My lifelong best friends; the Five Ws and one H; a formula for getting the complete story on a subject. So, when trying to get the ‘story’ on my husband’s adultery I had these ready tools in my arsenal and have used them extensively over the years. I have experienced no cognitive difficulty with establishing what he did, where he did it, when he did it, who he did it with and how. Unpalatable that it is, knowing has proved to be very beneficial to me. Not at the beginning I might add. No, not at the beginning. Initially, the truth burned like crazy through my head and seared into my chest where my heart convulsed under its toxic waste. The nuggets of odious information would scuttle around the grey corridors of my brain, refusing to rest, tormenting me and provoking me towards either anger outbursts or sad shutdowns. However, three years and counting since D-day, the truth has settled. What I know no longer riles me (so much), it all seems a bit far away to be honest – in the distance – a bit blurred at the edges and I have no desire to look any closer. As LP Hartley says in the Go-between, “The past is a different country; they do things differently there”.
I’m pleased to say that my husband no longer lives there.
However, I still wrestle with the ‘why’. Don’t we all; the million dollar question? For those of you familiar with my previous blogs you will know that I have stopped directly asking husband this question because he has been consistent in his inability to explain what seems to be, in hindsight, his insanity. But the why will not subside. It’s like I’m Bluebeard’s last wife. I have all the keys of the château. I’ve opened most of the doors to the rooms which contain the loathsome and sordid secrets of his adultery but have not used the key to the one small room beneath the castle. It’s like I shouldn’t enter this room under any circumstances; I should walk away, but instead the overwhelming desire to see what the forbidden room holds presses me to look further. Bluebeard’s wife discovers her husband’s horrible secret. Is there a horrible secret that awaits me when I open the door?
It was Frank Pittman in his book Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy who first alerted me to the crazy, warped way that adulterers think and act. I appreciated his detached view of the betrayer and the havoc that then descends upon their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It resonated with my earlier and present understandings.
It should be apparent that infidelity can cause all manner of problems, some immediate, some generations later. One would think people would know that by now. Nonetheless, every time people commit an infidelity and all hell breaks loose, they look so surprised. Even after twenty-seven years as a psychiatrist and family therapist, devoting much of my time to cleaning up the emotional mess after other people’s affairs, I never cease to wonder at the naiveté of people going through it.
I love it when he says “The dictionary says an affair is a romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration. I want the implication here of unreality, enchantment, illusion, and impermanence.” Yes, yes! Apparently, some of the adulterers he has come across don’t think their affair is wrong as long as it is kept a secret. The fact that it is kept a secret denotes that it is not an act of hostility and is not intended to hurt one’s spouse. Oh yeah, really clear thinking here.
Would you believe that politeness was a reason for male infidelity? She came on to me, it would have been rude not to. Yeah, more clear thinking here!
My fascination (although not an accurate term – obsession, more like) with why husband would do what he did when he was in a really good marriage with me doesn’t subside. I sort of get why people, desperately unhappy in their marriage, might make a decision to commit adultery as an exit strategy. The frog seeking its next lily pad before departing the current one! I am not for one moment suggesting that this is acceptable, it’s just that I see a why. But what if an exit strategy is not the motivation? Our marriage only went sour after the adultery had started, but even then he had no intention of leaving me. We had a good marriage. We enjoyed each other’s company, got on really well, had regular sex and talked about growing old together. So why, the reckless decision to risk losing everything he had built with me for sex with someone who clearly meant nothing to him? It is clear that my husband had the impulse to commit adultery and have sex with another woman but the existence of this impulse is not an explanation for why he chose to act on it. His flawed judgement and subsequent decision to commit adultery was an outcome of his way of thinking at the time in which the opportunity for adultery presented itself. In my opinion it was faulty thinking. He did not act in his own best long term interests. He did not weigh up the costs and benefits of committing adultery; costs and benefits that would impact upon him and his life drastically. So what exactly is faulty thinking and can it be corrected?
Firstly, my husband’s faulty thinking can be described as irrational thinking. Husband did NOT think about his love for me, his future tied to mine, our hopes, or my feelings. He did NOT weigh up the huge risk he was taking. But this is not unusual. It would appear that we are barking up the wrong proverbial tree if we believe that when it comes to making important decisions, when it truly matters, people think carefully about their options. This is a suggestion made by a new branch of psychology concerned with economic behaviour; behavioural economics. Although it has been around for a while, it is only since the recent economic crash in the west that its ideas have taken root. People have wanted to understand why so many bad economic decisions were made on such an alarming scale. I desperately want to know why so many bad relationship decisions are made on an alarming scale. There are some analogies to be made.
Secondly, from the theories of behavioural economics, in particular, Dan Ariely’s suggestions in ‘Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,’ we would be advised to understand that all ‘humans engage in actions and make decisions that are often divorced from rationality, and sometimes very far from ideal.” Further, “it has become tragically clear that the mistakes we all make are not at all random, but part and parcel of the human condition.” Over a period of twenty years he has looked at what really influences our decisions in daily life (as opposed to what we think, often with great confidence, influences them). Some of his findings might be worth considering in regards to the rash decision my husband made to commit adultery. Maybe, there’s an element of truth when husband says to me he really doesn’t understand what influenced him to embark upon such a destructive activity.
Encouragingly, Ariely says “Once you see how systematic certain mistakes are – how we repeat them again and again – I think you will begin to learn how to avoid some of them.” For me, it’s a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but nevertheless, if the ideas can go some distance in understanding the irrationality of adultery and or help to ensure that future decisions are weighed more carefully, then it’s a worthwhile detour, don’t you think. The simple but compelling idea that we are all capable of making the right decisions for ourselves needs dismantling.
Seemingly, most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context. We are always looking at things around us in relation to others and this can mislead us enormously. Having a less educated and less cultured woman flirt with him, chase him, with a promise of dirty pussy would flatter my husband enormously and would be in stark contrast to what he experiences with me as his wife. As much as we have a successful marriage it is also an intimate, long term relationship that has had to weather the trials and tribulations of life together as well as the joys and pleasures. Equally, novelty disappears, it’s inevitable. But, if we don’t think about it carefully enough, we don’t realise that our perception is being shaped in this manner. It may have seemed to him that he had a magical connection with Pig Shit instead of realising that the enchantment was limited to his surrounding circumstances. However, making relative judgements is the natural way we think and unfortunately once we make our choice, albeit a disastrous one, it leads to what is called arbitrary coherence; the choice, once established is repeated because the choice has shaped what we are willing to do and how willing we are in the future.
So, some arbitrary ‘lets-find-a-motel-room-and-shag’ event becomes coherent in its repetition. It manages to create sense from non-sense. Each subsequent activity reinforcing what went before. It would seem that our first decisions resonate over a long sequence of decisions. So, are we nothing more than the sum of our first, naïve, random behaviours? For some people, yes! However, we can actively improve on our irrational behaviours by becoming aware of our vulnerabilities; we need to pay particular attention to the first decision in what is going to be a long stream of decisions. How I see it, is husband did not perceive how his first decision, upon meeting Pig Shit was so crucial; he should have given it a lot more attention than he did. I am hopeful that he would now.
There also appears to be a lure for something that is free and easily available that leads to making bad decisions. It might be the case that someone even gives up a better deal and settles for something that was not what they wanted because they were lured by the free. I know that Pig Shit was easily available. I know that husband had to do very little to have her perform her sexual monkey on a stick practices. As Pittman so aptly states; “Affair choices are usually far more neurotic than marriage choices. When one is chosen to be an affair partner, one should not feel complimented. The most important characteristic of such affairees is their immediate availability.” However, with adultery it would be wise to remember Woody Allen’s comment “The most expensive sex is free sex”.
I am intrigued by the concept of social and market norms and the potential crossover in adultery. Ariely says that if kept on their separate paths, “life hums along pretty well”. Using sex as an example he suggests that we have it free in the social context where hopefully it is warm and emotionally nourishing, but there is also sex on demand and that costs money. (More of a male pursuit I think). He goes on to say we don’t have spouses coming home asking for £50 tricks or prostitutes asking for everlasting love. Maybe not, but what exactly is the sex in an adulterous context? In the case of Pig Shit and no doubt thousands of other desperate dirt bags, she WAS giving tricks but asking for everlasting love rather than cash (Woody Allen was right). I would also hazard a guess that Pig Shit worked a lot harder for her so called non-monetary social norm than a prostitute would have done for her market norm. However packaged, it is clear that adultery is a transactional arrangement and both social and market norms can be seen to be operating – causing life to stop humming along nicely for everybody involved.
Emotional states also influence decisions. Decision making under sexual arousal (a ‘hot’ state) is not the same as decision making in a ‘cold’ state. In a cool state we are able to set goals and intentions but in a hot state these just get blown away, put off for immediate gratification. In fact, it appears to generate a Jekyll and Hyde split in the person. “Every one of us, regardless of how ‘good’ we are, under predicts the effects of passion on our behaviour”. Who thinks about risk in a highly emotional state? Did the thought of easily available pussy arouse husband so much that he became Mr Hyde? Unless we understand how we might react in an emotional state, we will not be able to predict our decisions. In a cool state we would claim to be able to control sexual impulses, but once the arousal has started, what then? The results of studies suggest that it is easier to fight temptation before it arises than after it has begun its lure. In other words, avoiding temptation altogether is easier than overcoming it.
Looking from one emotional state to another is difficult. Husband is no longer aroused by Pig Shit. Together we have looked at it ‘cooly’ in all its sordid nastiness and this examination in cold daylight does wonders for the unreality, enchantment, illusion and impermanence that Pittman discusses. However “to make informed decisions we need to somehow experience and understand the emotional state we will be in at the other side of the experience. Learning how to bridge this gap is essential to making some of the important decisions in our lives”. Husband has certainly experienced the emotional state at the other side of his adultery. It’s a shame that he had to go through the act of adultery to get here. However, I think that as long as it is remembered it will help him to make better decisions for himself in the future. “Resisting temptation and instilling self-control are general human goals, and repeatedly failing to achieve them is a source of much of our misery.” Pre-commitment can help with the delayed gratification of a long term emotional and intimate relationship. I now understand this pre-commitment to monogamy to be a continuous aspect of marriage that needs to be regularly revisited and discussed. Monogamy can never be taken for granted.
Another aspect that behavioural economics addresses is the ways in which having options distract us from our main objectives. Pig Shit certainly distracted husband from his relationship with me his wife. Metaphorically, we humans are inclined to keep doors open. I think the adulterer could be easily accused of keeping his doors open (whilst keeping the betrayed spouses doors as closed as possible). You see, commitment is in fact a closing of doors. However, it would seem that humans find dealing with options difficult. “We feel compelled to keep as many doors open as possible, even at great expense”, because we just can’t commit ourselves! Open doors suggest options but the result of keeping many doors open is extremely stressful (something we don’t recognise) and we can be guilty of pursuing irrational worthless options! As Erich Fromm wrote in his book Escape from Freedom; in a modern democracy people are beset not by a lack of opportunities but a dizzying abundance of them. “We are continually reminded that we can do anything and be anything we want to be.” Ariely goes on to note the tragedy of keeping as many doors open as possible; “we fail to realise that some things really are disappearing doors, and need our immediate attention”. We turn to go through a door and find that it is no longer there. My husband’s disappearing door was our marriage. The consequences of not deciding what doors to close and what to keep open can be devastating.
Expectations are also an important component in making decisions. What does the adulterer expect from their adultery? “If you tell someone upfront that something might be distasteful, the odds are good that they will end up agreeing with you – not because their experience tells them so but because of their expectations.” What are people told about adultery upfront? That it will devastate their life beyond imagining? Or that it is just a bit of harmless sexual fun, an affair with an exciting mistress, a secret to keep to ensure that the spouse is unaware, and an entitlement to happiness? When Frank Pittman’s clients show surprise at the mess that they’d created for themselves, what exactly did they expect the outcome to be? In order to reduce the attraction of adultery, I would suggest that peoples’ expectations need to be rooted in the reality of its consequences.
Then of course, finally, there is character. This is something that I have been exploring in more depth and have been deeply influenced by George Simon and his book Character Disturbance, but for now I will remain with Dan Ariely to consider why people are dishonest. What is it that holds some people back but not others? Honesty cannot be overestimated in our lives. From Plato onwards, honesty has been viewed as something very big and a moral virtue in nearly every society. Apparently, moral reminders are the key here. “When we are removed from any benchmarks of ethical thought, we tend to stray into dishonesty. But if we are reminded of morality at the moment we are tempted, then we are much more likely to be honest.” Imagine the scenario when husband met Pig Shit. What if his friend, instead of encouraging and facilitating the adultery (removing ethical benchmarks) pulled him to one side and said that what was happening was WRONG, and he would not condone it (a reminder of morality) might husband have been inclined to be honest?
If religious, maybe you could read the religious texts, if not, maybe you could sign your name to a promise to act with integrity, but Ariely doesn’t think this necessarily is the answer, and let’s be fair husband signed up to monogamy not so long ago! Instead, “another path is to first recognise that when we get into situations where our personal benefit stands in opposition to our moral standards, we are able to ‘bend’ reality, see the world in terms compatible with our selfish interest, and become dishonest.” Recognising this weakness would be a step in avoiding the situations that foster dishonesty.
Stretching an economic understanding to a relationship issue is not always straightforward, but I’ve found illumination in the process as it’s forced me to think outside the conventional adultery box. When addressing dishonesty with finances, it would seem that people find it easier if the monetary reward is one step away from the cash itself. Greedily grabbing a wad of cash is viewed more dishonest than a cash transfer. “Cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money”. So what might make adultery a lot easier to engage with? What does it need to be a step removed from? Clearly, it needs to be a step removed from spouse betrayal. I suspect that the dishonesty of adultery is easily rationalised when it is removed from what it is doing to the betrayed spouse. No wonder we feel silenced, our experience is what adultery wants to be distanced from.
In its behavioural analysis, behavioural economics suggests that we are pawns in a game with forces that we don’t comprehend. We are not always in the driving seat in ultimate control of all our decisions and the direction of our lives. Although this is how we’d prefer to view ourselves , in reality there are a lot of ill perceived forces that influence our behaviour and these forces we tend to either underestimate or ignore. “Visual illusions are illustrative here. Just as we can’t help being fooled by visual illusions, we fall for the ‘decision illusions’ our minds show us… By the time we comprehend and digest information, it is not necessarily a true reflection of reality. Instead it is our representation of reality, and this is the input we base our decisions on.” But, although irrationality is commonplace, we are not helpless. Once we understand when and where erroneous decisions are made we can try to be more vigilant and force ourselves to think differently about these decisions.
I guess, in part, much of what we believe is rooted in our own philosophies and I realise that I am developing a fresh personal philosophy to take me forward in my life with a husband who betrayed me. I can believe that there are good and bad people, figure out how to determine who is good and bad and then only be with the good people (husband excluded) or believe, in the light of theory that all people can act in ways that are not in their best interests and make decisions on a whim that can threaten their wellbeing and that of those they love. Understanding this it means work needs to be done to constantly reflect on our thinking. Husband needs to be much more mindful of the decisions he makes and when he is likely to be vulnerable.
And me? Well, I’m quite good at making decisions. Maybe I have a more developed character than my husband? Certainly, my decision to stay and work on our marital recovery was one reached at length. It was not a rash decision. I am also doing the best I can to heal from the trauma of his adultery. Part of this involves healing from the feelings of helplessness that I experienced during my husband’s adultery and subsequently, post D-day. Helplessness is one of the most alien feelings that I have ever had. My blog is my attempt to help myself. As the psychologist James Pennebaker’s research has repeatedly shown “the active and conscious process of trying to make sense out of difficult, confusing, and even traumatic events can help individuals recover from them.” Interestingly, he gets his patients to write their reflections in a journal. “This means that even when external events make no sense, we can benefit from our own attempts to make sense of our world”.
Slowly, but surely I’m making sense of the part of my life that was lived down the wretched rabbit hole of adultery, although to mix my metaphors, I remain in the small room beneath Bluebeard’s castle, so my quest for why continues.