I have a good friend who I deeply admire. She is kind, thoughtful, considerate and sensitive. She cares about the world and is involved in her community. She is the kind of person any of us would want for a parent, a friend or a partner. She had one of the few long-term marriages that I considered to be really good – or so I thought.
I talked to her recently to see how she was doing, after not talking to her for several months. She told me that her life was hell. Her husband had recently told her that he had been having an affair for a number of years. She was blindsided. She hadn’t seen it coming. Nor had I.
What? Wow. I had liked her husband a lot. Yet he had been living a lie for years – to his wife, his children, his friends and family – to the world. How did this happen?
As I pondered on this very disturbing news, memories of past conversations came back. I remembered things she had told me over the years where her husband had said no to some requests that she had made and had gotten defensive in a way that hadn’t really made sense. We talked about a few of these situations and she told me that she had been reviewing many interactions between herself and her husband over the years, and a lot of situations now looked different to her. She now saw many situations where he had pushed her away and acted defensively towards her – in a way that wasn’t okay.
Her husband had gone through a work change and what now appeared to be an identity crisis a number of years ago. But he didn’t reach for his wife. He reached for someone else instead. And then began his double life.
How does this happen to our long-term bonds and between people who love each other? Why is it sometimes easier to push our partner aside rather than work towards reconnecting? What are we pushing away in ourselves in the moment we make that choice? And then, rather than rocking the boat and dealing with what is happening, how can somebody lie year after year to the person who they have made a commitment to, whom they love and have a family and life with?
We have two choices to look at here:
- My friend’s choice to give her husband the space she thought he needed, rather then challenge him on situations that felt off, allowing him to in a sense, ‘hide.’
- Her husband’s choice to find comfort elsewhere and to lead a secret life.
From her perspective, it made sense to give him the benefit of the doubt because she thought that they had a trusting relationship. She really did believe that he was an honest man who loved her and had good values. She trusted him. She didn’t want to pounce every time his tone seemed off. She chose to be kind rather than question him. She made the choice to be loving and give him the space she thought he needed. She didn’t realize that the space she gave him would be so dangerous to their relationship. My friend can now see how she had accepted his reasons and behavior instead of demanding more, or challenging him more. Had she understood her husband’s flaws better, she would have done it differently.
Now looking back and understanding who he is differently, she wished that she had given herself some more space to wonder about why he was reacting and to talk to him about this. Her trust and goodness got in the way. It prevented her from wondering and perhaps questioning him more deeply. Had she done so, it probably would have created more tension between them, but there is no guarantee that it would have changed the ultimate outcome.
Perhaps it would have shortened the length of his lie and they would have crashed and burned sooner. Perhaps he would have chosen to look within. Only if he was willing to be curious about his own issues and look within could the outcome have been different. Relational work requires that both members of a couple be willing to look at themselves deeply. It is by taking responsibility for your own internal struggles that we have have the capacity to be there for someone else.
Trust is important. But it is also important to listen to the little part of us that notices when someone isn’t fully there. Sometimes we have to challenge the people we love or hold them accountable. We have to trust that we have the right to do that, because that means we are taking care of ourselves. Maybe we have to push our point, stand our ground, be a pain in the ass, or bring something up that we know will make our partners mad or upset – because if we don’t do it, we may be betraying ourselves. There is a delicate line between letting go and allowing someone space, and talking about what doesn’t feel right to us.
My friend was a loving and responsive partner. Her fault wasn’t in being a bad partner. If anything, it was that she was too trusting and too accommodating.
In the case of her husband, it is one thing to make a mistake and stray, admit it and make a correction, or even realize we have to move on and end our marriage. It is another entirely to lie to someone who trusts us, take advantage of that trust and lead a secret life. His own issues caused him to look for someone else to tell him how great he was. His mistress got to be the one to make him feel special, as he betrayed and diminished his wife.
My friend’s husband was unwilling to look at the cause of his dissatisfaction – his inability to feel okay about himself without the accolades of others, his sense of emptiness – issues that demanded to be explored if he was to mature into a solid human being. Instead, unexamined, they caused him to reject his wife by making her mundane and finding someone else to make into ‘the answer.’ It was easier to love his wife when she was young and beautiful, and made him look good. But after a few kids and a few years the ego boost just wasn’t the same. And this man didn’t have the self-awareness or the ability to look inside and see that what he was looking for couldn’t come from the outside – and maybe he didn’t want to. Instead, when it wasn’t happening in his career, he fell into his narcissistic need to be applauded and he went for the quick fix – that turned into the very long fix that broke up his marriage.
What does this say about someone who does this?
- It means that we need something (because of our undeveloped areas or wounds) and that we can’t get it any other way – so we break our word, our promise, and our commitment.
- It means we are so hungry to take care of our own needs that we are unable to treat our partner with honor, respect and as someone with value.
- It means we rationalize what we do in order to act badly.
- It means we aren’t truly capable of committing to a relationship, because our own individual needs are too big.
- It means we will betray someone else to take care of ourselves – making us untrustworthy.
This marriage is over. The breach of trust was too great. And of course, over time ‘the other woman’ also became a real person who brought up conflicts and issues – the work that every relationship requires. So that too ended.
What about you?
Will you step forward and listen to the small voice of your intuition when your partner acts in a way that doesn’t seem right or that doesn’t honor you? Will you give them the space they need because you trust them or want to give them the room to work it out? Will you be able to find that delicate line between those two places? This is a line I have found challenging at times in my own life.
If you make a mistake and stray, will you quickly make it right? Or will you go the way of corruption and lying so you can get what you want – but at the expense of your integrity, your relationship and your partner? Why? What are you afraid of that causes you to be less than your full self?
Being a good partner is tricky. It requires taking care of yourself, as well as fully showing up and being there for your partner. It means that you don’t hide, but talk about the hard stuff, the disappointments; the things that make you feel distant or push you away. If you always take the easy way out, looking for the thing that makes you feel better, instead of looking deep into your self, then how can you be trustworthy? If you aren’t trustworthy to your partner, can anybody really trust you? Or will you sell them down the river too, the next time the going gets tough?
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