The Chastened Adulterer: How an Affair Is Like a Heart Attack and The Case for Psychotherapy
Dear Belladonna Rogers,
I read your last advice column, "Adultery Is Bad, Telling Your Spouse Is Worse," and the comments it provoked. I have a question that no one raised: is it possible for a chastened adulterer to become a good -- even a great -- spouse?
Chastened in Chicago
The answer is a resounding yes. With serious introspection -- if at all possible aided by serious psychotherapy with a licensed, qualified, and, in a best case scenario, a highly experienced therapist -- yes.
Note: To avoid the awkward “his/her,” “himself/herself” phrasing, I’ll refer to “him” in this column, by which I intend to include “her.” Whenever I refer to a “husband” and his conduct toward his wife, it applies equally to a wife’s conduct toward her husband, or any partner’s behavior toward his or her partner.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that your post-adultery decision to make an effort to mend your wandering ways and succeed at becoming a good or great husband should not begin with confessing your adultery to your wife, unless you're forced by circumstances to do so.
There were many comments last week to the effect that if you don’t confess, your spouse will love a person who isn’t “the real you.” My reply is that no one knows everything, even everything important, about his spouse. It’s neither helpful nor useful to make such a confession. It’s hurtful and counterproductive to the marriage.
One reader wrote that since infidelity is grounds for divorce, a secret adulterer deprives his wife of the knowledge that she has the legal basis for ending the marriage. To that I say that if the husband has ended his affair and is seeking to keep his marriage and family intact, it makes no sense whatsoever for him to inform his wife that she has grounds for a divorce. That’s the last thing he wants or, frankly, should want.
Others emphasized that absolution requires an apology to the person you betrayed. While no Judeo-Christian-based religion condones adultery, I stand with the commenter last week who wrote this.
Confessions to a member of the clergy can certainly give one a good start on the road to fidelity in marriage. For at least the past 20 years, many Catholic priests hearing confessions of adultery have recommended psychotherapy, and have even given their parishioners the names of competent therapists.
WHY A CHASTENED ADULTERER CAN, POTENTIALLY, MAKE A BETTER SPOUSE THAN ONE WHO HAS NEVER STRAYED (NOT AN ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF ADULTERY)
An errant husband with a deep desire to mend his ways by understanding why he’s been vulnerable to, or even open to, extramarital temptation has the potential to become an even better husband after an affair (or after decades of affairs with numerous partners) than a non-adulterous spouse. This is not a recommendation to commit adultery. It’s just a statement of fact.
Unlike a faithful husband, an adulterer must -- if only briefly -- contemplate how much he'd lose if his wife learned of his extramarital conduct.
A man who has looked into the terrifying abyss of life without his partner and children is a man unlikely to take his wife for granted. He's come too close to losing her and he knows it.
To change his ways, the adulterous husband must examine the inner triggers that have led him into adultery, be it once or serially.
Some may sneer that the “inner triggers” require no advanced degrees to decipher. The triggers consist of nothing more complex than an appealing cleavage, a lively smile, gorgeous legs, an attractive posterior, or a suggestive come-hither gaze across a crowded room.
Such enticements are almost everywhere. Why is a man prone to respond to one temptation, but not to all?
Through serious therapy, an individual can discover clues to when and why the urge to wander occurs. When is he most vulnerable? It may seem like a no-brainer that the reason the urge occurs is that temptation has suddenly reared its head, but the question remains: why was one vulnerable then? Or, if always vulnerable, why is one constantly at risk?
HOW POST-ADULTERY THERAPY IS LIKE RECOVERING FROM A MAJOR HEART ATTACK
The conscious decision to make a fundamental change in one’s personal life is analogous to the choice to act in a way to make a second heart attack unlikely after a first one.
By and large, when one has dodged a life-threatening bullet of any kind, one has a keener sense of gratitude for everyday reality than someone who hasn't ever felt the soul-chilling breath of the Angel of Death hovering close, or who's never realized how close he has come to losing his marriage. It can be sobering and life-changing.
When you've dodged The Big One, you know it.
As in the period after a first heart attack, when diet and exercise and other lifestyle changes must be made to avoid a second brush with death, in the time after an affair a man who wants to become a faithful husband must make a conscious decision to change his ways.
No cardiologist or heart surgeon, no matter how brilliant or learned, can keep a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza out of the hands or mouth of a man who refuses to accept that these foods will do nothing but produce fleeting, albeit intense, pleasure while also coating the interior of his arteries with life-threatening plaque.
The choice of whether to prevent another heart attack or to prevent another adulterous affair is one that only the individual can make. A choice to change one’s patterns of behavior requires high motivation and Herculean resolve. A trained physician or therapist can help, but not unless the patient feels a deep need to behave differently in order to produce a different response to the same stimulus the next time.