and people who are toxic or otherwise unsafe to us. We don’t put our hands on a stove burner unless we know it’s cool enough to touch. We stay away from kids on the playground who are mean, or co-workers who steal our ideas and take credit for work done by others. We don’t get in a car with a drunk driver. And we sure as hell don’t stay with someone who has inflicted on us the most traumatic pain most of us will ever experience.
Boundaries are designed to keep ourselves from being hurt again – our brain’s way of protecting us from a known source of pain. Additionally, when we, the betrayed, adhere unwaveringly to values like fidelity and empathy and integrity, the suggestion to stay with someone whose actions indicate that they do not share those values, feels like a compromise where the price of participation is the selling of our very soul.
At two years and two months past DDay, I haven’t fully resolved this dilemma within myself, but I know that while infidelity is never justified and always wrong, the willingness to stay with a spouse who is willing to do the hard work of “owning and fixing their shit” and helping to heal the marriage, may well be a sign of greater emotional maturity and depth than is possible to imagine until and unless you are faced with that situation.
…which isn’t to say that leaving is wrong, because I don’t think there are any good “right” choices after you’ve been cheated on, even with a remorseful spouse. It’s just that I don’t think that this decision is as black and white as the action that precipitated it. Life is complicated, and so are people. My husband cheated, and it felt like it might nearly kill me. My husband doesn’t see it as “getting away with cheating”, though; instead, he tells me every day that he is grateful to be with me, and thankful that I believed in his essential goodness even when he lost sight of that himself.
If you’ve worked through this, and especially if you are in the process or have reconciled after infidelity, why did you stay? How did you handle the question of whether or not staying was betraying yourself?