- I have been grappling with the idea of adultery as a form of abuse for a while now. The reason for this has been that I have been unable to find any definition or accurate articulation that comes close to describing the severity of what I have experienced whilst living with an unfaithful husband, either at the time whilst it was going on or after it had ended when I had to confront the consequences of what his behaviour had created. For me, on the receiving end of his behaviour, it felt like abuse.
When my husband decided to shag Pig Shit without sharing this information with me, it wasn’t the sex, the betrayal of intimacy, which had any immediate impact upon me. Not at the time it was occurring. Whilst this sordid little arrangement was taking place I was in complete and utter ignorance of the act, but over time I did become bereft, isolated, totally confused and lost within our relationship. I also developed physical symptoms such as headaches, nose bleeds, pains in my legs and anxiety attacks. What was an easy going, happy marriage became the location for arguments and tears as I desperately tried to understand what was going wrong with us. With me! However, my hurt and anger were dismissed as ‘unbearable’ to him. The man who I thought I knew had become cold and distant. He looked at me without compassion and just shrugged, saying his feelings had changed. He was deceitful and manipulative and consciously took away my basic human right to be angry with him. I wonder now, was he trying to defuse my anger in order to weaken my capacity to resist what was happening? I know now that I was manipulated and deceived by my husband’s acts of disrespect for me and his coercion in the form of denial of my reality in order to get me to comply with his new and disturbing change of feelings within our marriage. This was a terrible time for me, a lonely isolating experience which was orchestrated by my husband. This experience, which I suspect is faced by most betrayed spouses is the underplayed, underwritten, almost ignored aspect of adultery in most current discussions and observations. However, I believe this is denying a huge reality; the reality that committing adultery is a form of abuse towards the betrayed spouse. I suspect that until it is recognised as such it will continue to be misrepresented and misconceived.
Having just read a book by therapist Lundy Bancroft ‘Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men’ (recommended by Valkyrie), I have found a bridge to understand my experience as abuse. It also provides the lens with which to understand the why of my husband’s adultery differently. Although this book is primarily concerned with domestic violence, the parallels that can be drawn are remarkable. To me at least. And, as Lundy points out early in his book “even if your partner’s behaviour doesn’t fit the definition of abuse, it may still have a serious effect on you”. For Lundy, the term abuse “is about power; it means that a person is taking advantage of a power imbalance to exploit or control someone else.” My husband took advantage of my trust in him and stopped his honesty with me in order to be unfaithful with another woman. Without my knowledge or consent he changed the rules of our relationship. There was a definite shift in power towards him during this time. Whilst the normal gamut of therapeutic solutions to adultery leaves me spitting feathers due to the outrageous blame shifting that seems to occur, Lundy’s approach is a breath of fresh air. For me, by replacing the word abuse with adultery, his perspective provides a wonderful antidote to any victim blaming approach in adultery and provides a useful blueprint for the requirements of a marital recovery. One that mirrors what has occurred with my husband and me since D-day, three and a half years ago. Let me share some of his ideas with you.
Firstly, in his therapeutic program the mistreated woman is the person primarily served, NOT the abuser. It is believed that it is not possible to get an accurate picture of what is going on in an abusive relationship without listening carefully to the abused woman. “The women’s accounts have taught us that abusive men present their own stories with tremendous denial, minimisation and distortion.” How many adulterers I wonder are guilty of this when in counselling?
Nothing prepares you for adultery and there is nothing that can alleviate the pain and grief that follows. Only betrayed spouses fully understand what the experience is. Blogs are a wonderful way to obtain first-hand accounts of the experience of adultery but there is, in stark contrast, a developing modern mythology about committing adultery which is being created and in the main it seems to be by the betrayers themselves. Adulterers concoct explanations for their actions which they give to their partners, therapists, relatives, clergy and social researchers and these explanations are turned into ready answers and solutions for the ‘problems’ of monogamy. But as Lundy makes clear “it is a serious error to allow abusers to analyse and account for their own problems”. These responses are nothing but excuses for committing adultery and are not a reliable form of insight. A person happy to commit adultery is hardly an authority on the subject. But the myth persists – the betrayer’s behaviour is caused by how he feels within his marriage. For Lundy, this is absurd. “Although our feelings can influence how we wish to act, our choices of how to behave are ultimately determined more by our attitudes and our habits. For decades, many therapists have been attempting to help abusive men change by guiding them in identifying and expressing feelings. Alas, this well-meaning but misguided approach actually feeds the abuser’s selfish focus on himself.” Understanding an adulterer needs us to understand their way of thinking at that time, not what their feelings may have been at the time.
“An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside”. In short, the core problem is that he has a distorted sense of right and wrong. The problem lies above all in his belief that controlling or abusing his partner is justifiable. Whether I like it or not, this reverberates around my husband’s behaviour towards me at that time. He gave himself the green light to behave as he did. I believe that he did not have any ‘psychological’ problems, but that it was his value system that was unhealthy. The self-esteem myth is a red herring and mistakenly moves the focus from the thinking of an adulterer to their feelings. Equally, it ignores the huge role that the sense of entitlement plays. “Entitlement is the abuser’s belief that he has special status and that it provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner”. My husband considered himself entitled to have his cake and eat it too, without a thought for my feelings or the consequences this might hold for me and our relationship.
Constantly, throughout the year of adultery he denied it. This is common in abuse. “Of course he’s going to deny it, partly to protect himself and partly because his perceptions are distorted”. If my husband had been ready to accept responsibility for his actions in the relationship, he wouldn’t have been committing adultery. His adultery occurred due to his attitudes and values, not his feelings. Committing abuse is not a product of emotional injuries or deficits in skills. It springs from early cultural training, key role models and peer influences. It is a problem of values. The role of culture and its impact on our experience cannot be underestimated. Personally I hope that cultural values around adultery can change over time if people find that individuals who cheat on their spouses are made to feel answerable rather than excused.
Interestingly, Lundy insists that “no one should ever tell an abused woman, ‘I know just what you’re going through’, because the experience of everywoman is different. Viewed from another angle, however, abuse doesn’t vary that much. One man uses a little more of one ingredient and a little less of the other, but the overall flavour of the mistreatment has core similarities: assaults on the woman’s self-esteem, controlling behaviour, undermining her independence, disrespect. Each abused woman has times of feeling that a riptide is dragging her under the sea, and she struggles for air. Confusion has been part of the experience of almost every one of the hundreds of abused women I have spoken with. Whether because of the abuser’s manipulations , his popularity, or simply the mind-bending contrast between his professions of love and his vicious psychological or physical assaults, every abused woman finds herself fighting to make sense out of what is happening”.
However, Lundy is keen to point out that the abuser is neither a monster or a victim but needs to be viewed as a human being with a complex problem that should not be underestimated or viewed as something that can be corrected in a short period of time. “An abusive man has to bury his compassion in a deep hole in order to escape the profound inherent aversion that human beings have to seeing others suffer. He has to adhere tightly to his excuses and rationalisations, develop a disturbing ability to insulate himself from the pain he is causing, and learn to enjoy power and control over his female partner. It is unrealistic to expect such a complex structure, one that takes fifteen or twenty years to form, vanish like steam. Yet women are often pressured by friends , family, or professionals to ‘give him a chance to change”. It is now three and a half years since D-day and my husband has stepped up to the plate with regard to developing behaviour that would signify the necessary change. However, for me it remains a work in progress. Naturally, my biggest concern is that he may commit adultery again. I seriously doubt that he would but my confidence in him has been blown away. What both he and I know is that should it happen again, it will mean the end of our relationship. No matter what remorse he may show or what grief it will cause me, our marriage will end. This is something in my control.
For Lundy, in his analysis, we have to recognise one of the most important dynamics of abuse; “the benefits that the abuser gets that makes his behaviour desirable to him.” For me, I have to think in what ways were my husband’s adultery and treatment of me rewarding to him? Apparently, “the feeling that he rules is where the pleasure lies.” The benefits of adultery are a major social secret, rarely mentioned anywhere. “If we want [adulterers] to change, we will have to require them to give up the luxury of exploitation.”
What was particularly valuable in Lundy’s book was his discussion around neutrality. Something I feel very strongly about and have blogged about previously. I have always considered it impossible to sit on the fence when considering adultery and the betrayed spouse. The ‘it’s none of my business’ approach to abuse of a domestic kind. The parallel with abuse victims is telling. “It is not possible to be truly balanced in one’s view of an abuser and an abused woman. Neutrality actually serves the interests of the perpetrator much more than those of the victim and so is not neutral.”
“In reality, to remain neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal. If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness… Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.”
“Protecting or enabling an abuser is as morally repugnant as the abuse itself”. This is an issue I feel very strongly about. For adultery I include the participating individual who agrees to a relationship knowing there is a wife and possibly children in the life of their ‘lover’. It is not something to be proud of, something to flaunt aka Elizabeth Gilbert but an act which centrally and specifically targets abuse at the unsuspecting spouse. Equally, so called friends who collude need to rethink their actions in the light of abuse. This critical concept needs to become firmly embedded in our culture. “Colluding with abuse abandons the abused woman and her children, and ultimately abandons the abuser as well, since it keeps him from ever dealing with his problem.”
Since D-day I have not had to deal with any further adultery issues in my marriage. Pig Shit was unceremoniously dumped and from that day to this my husband has worked very hard to be the man he needs to be in order to regain and restore the marriage that we had built between us. As Lundy rightly says “There are no shortcuts to change, no magical overnight transformations, no easy ways out. Change is difficult, uncomfortable work.” However, it is something that I have insisted upon. But then the challenge has been learning how to tell if my husband is serious about overcoming his problems. For Lundy, the men who make significant progress in his programme are the ones who know that their partners will definitely leave them unless they change. My husband has had no doubt that I will leave him if required.
I had asked him to leave when his behaviour became so unreasonable I feared for any future with him. Unbeknownst to me he went to live with Pig Shit. I had no idea at this stage that there was someone else involved. During the following week, I had locks changed, visited a solicitor and put the house on the market. I really thought that it was me that he was running away from so I would not want a man who didn’t want me. It took ten days for him to be begging to come home, but it would take a further twenty odd days for me to accept any reconciliation. He had to convince me of his desire to be married to me. Also, I thought that he was having a nervous breakdown as he was acting so very strange. The rest is history. Pig Shit was outraged that her 12 shags had not secured my husband in the bosom of her own home and family so she texted me to let me know the truth about her and my husband and their sexual antics. By this time he was back and desperate , DESPERATE to remain married. He had suffered the consequences of his selfish behaviour and I think that this has made all the difference in our subsequent recovery.
I hadn’t realised it before reading this book, but we have taken steps, at my behest, that have got my husband to accept responsibility for what he did. These steps that have supported our marital recovery are reminiscent of the steps proposed by Lundy. They are:
- He had to admit fully to his adultery, providing me with answers to my questions.
- He had to acknowledge that the adultery was wrong, unconditionally.
- He had to recognise the effects his behaviour has had on me and show empathy for those.
- He identified his pattern of controlling behaviours and entitled attitudes.
- He has developed respectful behaviours and attitudes to replace the abusive ones he has stopped.
- He has re-evaluated his distorted image of me and replaced it with a more positive and empathic view.
- He has made amends for the damage he has done.
- He has accepted the consequences of his actions.
- He has committed to not repeating the adultery and honours that commitment.
- He has accepted that overcoming adultery is likely to be a lifelong process.
- He is willing to be accountable for his actions, both past and future.
Do these expectations seem too demanding? I don’t believe they are, as Lundy so rightly states “when you are attempting to preserve a relationship with a man who has abused you, you need to some extent to hold him to an even higher standard than you would a non-abusive partner”.
I personally, am so glad that we didn’t attend any couples therapy. Fortunately, my arrogance towards therapy has held me in good stead. Whilst it may benefit others, for us it has not played any part in our recovery. Naturally, the bottom line is our circumstances and our personalities but I am highly sceptical of some claims made about the efficacy of it all. I don’t approve of considering adultery a ‘mutual’ problem. It’s the betrayer’s problem. Shifting the blame, in any way, on to the betrayed partner just adds to the abuse in my opinion.
“Attempting to address abuse through couple’s therapy is like wrenching a nut the wrong way; it just gets even harder to undo than it was before. Couples therapy is designed to tackle issues that are mutual. It can be effective for overcoming barriers to communication, for untangling the childhood issues that each partner brings to a relationship, or for building intimacy. But you can’t accomplish any of these goals in the context of abuse. “Couples counselling sends both the abuser and the abused woman the wrong message. The abuser learns that his partner is pushing his buttons and that she needs to adjust her behaviour to avoid him getting upset. Change in abusers comes only from the reverse process, from completely stepping out of the notion that his partner plays ANY role in causing his abuse of her.”
I realise that I cannot make or even help my husband to change. All I can do is create the context for change, and the rest is up to him. Adultery is wrong. He is responsible for his own actions; no excuse is acceptable; the damage he has done is incalculable; his problem is his and his alone to solve.
“Abuse doesn’t come from people’s inability to resolve conflicts but from one person’s decision to claim a higher status than another.”
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to shift away from the modern myths around adultery but for the future, maybe “once we tear the cover of excuses, distortions, and manipulations off of the [adulterers], they might suddenly find adultery much harder to get away with”
My husband has not ‘got away’ with his adultery but then neither have I. The carnage has been difficult to bear, and even after three years it still feels like a rotten smell that clings to my clothes. Maybe it always will. As a society we may never be able to stop adultery but we should be able to confidently condemn it rather than condone it in any way. Exploiting your spouse, deceiving her, abusing her trust and betraying her intimacy is abuse in a relationship that is supposed to be monogamous and if someone chooses to act in this manner they need to recognise themselves as an abuser.
Image Credits: Stop Abuse Shows Warning Sign And Abusing; Listen To Me Sign Shows Notice Or Message; and Right And Wrong Switch by Stuart Miles: Coins Falling Down To The Business’s Hand by pixtawan all via Freedigitalphotos.net