Is it possible? Would it help me if I felt this way? Might I stand, with my head held high, proud that I decided to work on my marriage, to save it from divorce even though my husband betrayed me? Is it possible to be proud of a marriage that has weathered adultery and which bears deep scars and wounds which won’t go away and which only adultery can inflict? Can I accept, with pride, that my marriage is no longer built on a promise of fidelity? Might the world at large recognise that betrayed spouses who don’t kick the betrayer out are entitled to be respected for their actions? Maybe…
Yesterday I listened to a TED talk by an American guy named Andrew Solomon. “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are”. He modestly describes himself as a student of adversity and has, over many years, looked to how people who are faced with adversity gain strength from their difficult and seemingly impossible challenges. In his talk he integrates his research with his own survival of a painful childhood and although not directly concerned with coping with adultery, his talk offered me a fresh insight in coping with my husband’s adultery by seeing it as adversity.
For Solomon, meaning is not found. We have to forge meaning. When adversity hits, it has not been sent to us a ‘gift’ but instead we have the option to choose to use the adversity as a gift to create meaning. He talked about “avoidance and endurance” as tactics to survive painful experiences and suggests that these feelings are the entry to forging meaning. Once, you have forged meaning you can then make that part of your identity. There is a need to take the worst part of the trauma and fold it into a narrative of triumph over things that hurt. We can then become a “better self”.
A useful distinction that he made was substituting ‘but’ for ‘and’. So, not, I am married BUT my husband committed adultery; instead, I am married AND my husband committed adultery. He also talks about developing a stronger identity by entering a community. He discusses Gay Pride and what that has been able to achieve for stigmatised gay identities. It was this concept that made me think of betrayed and proud. If there is one thing I have noted from the betrayed spouse blogs is a sense of personal pride amidst the shame of adultery. He notes that if we are ashamed we can’t tell our stories but it is stories that are the cornerstone of identity.
How society views us as the betrayed spouse is also significant. We are unfairly stigmatised for being the spouse who forgives/accepts adultery. Solomon suggested a balance between constraint on the one hand and breaking limits on the other in order to have a valid life. As a betrayed spouse I have demonstrated constraint by not seeking revenge and by acting as well as I can with dignity so that I don’t drop to the level of my husband’s behaviour. However, I strongly feel that more needs to be done to validate what we betrayed spouses do when we decide to stay rather than divorce. He sums this up quite well when he says that “crumbs are not the same as a place at the table – which means that you can forge meaning and build identity but still be mad as hell”. I often feel this and rant about it in this blog. I get angry at the way our society romanticises the acts of adultery for the betrayer and their extra marital activities whilst indifferent to the effects on the betrayed spouse and family.
Handling adversity in this way does not make the wrong right but it can make it precious. We don’t actively seek these painful experiences that hew our identities but we can seek to build our identity in the wake of them. Solomon says that what we all abhor is pointless torment. We can only endure pain if it is purposeful. Therefore, no matter how dispirited I get sometimes, my pain is not pointless if I am continually forging meaning and building my identity in the wake of it all – to be a stronger me, the heroine of my own life story, triumphing over the hurt of adultery. As Isak Dinesen, the author of ‘Born Free’ famously said “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them”
“Adversity is like a strong wind. I don’t mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.”
Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha.
Image Credits: Winner by renjith; Hand Forge by Bill Longshaw; Gold Star Award by pixtawanvia; freedigitalphotos.net