Q: A friend of mine has suspected for a while that her husband is having an affair at his office. Although she has pretty strong proof, he repeatedly denies it when she tries to confront him. Personally I find his behavior inexcusable, and feel that she should just get out and get on with her life. She’s a wonderful person and it hurts me to watch her go through all this suffering over someone who doesn’t care. Can you give me any tips on how to help her make the break?
A: Obviously this situation has aroused strong feelings in you, and at first glance it seems as though, if you were in her shoes, you might well behave very differently. But these things are never black and white from the inside, no matter what it may look like to an outside observer.
Your friend’s spouse has not yet been able to take the risk of telling the truth. Probably he is trying to protect himself from what promise to be some very painful discussions and decisions. Could this mean that, despite his disloyal behavior, he still has a stake in his wife and in the life they have built together? Likewise, your friend is not ready to take a firm stand and make the break that you advocate, meaning, perhaps, that she, also, would prefer to wait and see if things can be worked out.
Any affair within a marriage that has been undertaken with a basic premise of monogamy and fidelity involves a breach of trust and therefore a betrayal. But beyond that, affairs have many different faces. Some, for instance, clearly fit the definition of philandering: the wandering spouse is allergic to true intimacy and needs the thrill of repeated conquests. Others are almost “accidents”: a basically faithful spouse, not necessarily on the prowl, allows himself or herself to get pulled into a situation that causes guilt, pain and shame. Still others are undertaken within the context of a very unfulfilling marriage, the problems of which have never been properly addressed, and the affair is an anesthetic against unhappiness, much as drugs or alcohol could be. Most unfortunately, almost all affairs involve deceit, and often include attempts to totally disqualify the accuracy of the betrayed spouse’s perceptions, portraying the person as “crazy,” “jealous,” “paranoid,” etc. This aspect is often the most hurtful part of all, chipping away, as it does, at the partner’s basic sense of self.
This being said, affairs can also be an overdue warning bell for a lifeless marriage – a painful jump-start to some necessary barn-cleaning in a relationship that has not been regularly honored. If this is your friend’s case, cutting the tie, as you urge her to do, would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. An excellent book, “Private Lies,” by Frank Pittmann (W.H. Norton, 1989), delves into the complexities of infidelity; it could help you get a broader perspective on this issue, perhaps enabling you to be a more sensitive sounding board for your friend in her current dilemma.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.