If only marriage were as simple as it is portrayed in most romance movies and soap operas! The plot? A handsome man and a beautiful woman meet, get married in a flashy wedding and live happily ever after. In reality, however, a wedding is just the beginning of a new life together for the newlyweds. And in real life, marriage requires a great deal of work to succeed.
Couples who have been together for 20, 30, or even 40 years, will acknowledge that their marriages have not been without challenges. As one Marriage counsellor observes: “Successful marriages are not carefree. There are good and bad times.” But it seems as if successful marriages are becoming increasingly rare, if the increase in divorce cases is anything to go by. And one of the major reasons is infidelity.
Infidelity gives rise to a host of emotions, including heartache, confusion, anxiety and grief. Margaret, who is in her mid-thirties, was determined to make her marriage to work. “I persevered and forgave his indiscretions for the sake of our two children. I did not want them to grow up without a father.
“But his behaviour only got worse; he began staying out late and sometimes came home at dawn or slept out. His excuses never added up and we always got into a fight. On one occasion, I caught him in a very compromising situation with our house-help. It was so painful that I just had to leave,” she explains.
Hurt and damage
Although the betrayed partner might survive a marital breakdown, they are likely to carry deep and long-lasting emotional pain. The hurt and damage are not easily undone. Victims of marital unfaithfulness have to contend with a situation they have difficulty understanding. “For the first few days I kept thinking, ‘It can’t be true; maybe I am the problem, maybe I’m not a good wife,’” says Margaret.
“At times, when I’m alone, I still cry for him. One day I feel completely in control, the next day I fall apart. One day I miss him, the next day I remember all the scheming, lying and humiliation.” Such feelings of guilt and inadequacy are common. As one counsellor observes, “A spouse (usually the wife) will experience waves of guilt and low self-esteem. She will try to analyse herself to find fault, with questions like ‘What did I do wrong’ going through her mind.”
In her book, To Love, Honour and Betray, marriage researcher Zelda West-Meads says: “One of the hardest things to cope with is the decimation of your self-esteem.” To the victim, the betrayal is more than just the wrong done and the injury inflicted, but includes resentment regarding destroyed marital prospects. This easily leads to depression.
“I started having severe mood swings, uncontrolled rage and performing poorly at work. She was not only my wife, but also my companion for the past 15 years,” says Matthew, a betrayed spouse who survived depression. But why is marital betrayal so emotionally crippling? A relationship counsellor explains:
“We invest so much of ourselves, our hopes, dreams and expectations in marriage, searching for someone we can really put our faith in, someone we feel we can always rely on. If that trust is suddenly betrayed, it can be like a house of cards blown over by the wind.” Whether to divorce or reconcile with an unfaithful mate is always a tough personal decision.
The betrayed partner will wonder whether reconciliation is possible at all, or whether divorce is the most suitable solution. In either case, there are always important factors he or she must consider. Where the faithful spouse decides to reconcile, it is important to realise that simply forgiving the adulterous partner does not solve the underlying problems.
It usually takes a great deal of self-scrutiny, open and honest communication and extremely hard work to salvage a marriage. The betrayed partner might underestimate the amount of time and work it will take to rebuild a broken marriage, so to be able to make an informed decision, he or she must be honest about his or her feelings and the possible courses of action.
It is not unusual for such a person to be anxious and experience conflicting emotions, swinging from certainty to doubt, from trust to suspicion. For instance, when a repentant mate arrives home from work later than usual, their mate might easily become suspicious. To make reconciliation meaningful, it is important to identify the problem areas in the relationship.
This can be effectively done through open communication. As West-Meads advises, “When you have talked through, when you have decided that the affair is definitely over, that you still want your marriage, work out what has gone wrong.” Perhaps you were neglecting each other’s emotional and physical needs.
Maybe you were not spending enough time together or, possibly, you have not given as much affection, praise and honour as your spouse needed. Re-evaluating your marital aspirations and values may be a good step. However, the injured party should take care when he/she talks about the infidelity, because the way he or she speaks might seem intended to hurt the rehabilitating spouse.
To avoid drawing further apart due to such misconceptions, it is important to remain honest and truthful without necessarily going into details. Despite sincere efforts, an aggrieved spouse might not find it easy to forgive. “The faithful partner needs to recognise that they have to move on. It is important not to keep dredging up your partner’s old sins to punish [him or her] every time you have an argument,” advises one marriage counsellor.
There always has to be mutual trust and respect for a marriage to survive. But when trust is broken — in this case by an adulterous mate — it is very difficult to learn to trust again. West-Meads says that for trust to be restored, the errant partner should provide his or her spouse with an accurate itinerary of their exact movements.
Says she: “Tell your spouse where you are going, when you will be back and make sure that you are where you said you would be.” Should your plans change, be careful to let your partner know. Because of the intensity of the pain caused by an illicit affair, it is possible for a mate to remember – and still hurt from – the experience even after many years.
However, as the hurt dissipates, trust and respect should be renewed in both partners. “The awful pain of those first few months does not last.” observes West-Meads. “Eventually, you find you can go for days, weeks, months and even years, without thinking about it.” But what if the adulterous partner is unwilling to change?
Or if the betrayed spouse opts for divorce? There are valid reasons for a mate to opt for divorce. For instance, he or she might fear being infected with a sexually transmitted disease. Or, where there are children, the betrayed partner might feel that their well-being is at risk. In some cases, a spouse might have reason to believe that the wayward partner will not change.
Divorce has far-reaching and often long-lasting consequences on those involved. Usually, the hardest hit are the children. In his book, Help for Couples in Crisis, James C. Dobson observes: “Children’s needs are often forgotten or ignored by parents who are absorbed in their own problems.”
Thus when contemplating divorce, bear in mind the welfare of your children. Many sociologists note that the more amicable a divorce is, the less the children are likely to suffer. It should be clear from the start that it is the husband and wife getting divorced, not parents and the children.
The children will still need both parents, unless there are extreme circumstances, such as the risk that they will be abused by one parent. It is important to note that, where the parents are legally married, the law gives them equal recognition with regard to custody of the marriage. But if the mother satisfactorily proves that the father is unreliable or the couple is not legally married, the mother is given first priority.
It is important to also important to note that the law recognises traditional marriages. Divorce usually comes with financial costs. It is, therefore, advisable — especially for the party with custody of the children, — to draw up a realistic budget in line with the new financial realities.
Where the couple has been operating a joint bank account, prompt and appropriate plans should be made to ensure that both partners’ signatures are necessary for withdrawals. In divorce settlement and legal proceedings, an aggrieved party would do well to get the services of a legal practitioner with experience in divorce issues.
If the spouses can reach an agreement out of the public eye, the agreement should be ratified by a court to avoid any future confrontations. It is important to minimise conflict, hurt and washing dirty family linen in public.
But is marriage all about infidelity, heartache and divorce? Can it be said to be an outdated institution with no place in today’s “modern” world? Despite the rise in divorce, there are many successful marriages, which prove that happy and long-lasting marital unions are achievable.
More often than not, making sacrifices for the other person is the price one has to pay to make a marriage successful. Marriage is more than just a romantic relationship. When entering into it, is advisable to have one’s values and aspirations in mind. As one counsellor observes: “Problems in marriage — particularly issues around marital infidelity — might arise when a couple enters into that relationship prematurely.”
Mutual support is also vital. The couple should engage in activities and communication that promote trust and emotional reliance on each other. Neither party should undermine the other nor in any way damage the other’s self-respect and confidence. Such mutual support is strengthened by regular expressions of affection such as a touch, or a quiet, affectionate word.