As she walked back from the train station, suddenly, he was there in front of her. “I had to come back and speak to you,” he said. She knew immediately what he was going to tell her. They got inside the house and he started crying. Incredibly, she found herself comforting him — “It’s OK — nothing’s going to come of this,” she reassured him.
He had succumbed to the charms of a prostitute by the lifts in a business hotel. It was nothing, she told herself. Meaningless. Not his fault. Good that he confessed. Good for trust.
But then, from nowhere, the pain started. Imagining her beloved husband with another woman, imagining him wanting her — she started to obsess. She asked for every detail of the encounter, trying to understand, to connect. She went, like a lost soul, to the hotel, she stood by the lifts, she went up to the floor he thought he’d been on — to try to feel part of it, not excluded, from this event in her marriage.
It didn’t work. She felt empty. The emotional pain became acute and she would swing from loving and forgiving to raging and sobbing. Eventually, it all wore off, he became less contrite, they carried on, and she was never allowed to mention it again. In five years they were divorced.
As divorce lawyers, we hear stories like this, or tales of longer love affairs, every day. But it’s rarely the immediate cause of the divorce. It’s usually somewhere in the past, followed by bad temper, unkindness, neglect or repeated incidents. People tend to be very contrite when first discovered in an infidelity and then, slowly, the self reasserts and they kick back. It’s usually women who make the move to exit the marriage: Men rarely pull the trigger to divorce, though they may check out in all sorts of other ways.
If you want to get past an infidelity — and in the wake of the Ashley Madison revelations there may be plenty of people right now trying to do that — you can take broadly one of two approaches.
One is, one might say, the French way. Eh bien, la maîtresse, the lover — turn a blind eye unless it gets too heavy. Marriage is a structure, economic, child-rearing, social — the sexual and romantic nuances can ebb and flow from all sorts of directions and a dignified ignorance is the best policy. Many, more than you’d think of the chocolate box, picture perfect marriages you see are based on an accommodation, often unspoken, of that nature.
The other is the more full-blooded, down and dirty, figuring out what the hell happened. Some people are innately philanderous, they do it for fun and don’t really feel bad about it. There’s not much to be done about that. But most go into marriage meaning to be good, loving their partners and believing they have an exclusive bond. Breaking that, especially the first time, is hard, and usually happens because something is going wrong inside the relationship.
It can be that the relationship has fundamentally changed. You started out having fun together, working, studying, going out drinking and laughing — then children came along, the mother stayed home, gave up work, was suspicious of babysitters — you stopped having things to talk about, you stopped having sex.
The father got closer to women at work, found in them the woman, like Kate Bush’s Babushka — “just like his wife before she freezed on him; just like his wife when she was beautiful.” Or the other way — the husband becomes grumpy, absorbed with work, cold and angry and the wife looks for kindness, appreciation, love, desire, in another, from the tennis coach to the old flame.
If you want to, look at that breakdown, that change, and think about whether you can both get back to being the person you each fell in love with. You probably don’t want to be cold, angry, child-obsessed, dull.
If you look deeply at yourself and you really try to feel for your partner, it may be that compassion will let you forgive. And if you can, if you can love each other enough to take it as part of the waft and weave of your marriage, then you’ve got something pretty strong.
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