Tell me this – why would my wife have a one night stand, although she swears up and down she loves me and is crazy about me? She was out of town on business, she said she had no control over it, she is deeply regretful and ashamed. God, what do I do now, just the thought of this breaks me everyday. If she truly loved me, where was I in her mind when this happened? Does she truly love me, can something like this really just happen on accident? Its been months since this happened but it still feels to me like it was yesterday. She tries everyday to make me feel better but I just don’t, she lays by me at night but I feel like she is so far away, this has changed everything between us. I love her and always have, I’m devastated over this and need help.
Cheating is a breach of trust and sexual betrayal hurts like hell. That said, there are plenty of voices ready to condemn a cheating spouse, so presumably that niche is well filled and I’ll take a different angle. I assume you’ve asked your wife the “why” question you’re asking me now, and that her answer was unsatisfying. She may not know the answer to your question, or she may be too confused and ashamed to admit it – to you and to herself.
Sex is powerful. It’s sometimes more powerful than we want to believe. Sex held power over your wife that night, and it’s held power over you ever since. Sex is paradoxically simple and complicated. Simple in its basic innocence and instinctual roots. Complicated in that we attach worlds of meaning and expectation to it. Have you examined the meaning you attach to sex? I suggest you do. Much of the meaning we attach FEELS like common sense – natural, inherent, universal. But upon inquiry we may discover that the meaning we attach to sex is unconscious, unexamined, and perhaps even optional.
In simple terms – Yes, a person can conceivably love you AND have sex with someone else. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive things. In fact, couples negotiate all sorts of sexual arrangements to accommodate their values and desires. However, there’s a big difference between consensual agreements and betrayal.
For the one who has been betrayed there is sometimes real relational trauma. Sometimes the trauma is pre-existing and gets re-activated, sometimes the affair itself is traumatizing, especially if there is gaslighting and prolonged deception.
I know you’re hurt, and I feel for you. There will likely be a strong impulse for your wife to now pledge undying fidelity and demonstrate deep regret, for you to withdraw into your woundedness for a time, and for both of you to try and get back to “normal” as soon as possible. These are understandable and valid impulses, but see if you and your wife can muster the courage to honestly examine your assumptions, beliefs and agreements around sex.
Virtually every message that tells us how to live has one thing in common. It champions one or the other of two fundamental dual impulses. One is the impulse to merge – to connect or be one with another, an orientation toward “other”. The other is the impulse to separate – to be autonomous, an individual, an orientation toward “self”. These two impulses, or “sides” of ourselves appear everywhere in our lives as polar opposites –
Hold on vs Let go
Trust yourself vs Trust others
Take charge vs Surrender
Stay the course vs Embrace change
Try more vs Try less
Listen to your head vs Listen to your heart
Take vs Give
Rational vs Emotional
Simplicity vs Complexity
Individual vs Group
Self control vs Self expression
At various life stages we will each, rightly, favour one impulse over the other. Over the course of a lifetime, we will likely change how we orient to these two impulses many times over. We may also simultaneously favour one impulse in one aspect of our lives, and the opposite in another. Cultural biases, gender roles, personality patterns and other factors all have a role in shaping the process.
Neither impulse is essentially better or worse than the other. In fact, each ultimately holds the seed of its opposite. (The yin/yang symbol illustrates this beautifully.) We all align with each impulse at different times in our lives because we have developmental tasks that call on either “togetherness” or “separateness” at each stage of life. Each of these tasks is associated with one side or the other of the two poles. We move back and forth between poles as we mature, honing one, then the other. Head, then heart. Self, then other. Hold on, then let go. As we successfully attend to one aspect of our development and then the other, our expressions of each become more mature, and we become more healthy and whole, with greater capacity to appreciate and respond to all that life hands us.
As we fulfill the developmental tasks associated with one pole, it will miraculously, sometimes painfully, give way to the other. A client, Christopher, was stifled by extremely strict parents as a child. When he came to see me he was face to face with the task of finding his own self expression, his own voice. It was awkward and messy for a while. He hurt people around him and created chaos as he learned to un-censor himself. Eventually, as he fulfilled his task sufficiently, life began providing clues that it was time to orient back toward self-control, self-discipline. But this new version of control/discipline was different from the version that had been inflicted on him as a child. It was of a higher level, healthier. This illustrates an important point – Each pole has a spectrum of expressions that can be seen as more healthy or mature on the “higher” end, and less healthy or mature on the “lower” end. Imagine moving up a spiral as you mature through your life. You move around the spiral from one side to another (self then other, independence then connection) but each revolution also moves you to a higher level. Thus, a six year old’s expression of self, or other, will (hopefully!) be different from a sixty year old’s.
Gaining maturity and developing healthier relationships to both sides of ourselves allows us to loosen our grip on a particular point of view. Our self-righteousness relaxes. We experience greater flexibility and choice in our beliefs and our actions. Our relationships improve. Eventually, through hard-won experience and insight, the dual nature of the poles begins to dissolve. The rigidity of either/or gives way to the flexibility of both/and. Self AND other. Freedom AND responsibility. Connection AND autonomy. Contradiction gives way to its wise elder, paradox. Until this happens, we have a tendency to reject the parts of ourselves, and others, that represent the other side of the spiral from where we currently reside. If we’re presently tasked with growing the cooperative, generous, other-oriented side of our self, we’re likely to be biased against self-reliance and independence in all its forms, seeing them as “selfish”. If, instead, we happen to be currently developing healthier levels of individuation and self-orientation, we might view acts of generosity as manipulative, and all urges for connection as weakness or co-dependency.
A recent marriage and relationship article I wrote sparked intense response and debate from readers on both sides of the poles. For readers longing for deeper connection, the article was balm… a deep soulful YES. For those currently orienting toward the value of independence, the message felt toxic and untrue. While both poles are ultimately valid and important (in marriages and in all aspects of life) the messages we get can feel alternately challenging or validating depending on which pole we currently favour, and how healthy or mature our own expressions of “togetherness” and “separateness” are.
Here’s a scenario to further illustrate the point –
A new client comes to see me. They feel perpetually stuck in a co-dependent relationship pattern. Through therapy we discover that they feel torn between a familiar (but tired) impulse for togetherness, and an emerging (but frightening) impulse for autonomy. Are they being called to cross the pole over to independence? Or are they ready to explore a more mature form of togetherness? Should they leave their co-dependent relationship? Or should they attempt to transform it?
The core dilemma for each of us, at any juncture, is essentially this – Do I now focus on healthier expressions of my current orientation, or is it time to cross the spiral? More simply – Take this path further, or take a different path? We’re wise to be wary of simplistic, universal answers to this question.
It’s useful to remember that the inner compass that provides direction to our lives is not merely a product of applied willpower and rationality (forces well sanctioned and preferred by our culture), but rather arises from some deeper congruence of body, mind and spirit. Unconscious aspects of our path may remain hidden from us until we are ripe to recognize them. Many useful tools, insight practices and wisdom traditions are available to help ripen us in this regard. Jungians work with archetypes, myth and dreams. The enneagram provides a map based on different personality types. Attachment theory and family constellations therapy help us understand appropriate boundaries and developmental timelines. Cognitive and narrative therapies help clients piece together congruent views of self and others through examining beliefs in the face of evidence. In Hakomi we use mindfulness to notice those subtle aspects of our experience which point toward the next step of our healing, growth and integration.
Choose whichever tools suit you, take advice with a grain of salt, and be prepared to change your focus many times as you move between dual impulses on your life path.
The end of a relationship or marriage can feel like death. Grief is an appropriate response. This means anger, sadness, denial might all arise.
It’s visceral. Breathing is hard. You can’t sleep. For the person being left it can feel like the end of the world. You wonder if you’ll even survive. To say you’re hurt and confused or angry is too little. It feels much bigger, like everything has been turned upside down and shaken, like the ground has disappeared under your feet.
Along with negotiating urgent practical matters like finances, housing and parenting, you might also come face to face with abandonment, rejection and self-esteem issues, some of which may have been dormant and are arising for the first time.
This is a very, very tender spot to find yourself. It’s immensely uncomfortable. In my work as a counsellor I notice patterns and common tendencies in my clients. I’ve also identified opportunities and choice-points for moving forward in a healthy way. Here are five principles that can help –
1. Feel what you feel
Feelings aren’t negotiable. They can’t be wrong. They simply are. It’s important to feel what you feel. When we deny uncomfortable emotions they come back to haunt us, or they drive our behaviour from underneath consciousness, without our active consent. Rule of thumb – there’s no need to either encourage or deny feelings. Notice them, name them (“I feel sad”) and watch them change over time. Note – Anger is a feeling. Fear is a feeling. Sadness is a feeling. “S/He’s a control freak” isn’t a feeling. (More on that in a future article.)
2. Take thoughtful action
We don’t necessarily choose our feelings, although we choose how we act on them. As much as noticing our feelings is important, it would be a mistake to act on them without consulting our rational, thinking self. The trouble is, when strong feelings are present we don’t have much access to the part of our brain that makes well-considered choices. Take some time. Let feelings settle before you make important decisions around child custody, financial agreements or emails to the in-laws. Breathe.
3. Get support, but not from your (ex)partner
The person who is leaving the relationship is almost certainly not the person to help you cope with the pain you feel. You might feel extremely needy or drawn to this person right now. Do not give in to the urge to seek comfort there, especially if it is not offered. If you are holding out hope for reconciliation, say so, but then get support elsewhere. Seeing you pick yourself up, brush yourself off and take support from others is the most attractive thing about you right now in your (ex)partner’s eyes. Turn to friends, family and community for support. Tell them what helps, and what doesn’t. Find a counsellor or therapist that you trust.
4. Stay open, even when it hurts
When we feel hurt and angry we look for an explanation. We want to understand. We assume we shouldn’t feel this way, that it’s a big problem. And so we search for a reason. The reason we find is almost always some version of I’m bad or They’re bad or The world is bad. What these three positions all offer is a way out of the confusion. Assigning cause (blame) does relieve some tension. The problem is that each of these three beliefs locks us into an adversarial relationship – with self, with other, or with reality (the world). I’m not saying that your relationship ending wasn’t caused by you or them or the unfairness of the world. But getting too fixated on any of those causes makes you rigid and closed to possibilities that might be just around the corner.
5. Help others
This piece of advice was given to me by a friend over a decade ago when a relationship was ending and I was in deep pain. His simple and wise words led me to the act of writing this for you now. Helping others gets us out of our own head and puts us in direct contact with the universal experience of suffering. Everybody hurts. Help someone. Share their pain, and feel your own soften.