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The bottom line is figuring out what to do when it happens.
Cheating spouses is a hot-button topic for many people, mainly because it falls in that gray area (somewhere between social law and religious law). And that’s why the answers aren’t just perplexing for people like you, but for entire countries around the world. For example, in 2001, the state of Virginia prosecuted an attorney, John R. Bushey Jr., for adultery. The result? He pleaded guilty and was given a $125 fine. Now, you understand why I said it’s not considered a worthwhile legal pursuit.
But while the United States, Europe, and other Western countries rarely prosecute adultery, in other countries it’s a different kettle of fish. Take South Korea for example. In late 2008, in what was probably the most famous case of criminalized adultery, Ok So-ri (one of South Korea’s most famous actresses) was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence for adultery. (Her lover was given six months.) In fact, South Korea is one of the few remaining non-Muslim countries where adultery remains a criminal offense to this day. A person found guilty of adultery in South Korea can be jailed for up to two years. But if you think South Korean courts take adultery seriously, their consequences are nothing when compared to some Muslim countries.
According to Amnesty International, several Muslim countries including
Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Yemen, all have laws that make adultery punishable by stoning offenders to death. And in Afghanistan (under the Taliban rule), adulterous couples were often killed together.
This tells us that if we look to the justice system for clues as to what are the appropriate consequences (or lack thereof) when dealing with philandering spouses, the answers are all over the board. In the United States (when legally pursued), you can expect anywhere from a $10 fine to a $125 fine. Outside the United States, it ranges from South Korea’s suspended prison sentence all the way to being stoned to death in Yemen.
Before we go any further, let me ask you a question.
Do you believe that adultery should carry legal consequences from our justice system?
As you think about your answer, consider this:
There are two schools of thought on the validity of the legal pursuit of adultery by the justice system — those who support it and those who don’t. The supporters of legal consequences argue two main points: (1) Adultery should be prosecuted because it tears down the fabric of home and family life. Therefore, it’s a crime against society (not just individuals) and that’s why it should be punishable by law; and (2) Giving it legal consequences will create deterrents and protect mainly women from philandering husbands.
The second school of thought (those who are against legal consequences) also present two main arguments: (1) “Private and consenting acts” shouldn’t be governed by law (1965 Lawrence v. Texas); and (2) Legal pursuit will simply become a means of revenge by the spouse, allowing embittered spouses to use the courts as a vehicle for retribution instead of justice.
So I’m curious to know your opinion. Where do you stand? I think it’s important to know where you stand on this issue, because it will help you understand where you want to go from here.
Here’s what I mean:
Since there are no standard consequences for dealing with infidelity from a legal point of view, this means that how it is handled will vary from person to person and situation to situation (just like it does from country to country). So, basically, it comes down to who you are — and what you believe is right, just, and fair.
Now, the real work begins.
In wanting to learn how to deal with an unfaithful spouse, what you’re really asking is this: “What is my function here, and what is the appropriate response?” Both are valid questions. And asking questions means you want to learn.
Since no one is ever prepared to deal with this type of situation, chances are, you aren’t sure what you believe is right, just, and fair… or what your role or function ought to be. This means you’ll have to uncover your beliefs and let them guide you in finding answers that make sense to you.
To help you begin that journey of discovery, I have compiled a list of five guiding questions.
Let’s go over them next…
Do you believe that extramarital affairs violate personal boundaries, social boundaries or God's law?
Why this question matters:
According to some people, extramarital affairs are a private matter between consenting adults and does not violate any law. Others believe it violates God’s laws of marriage and morality. Others believe it violates social laws because it breaks down families, which in turn breaks down communities. Knowing where you stand will help you determine how you want to proceed. For example, if you believe it violates God’s law, then you’ll need to work out the consequences within the context of forgiveness and unforgiveness.
Do you believe in “eye-for-an-eye” justice or in “turn-the-other-cheek” justice?
Why this question matters:
When it comes to dealing with injustice in your personal life, there are two basic approaches. The first approach is “an eye for an eye”, where the injured party seeks revenge and retaliation. This can range from guilt all the way to murder. The second approach is “to turn the other cheek”, where forgiveness is the remedy used to counteract the negative effects of the insult or injury.
In theory, most people will say they believe in the turn-the-other-cheek approach, but in reality, when confronted with situations like this, many people discover they’re actually the eye-for-an-eye type. It can be shocking to find out that we may not be as gracious or noble as we’d like to think we are. The key isn’t to judge yourself but simply to uncover what you truly believe in and learn from it.
Do you believe that punishment automatically leads to correction?
Why this question matters:
As children, most of us were raised in a system based on reward and punishment. Most children get rewarded for doing the things that are socially approved, and punished when they do things that aren’t. Often, when parents spank children, they tell the children it is for their own good. The belief is that punishment and pain will teach the child and lead to their success. Do you agree? It’s important for you to know because if you’re of the school that believes pain is a good teacher, then you’ll need to see your partner punished and in pain before you feel justice has been served. Keep in mind, however, that just as with raising children, using pain and punishment to teach is only ONE possible road to take, not the ONLY road to take.
Do you see yourself as a victim or as a witness of this event?
Why this question matters:
Someone once said, “It’s not what happens to us that causes the most pain; it’s the way we interpret what happens.” I believe this concept holds true here. The fact that your husband cheated is the reality, but the “why he did” and “what it means” and “how it relates to you” are all your interpretations. And it’s your interpretation of what it means that determines how you feel, as well as how you will react.
Are you the victim or the witness?
These are basically the two ways to view yourself in this situation: One is as a “victim” (he did this to me, he hurt me, he was out to get me). From this perception, you were his sole target for deliberate malice and treachery. The second way is to see yourself as a “witness” (he strayed; he let himself down). From this perception, you see yourself as an innocent bystander (onlooker) but not the intended target. Keep in mind that people who see themselves as victims usually demand restitution and payback, while people who see themselves as bystanders usually want proof of recovery.
What is your function? Is it to fix him, crucify him, punish him, or love him?
Why this question matters:
It’s my opinion that even if you didn’t take the time to answer any of the previous questions, you should at least take the time to answer this one.
Here’s why: getting clear on what function or role you want to play in this experience will help you be clear on how you want to deal with it.
If you feel it’s your function to crucify him, then you’ll want to see him suffer for the pain he has caused you.
If you view your function as some type of a divine enforcer, you make it your goal to be sure he suffers for his infidelity, or until you feel justice is served.
However, as tempting as it might be to make sure people suffer for the pain they have caused, please keep in mind that you cannot crucify someone else without crucifying yourself right alongside them because the mere wish to cause suffering in another instantly causes you to suffer.
If you feel it’s your function to punish him, then you’ll view your role like that of a parent with a naughty child. This means you’ll devise appropriate time-outs, withhold certain favors, take away privileges, etc. But when parents punish (which isn’t the same as allowing natural consequences), what are they really trying to accomplish? Well, we know for the most part their intention is good, because what they’re hoping to do is correct the child’s behavior. Therefore, they tell themselves that pain brought on by punishment will teach the child never to do this, and thereby correction is achieved.
But I’m not so convinced this works.
If you’ve read any of my work, you know where I stand on the “punishment-leads-to-correction” strategy. You already know it’s my opinion that it doesn’t work.
Why? Because I believe that punishment doesn’t correct behavior; it only forces a temporary compliance. And you know what lurks under compliance? You guessed it: defiance.
Here’s another thing to note: you cannot punish another without punishing yourself.
Why? Because no thought leaves the mind of the thinker, and all deeds are returned to the doer.
If you feel it’s your function to fix him, then you’ll see yourself as his savior, his rescuer, his therapist. You’ll feel responsible for making him better, for improving him, and for healing him. As noble as this appears, it’s actually a dysfunctional place to be. Here’s why: if you believe he needs to be fixed, then you must assume he’s broken. If you think he needs to be rescued, then you must assume he’s helpless. And if you assume he needs to be saved, then you must also assume he’s incapable of saving himself.
The challenge with all of these assumptions is that it puts him in an inferior position to yourself, therefore you no longer see him as capable, worthy, or competent. This loss of respect makes it impossible for you to truly be helpful. In fact, in trying to fix others, we inadvertently cause more harm than good.
What if you feel it’s your function to love him?
Well, that’s a completely different kettle of fish. If you feel your function is to love him, then you’ll see yourself as his friend first and wife second. Rather than seeing him as disappointing you, you’ll see how he has disappointed himself. Rather than focusing on the deception he has weaved for you, you can see how much more elaborate his self-deception must have been… since no one can fool others without first being a fool himself. As his friend, you can love him despite his shortcomings because friends are able to see friends as separate human beings (not extensions of themselves).
Does this make sense?
Listen. Even if you don’t agree with every single thing I’ve presented so far, I do believe these ideas are worthy of your consideration because they’re aligned with truth and higher learning. And if you’re willing to be honest with yourself, I’m sure you can find examples from your own life where mistakes have led to true transformation.
As you think about that, consider the following honest perspectives…
If You Can't Permit a Man to Be Human, You Can't Love Him
Love doesn’t make humans perfect. We all make mistakes, regardless of being in love or not. A bank robber might be deeply in love and still rob banks. It’s important to note that making mistakes is part of the human experience. Therefore, the unwillingness to forgive mistakes is really the denial of a person’s humanity. And that’s why compassion is such an important virtue for all of us.
Those Who Condemn Have a Heavy Investment in Being Right
To condemn is to have the fixed belief that a person cannot change. What is condemned is condemned forever and therefore unforgivable. Those who have condemned others don’t want to feel guilty about their judgment, and so they’ll always look for evidence to prove that they are right. You may not have realized this yet, but the penalty for contempt is the experience of contempt for yourself. Why? Because no thought ever leaves the mind of the thinker. When you think hate… you experience hate. When you think contempt… you experience contempt. And when you think love… you experience love.
Wrong Actions Don't Correct Wrong Actions
Here’s how one of my mentors (Richard Wetherill) once put it: “A person really can’t get into trouble by taking right action. They get into trouble by taking wrong action. They might gain something by taking wrong action, but they pay more for it than it’s worth. And they may lose something by taking right action, but they gain something far more precious.”
Keep this in mind: Regardless of what you decide to do, the consequences of your thoughts and actions return to you. Wrong actions (regardless of whether they’re provoked or not) will return wrong consequences. However, the opposite is also true… right actions (regardless of difficulty) will always return right results.
The Walls that Keep out Hurt are the Same Walls that Keep out Happiness
No part of you needs to die under the strain of this experience. Instead, you can let it nourish you and strengthen you, and you can find ways to convert the dirt dished out into diamonds. However, this begins with choosing to heal the hurt, not burying it or building walls around it. Here’s why building walls doesn’t work: defensive walls create a boundary between you and the rest of us. While you think you are safe behind those walls, it’s really an illusion because what you’ve done is put yourself in a mental prison… for a crime you didn’t commit.
Recovery Is a Decision
What is recovery?
It’s a shift in your perception. It’s a shift from victim to survivor… from hurt to healed… from punishment to letting go… from guilt to innocence… from condemnation to forgiveness… from pride to peacefulness… from hopelessness to empowerment… from seeking justice to finding closure… and from fear to love.
But here’s the thing about recovery:
It usually doesn’t happen the way most of us think it does.
For example, recovery doesn’t wait for time; it waits for your permission. Recovery isn’t a passive experience; it requires your active participation. Recovery isn’t automatic; it takes effort. And it’s not a bitter obligation to go through kicking and screaming, but rather, it’s a gentle process. As a matter of fact, recovery and gentleness of thought is exactly the same thing.
Now, the question becomes…
Do you want to punish, or do you want to be happy?
Those are your only two options. You can’t have both. To choose one is to reject the other. If you want to punish, then I have nothing else to offer you. We part ways as friends. However, if you would like to be happy, I have seven recommendations for you on how to deal with infidelity.
Let’s go over them now…
Not because it’s the right thing to do, or because it’s a religious duty, but forgive because it’s the get-out-of-jail-free card for you. Forgiveness is a rational act of self-love, because it frees you first. Forgiving also helps you do three very important things:
- Release resentment
- Move past debilitating anger
- Be released from fear of the future
Remember: Unforgiveness creates a war you can’t win, because the price you pay to keep that war going is your own health, happiness and peace of mind.
Note to Self: Forgiveness doesn’t obligate you to stay together. Forgiving a person and saving a marriage are two separate decisions. However, if you stay together, forgiveness is necessary. If you break up, forgiveness is still necessary. Why? Because forgiveness is for you.
Listen and Learn
This one can be very hard at first. But think about it this way: If you had a teenager who was acting out — say, you caught them taking drugs, lying, stealing, or bullying other kids — maybe your first response would be disbelief, quickly followed by anger and then a profound disappointment. However, as any good parent does discover, eventually, you want to learn why and what’s triggering this behavior. And the best way to do that is by sitting down and opening your mind, heart, and ears… and listening to them.
Here’s the key to listening: You cannot listen if you’re busy talking in your own mind. You can’t hear what they’re saying if, on the inside, you’re busy arguing, discrediting, and rejecting their words. Remember that listening is not the same as analyzing. If you truly want to learn what’s going on, you must be willing to listen (which requires you to mute your own mental conversations).
Listening can be very therapeutic for couples. I’ve facilitated listening sessions with couples, and usually, they’re very surprised at what they learn from each other. Sometimes, this can turn out to be a very healing and transformative experience for both partners.
Say What You Mean, Just Don't Say It Mean
It’s important to note that arguing, badgering, the silent treatment, stonewalling, screaming, sarcasm, and defensiveness aren’t forms of communication — they’re all forms of attack.
If the majority of your communications fall into these categories, then you’re in a power struggle, not a relationship. You’re no longer partners, you have become opponents. The problem with power struggles is that there are no winners, only victims.
Often, the biggest ways people attack is by cloaking their truth in venom, and then justifying it by believing… “Just because a statement is true, it’s okay to cloak it in spite.” (That would be like substituting vinegar for water, just because it’s a liquid.) The truth cloaked in spite is still spiteful. And spitefulness is an attack.
To truly communicate, you must be willing to surrender the desire to attack. To truly communicate, you must be willing to put your thoughts, feelings, and ideas into words that help others to understand. When you attack, you don’t help others understand you, you actually block their understanding altogether. Remember: It’s okay to say what you mean, you just don’t have to say it meanly.
Get Professional Advice
This is an important part of putting it all back together. It’s my opinion that before you walk away, throw your hands up in the air, or try to figure it out on your own, it might be useful for you to get a second viewpoint on your situation — one that isn’t emotionally entangled. I suggest you find a good therapist, a gentle counselor, or maybe a religious leader. If you don’t already have someone in mind, feel free to click on this link to schedule a private phone, FaceTime or Skype session with me.
Why do I believe that seeking professional guidance is so important? I believe it’s important for the same reason that you go to an expert mechanic if your car breaks down or to a dentist if you have a toothache… in times like this, you want an expert.
Encourage Them to Accept Atonement
What is atonement?
Here’s a definition I like: Atonement means… “being at one.” The word “atone” literally means “at one.” Therefore, atonement means to return to wholeness or healing. So, a better way to pronounce the word is like this: at*one*ment.
When I speak of atonement, I’m not speaking of it in any religious context. Instead, think of atonement in this way: It’s accepting forgiveness for our mistakes (self-forgiveness) and correcting the thinking that led to the mistakes in the first place. Notice that atonement has two components: (1) Self-Forgiveness; and (2) Self-Correction. Both restore the person to a place of wholeness, healing and balance.
By encouraging your partner to make peace with his past, cancel the guilt, correct his thinking (so he can move towards healing), it’s not only an act of graciousness on your part, it’s also a sign of shrewd intelligence. Here’s why: As long as he continues to deny himself forgiveness and carry a sense of guilt for the affair, he remains vulnerable to cheating again. This comes as a surprise for many people who incorrectly assume that feeling guilty is a sign of correction, when in fact, it’s the exact opposite.
Guilt is a sign we have NOT corrected the thinking that created the mistake in the first place.
How can I be sure? Because the second you correct the thinking that led to the mistake, you stop feeling guilty, because you’re confident you will not repeat the mistake. There’s no need to punish yourself once you have had learning success. NOTE: Remorse is not the same as guilt. Looking at a past mistake with regret produces a feeling of remorse, but looking at a past mistake with shame, anger, or fear produces guilt. What it basically boils down to is this:
Guilt is a sign of learning failure.
Atonement is a sign of learning success.
Second Important note: Atonement is NOT the same as letting off the hook, scapegoating, or compensation. In this case, it strictly speaks to the restoration of right thinking after wrong action.
Allow Them to Make Amendments
What are amendments?
When we’re truly sorry for our wrong actions, some part of our mind wants to find a way to make up for what we have done. (This desire is natural). The way we choose to express that is called an amendment. And I believe making amends is an important part of the reconciliation process. There are hundreds of different ways to make amends, from a heartfelt apology, all the way up to a $4 million diamond ring (a la Kobe Bryant). The thing to note about making amends is that it’s not the gesture that makes it count; it’s the sincerity. This is why you can’t fake amends or try to buy your way back into good standing without causing further offense.
I’ve seen people attempt this hundreds of times.
For example: One day, a wayward partner calls me up totally exasperated. “I have done everything!” he complains. “I have bought her flowers, jewelry, furs, new cars, candy, everything I can think of. I have written letters of apology, sent emails saying how sorry I am. I have walked the dog, done the dishes, trimmed my beard, and still she won’t forgive me. What else am I supposed to do? Should I go sit in the middle of the road and allow a bus to run over me so she can see how sorry I am?”
Sometimes I’m tempted to feel sorry for them. But only for a minute, because I know it’s not the gestures that are being rejected — it’s the lack of sincerity.
The key to making amends is the sincerity behind the actions.
However, when you notice they are really trying, I believe it’s more helpful to be gracious than spiteful. Why? Because your willingness to allow them to make amends (when sincere) inspires their gratitude. And that’s the first step in the right direction.
Make the Necessary Adjustments
Well, that about covers it all.
I know when you wrote me, you wrote me with a purpose in mind, and that purpose had to do with making things okay again. I have faith that I have pointed you towards what you need to do in order to restore that sense of okay-ness in your life.
I’ve done my part, and now it’s your turn.
As a wise teacher once told me, “The best way to teach is by approach and not by avoidance, and a good coach does not emphasize what you must do to avoid hurt, but rather what you need to learn to embrace joy.” In this, I wish you learning success.
Until we speak again…
Remember… Love Wins!