It’s a common refrain regarding an affair –
“If somebody cheated on me, I’d be out of there in a heartbeat.”
I get it. In fact, I even said it long before I ever had the opportunity to put it in practice. But it’s also a naive statement.
After all, it’s easy to proclaim certainty when you’re engaged in a purely hypothetical mental exercise.
And it’s very different when it’s your actual life and the consequences of your decision may have serious impact. That decision that once seemed so black and white has now grown muddied and vague as the one whom you love is the same one to cause your pain.
Society has a tendency to blame those that are victims of an affair. They are portrayed as blind or cold, nagging or repressed. And this judgment is only amplified when the betrayed makes the decision to stay with their spouse despite the knowledge of the infidelity. They face double the shame – first for being cheated on and then for allowing their partner to “get away with it.”
Often that criticism is welded by those that (to their knowledge) have never been cheated on. They feel superior in their belief that infidelity only happens to those that are somehow lacking and that if you eliminate the cheater, you fix the problem. Their words are dictated by fear; by speaking with certainty, they are able to believe they are safe.
Other times, the judgment comes from people like me, those that have been betrayed and were not given the option to stay. Instead of fear, this condemnation is rooted in jealousy that some people are presented with this opportunity. This can be intensified by the mental gymnastics that often occur after abandonment where the one who is discarded convinces themselves that it was what they really wanted anyway.
An affair is a wake-up call. Don’t sleep through it.
And it’s true – sometimes those who choose to stay with an unfaithful partner are being foolish. Maybe they are being willfully blind and stupidly hopeful. Perhaps they are so afraid of being alone that they prefer the devil they know. Or their self worth has been so damaged that they believe that they deserve a philandering spouse.
But that is not always the case. There are some who have been betrayed who make a very deliberate and conscious decision to stay, a choice born from facing hard truths instead of denying them and the willingness of the cheating spouse to work to heal the marriage.
The harsh light of truth is now shining on their marriage and they are making their choice with their eyes wide open.
They Accept That Risk is an Inherent Part of Marriage
If I could invent a way to ensure an affair-proof relationship, I’d be rich. While it is certainly true that some people are far more likely to cheat than others, it is a fallacy that you can guarantee that cheating won’t occur simply because you choose someone who seems to operate from an ethical and honest place.
It is tempting to think that you can remove infidelity from your life simply by removing the perpetrator.
But it’s not that simple.
Especially because the pain and emotional wounds will follow you. And left unaddressed, they will fester even with a new partner. No matter what, you have to do the work to heal.
Those that make the decision to stay are able to separate the person they love from the pain that they caused. Weighing the options, they decide that they would rather work to mend what they have instead of taking similar risks with someone new. They accept that risk is the price of love. And they’re willing to chance that the investment they have made in their marriage will pay off in the long run.
Their Partner and Their Marriage Have Transformed
Regardless of the outcome, an affair profoundly changes everyone within its sphere of influence. And some people use this as an opportunity to renegotiate the terms and agreements within their marriage.
In relationships of any duration, roles, responsibilities and reactions become more habit than intentional. The earthquake of an affair shakes up the status quo and provides an opening for more deliberate choices that meet the needs of today instead of those formed years ago.
Sometimes this transformation is more visible in one partner – the quiet, more reserved spouse decides to be more assertive with their needs and wants or the more controlling partner makes the decision to take a step back. They use this crisis as a springboard for positive change. In fact, some of the best couples I know have been through infidelity in their past. Not that I’d recommend it as an alternative to marriage counseling!
Other couples may change the structure of their marriage, choosing to engage in consensual non-monogamy. Again, an affair is NOT the preferred way to initiate this conversation, but it can be the factor that gets the ball rolling.
They Are Choosing to Make Sacrifices For Their Greater Good
And then there are those that decide that the marriage is more important than their feelings for their partner. They intentionally decide to ignore the infidelity so that the marriage can continue.
Sometimes this decision is made for the sake of the children, believing that a two-parent household is preferable if the affair is kept discrete. Others may be in the public eye and decide that the risk of revealing the truth comes at too great a cost. And some may simply determine that they come out on top when weighing their partner’s assets against their betrayals.
Staying is not a sign of weakness. Strength is shown when you make the decision that is right for you regardless of the opinion of others.
Ultimately, it is not my place (nor anyone else’s who is standing outside the relationship) to decide if somebody should give their partner a second chance after an affair. That is an extremely personal and difficult decision that each person needs to make with their own interest in mind. Make the choice that is right for you and give others the space to make the decision that is right for them.