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“I can’t believe what he’s done to me,” Susan said during a recent counseling session, tears streaming down her face. Dressed in jeans and sweatshirt, she spoke angrily about being unable to go to work because of being so upset.
“I could never even consider doing what he’s done. I think it’s despicable.”
Susan appeared tired, older than her thirty years. She admitted she hadn’t slept the past several nights since learning her husband of ten years had an affair.
Susan’s husband Bryan, sat stoically in front of us. While he admitted having the affair, and voiced being sorry for what he had done, he seemed detached and distant.
“I’m sorry for what I did,” Bryan said. “But, there’s more to the story. I know I’m the bad guy, but we need to talk about everything.”
“Okay,” I said. “What else do you want to say?”
“We’ve had problems in our marriage for years. Both of us have been unhappy. I’m not offering any excuses for what I did. It was wrong, and I know I’ve hurt Susan badly. But, I’ve been hurt badly in other ways.”
“This is impossible for me to hear,” Susan said angrily. “How can he possibly justify his actions? There is absolutely no justification for having an affair. None.”
“I’m not giving an excuse,” Bryan said, still showing little emotion. I just want to have an opportunity to talk about my pain as well. There are deeper issues.”
“I wonder if this isn’t the time for that,” I said. “I don’t doubt that you two have complicated lives, with a complicated story. But, I think right now we need to deal with one issue at a time. The first issue to deal with is Susan’s pain and how you both can recover from this. Then we can move on to the deeper issues leading up to this affair.”
“I can do that,” Bryan said cautiously. “But I want to make sure I get my chance to talk. I’ve never felt like I could talk about what bothers me in this marriage---and that has something to do with what I did.”
Bryan and Susan are evidence that marriage issues are rarely simple, one-sided issues. While we might quickly come to Susan’s defense because of Bryan’s egregious actions, we’d be making a mistake by failing to look deeper at other contributing factors. While we certainly want to empathize with Susan’s pain, and hold Bryan accountable for his actions, we dare not get caught up in one person being the victim and the other being the villain. This won’t help us unravel the complexities of their problems.
How might we approach Bryan’s recent affair, the damage it has done to Susan, while also attending to his argument that there are “deeper issues.”
Let’s consider the path out of their current problems and to deeper healing. What is Bryan’s task and what must Susan do to assist with the healing?
First, neither person is villain nor victim. Such a point of view will not help them to heal. Both must be open to seeing the larger picture. Both must be open to seeing how they have injured the other, and assist the other with healing.
Second, each must take responsible for how they’ve wounded the other. Bryan, of course, had the affair. He broke the sacred boundaries of his marriage and has caused incredible harm. He must take responsibility for that, setting aside any justifications, rationalizations or defenses. He must attend to Susan and empathize with her pain. Then he must embark on a path of ensuring that this will never happen again.
Susan must listen for how she has hurt Bryan. This cannot happen immediately as she is caught up in her own pain. But, at some point, Bryan must have his day of talking about his wounds. Has he been rejected in the past? If so, Susan must own her part in wounding him. Then, she must set on a course of empathizing with his pain, taking full responsibility for her actions.
Third, both must see the other as wounded and needing healing. Both are in an excellent position to assist the other in healing. This requires setting their own issues aside and fully attending to the other. This isn’t easy when caught up in their own pain—but it is necessary.
Fourth, both must look for the deeper issues in their marriage. This catastrophe is an opportunity to explore other problems they have that have given rise to this problem. Again, there is no justification for an affair—however, there are reasons that must be understood if they want to ensure it never happens again.
Has communication broken down? Are there resentments that have gone unexpressed? Are they too busy to meet each other’s needs? Are the boundaries—hedges of protection—weak or ineffective? These are just a few possibilities of what might be happening below the surface.
Finally, both must agree on boundaries to ensure the sanctity of their marriage for the future. Boundaries create safety, and Bryan and Susan must reinforce their weakened boundaries, creating renewed safety. They must make agreements to fiercely guard the integrity of their marriage.
Infidelity is sadly a common issue in our society. This horrific violation of marriage vows cuts deeply, and recovery takes a long time. Trust can, however, be restored. Please write and let our readers know how you’ve overcome unfaithfulness. What steps helped you heal?
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center which you can read more about on his website at www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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