Decisions: To Fish (In A Hurricane) Or Cut Bait!

“Fish or cut bait!” It is one of those sayings you hear when it’s time to make a decision that shifts the course of life, one way or the other.  When marital infidelity is brought to the light, a husband and wife begin dealing with tumultuous feelings produced by this betrayal.  One client facing his wife’s affair with a good friend said, “I feel like I’m in a hurricane, and I’m no longer the captain of the ship…HE is!”  Confusion and shock are replaced by sadness, fear, anger, rage, embarrassment, shame, and guilt.  These waves of strong emotions in uncharted waters do not allow for thoughtful decision-making about how to proceed.

As hard as it is to believe, taking time to let the emotions level out can help both people get to a place where they can discuss salvaging their marriage or turning toward divorce.  Many hurt spouses remark that they never thought they would stay or fight for a marriage broken by infidelity.  It is difficult for hurt spouses to commit to a process of rebuilding trust.  Likewise, offending spouses worry they will never be considered trustworthy or wonder if they “chose the wrong one.”  Couples who eventually survive an affair, begin the journey to a better marriage with caution, ambivalence and trepidation.  Actually their mutual hesitation to re-commit to the marriage creates a common ground.  It is here that a better, stronger marriage can rise from the stormy seas of “what was.” In most cases a mediator, coach or counselor is useful in creating some ground rules to create safe communication in what seems like shark-infested waters.  These ground rules make it possible for each person to have a safe place to talk and to actively listen thereby creating emotional intimacy.   This emotional intimacy is typically the foundation needed to repair the marriage.

It makes sense that both the hurt spouse and the unfaithful spouse have pretty distorted perceptions of each other.  The hurt spouse may have difficulty believing there was a problem “in the marriage,” and might only see the adulterous spouse and their lover as culprits.  The adulterous spouse may have a skewed perception of their lover and their spouse, idolizing one and degrading the other.   These negative filters need to be challenged and new ways of relating to each other can be established.

Marital Infidelity: How Could This Happen!

If you are the person who has been betrayed, you might find it difficult to believe that your spouse “still loves you” and/or “doesn’t understand how this happened.”  Moreover, you might have unknowingly encouraged your spouse to spend time with their infidel.

The national news provides many examples of marital infidelity in people we believed to be “good people” with integrity and loyalty.  A post mortem of “how did this happen?” reveals many common characteristics leading to an affair.  I would like to describe some of the situations and circumstances that lead to an affair and some of the attitudes that lead to an affair.

In this economy and in American society many are more career-minded than they are marriage-minded. There is nothing really wrong with being ambitious and putting in extra hours at the office for the “big project” or to get that raise.  Over time however, this attitude allows the person to become more single-minded on work task completion.  They are lovingly excused from family obligations or begrudgingly allowed to stay at work for the good of the family.  The red flag here is that the priority moves away from the family/spouse for an extended period of time to something “more important.”  (The examples of the “newsmakers” depict long-term priorities such as wars, campaigns, movies, or entertainment tours).

Here, I need to emphasize an important characteristic of how a moral person bends to an affair.  There is a long term or chronic focus on something that subtly wears away the emotional connection and allegiance to the spouse.  This shift may be accommodated or even encouraged by the other spouse in order to “keep peace,” “fill in the absence,” or otherwise support a career.  So now, both partners in the marriage are encouraging the pursuit of some worthy goal that takes them away from each other, the perfect scenario for a third party to seep into an otherwise loving marriage.  This person is typically a coworker, an adoring subordinate, or an appreciative boss.  If it is the “at-home” spouse who becomes unfaithful, it is often with someone who “fills-in” for the absent spouse (chores, listening friend, neighborly).

It is possible to recover from this betrayal.  It is not easy but, it is well worth it in most cases.  Statistics suggest that most second marriages end in divorce and most therapists will tell you there are significant trust issues for both partners when their marriage is the result of an affair.  My next blog entry will continue with attitude and behavioral changes to repair the marriage.

Self Worth

Self-esteem, ego, and self-worth are sometimes used interchangeably. How does a person’s self-esteem develop and why is it such a big deal? Can self-esteem become too important?

How do you evaluate your self worth? Does your self worth go up or down based on your accomplishments, who loves you or how much you have acquired or contributed? What causes your self worth to suffer? How would your self worth be affected if you lost your job, made a serious mistake or went through a divorce? Does a new dress increase your self-worth and how long does that last?

Can you imagine your self worth being stable? Sometimes people enter into counseling complaining of anxiety or depression only to find out the core difficulty is their low self worth. However a counselor will do a disservice if the goal becomes to “pump you up,” or “make you” feel better. A healthier solution or “soul-ution” is to examine the person’s sources of self-worth and disconnect unhealthy sources and tether their self-evaluation to healthy meaningful sources.

As a counselor, I spend many hours talking with people about self worth. I may be trying to help someone break through the binding need to make sure they have “pleased everyone,” or “not disappointed anyone.” In the next hour I might be trying to help someone understand that their emotional instability stems from over-valuing one thing that gives them their identity (work, their child’s grades, their social standing, financial status). Ironically there is another group of people who manage their damaged self worth or hidden fears by hardening their hearts and becoming sarcastic, hostile and intolerant of mistakes and “whiners.” These folks have managed the problem in a way that alleviates their suffering, but it inflicts the suffering on others.

Our Greatest Need And Most Precious Gift

Two of my mentors are considered experts on the subject of forgiveness. I have read many of their articles… One of them has a prepared video of movie clips that portray relationships where there is a break-through in that hardness of the heart….movies where that wall erected by one person comes tumbling down…. that wall designed to protect against more pain or hide the anger and hurt created by the other’s transgression. Most of us can be moved to tears when we see humility grow and the pain subside as forgiveness leads two people to a reconciled relationship….becoming more accepting of each other’s humanity…. They may be called “girl movies,” but even a tough guy will be touched by the miracle of forgiveness. I do not use the word miracle lightly….for oftentimes forgiveness is possible for someone only with the help and the power of the indwelling Spirit of God Almighty. He will not invade our will, our bitterness, but if He is called upon or invited….He can help with the miracle of forgiveness.

Too often I have held on to the pain of a transgression, sometimes wanting to turn the other way and run, other times wanting to retaliate. There is a storm inside my soul, replete with sadness, disappointment, humiliation or a myriad of emotions. I think I have done many difficult things, but surely one of the most growth producing challenges in my life has to do with overcoming these feelings, stepping through these feelings to get to the other side…to forgive one who hurt me.

When, I get in line with Christ, and what He did for us, for me, when I think about the injustices that He endured during His time on this earth, then I begin to understand…. and I develop a desire to forgive. What an inspiration it is to know that He was asking God to forgive those who were crucifying Him…they did not seek the truth, they did not know the pure goodness of His heart. 

After a while, I am either walking on top of the water with Christ,or He gives me a solid foundation on which I can again begin to live. Ironically, as the years go by, I find myself more easily turning to Christ when I am hurt, and He is there. He is that friend that encourages me to feel that pain… for it is real, and then He asks me to give it all to Him, for He wants to share my burdens, and then take them as His own. I find myself turning to my friend, and more easily letting go of the pain, more able to forgive with His abiding love, and realizing the forgiveness I need for my own transgressions.

Forgiveness…our greatest need….our most powerful gift Colossians 3:13