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Sticking It Out Through Infidelity: Courage Or Cowardice?

Perhaps it's time to agree that for some, monogamy is virtually untenable, and long-term committed relationships, particularly in, are in trouble.
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Have you ever cheated? Been cheated on? Have you suffered some other devastating betrayal at the hand of the person you loved?

In a recent article, author Pamela Haag offers her perspective on the issue of staying with a spouse following infidelity. She comments on the range of responses to news of infidelity -- everything from considering it a "marital outrage" to feeling ashamed of sticking with the unfaithful partner. She suggests that keeping a marriage together -- keeping a family together -- warrants the effort, especially if children are involved.

And I agree.

Short of abuse, I'm an advocate for attempting to repair marital fissures -- whatever their cause. As for infidelity, it's a trickier issue than ever, with the Internet offering new opportunities for all manner of deception. And isn't it really the deception that undermines the marital bond?

Yet the fact remains that men and women cheat, and do so in large numbers.

Ms. Haag writes:

On the one hand, Americans famously disapprove of extramarital sex, although we commit it with some frequency, in anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of marriages (and the infidelity "gender gap" has now closed, with both men and women straying in roughly equal numbers).

While some wronged spouses head straight for a divorce attorney, many seek to forgive, or at least accept -- once the initial shock has worn off. Some choose to turn a blind eye if encounters are infrequent and discreet. Others may indulge in reciprocal wandering -- a sort of tit-for-tat pursuit of pleasure. Or, perhaps we take a different view, deeming extramarital activity an act of self-preservation -- unable to otherwise survive the sexless marriage, the sexually incompatible marriage, or the indifferent one.

And what about emotional affairs, once known as affairs of the heart? Is emotional infidelity as damaging as a sexual liaison? Is it less of a betrayal -- or more? Is it punished as harshly as sexual infidelity or forgiven more easily?

Many take the stance that infidelity is due to eroding communication and attentiveness, and I agree, though I don't believe that's always the case. Still, if infidelity is the symptom -- do we remain a couple out of guilt, believing that we should love better or behave differently? For women, do esteem issues keep us tied to terrible marriages or tepid ones, convinced that's all we deserve?

Are we courageous to stay? Are we foolish to blame ourselves? Do we leave as a matter of principle? Is that an act of cowardice?

Certainly, circumstances affect our decisions to work through betrayal or walk away.

For example, the alcohol-induced dalliance that takes place out of town is a far cry from a six-month affair with a close friend. We may be able to get past the former, and never move beyond the betrayal of the latter. Or, in either case, we may eventually come to view a spouse as more than his or her mistake in judgment.

As for deciding to fight for the partnership rather than against the partner, it's easy to fall back on "staying for the sake of the children." But aren't there many reasons for sticking around and sticking it out?

  • In rough economic times, divided households may not be financially viable.
  • We may accept that it's possible to love more than one person at a time, despite a view to the contrary in our (sexually) conservative culture.
  • We cherish our shared history; we are attached to merged families; we feel a sense of belonging inside the framework of marriage.

I could argue that emotional or physical infidelity is not only an issue of insufficient or ineffective communication, but is more likely to occur when we lose ourselves in the tedium of routine. Moreover, if we buy the notion that the role of romance is to get the girl (or the guy) and that's it -- as if once we "snag" the target, we never have to show up with a thoughtful gesture or our best selves again -- I suspect the marriage is headed for disaster.

I could argue that the occasional slip is different from a pattern of deceit, and likewise, infidelity as cause for a relationship rift is different from infidelity as a symptom of significant marital issues.

With some sources indicating that infidelity affects 30 to 60% of all (U.S.) marriages, perhaps it's time we admit to the growing confusion over marriage as an institution, our unpreparedness to enter it, our unrealistic expectations as to how it should perform, and our lack of skills to manage it mindfully.

Perhaps it's time to agree that for some, monogamy is virtually untenable, and long-term committed relationships, particularly in an increasingly narcissistic society, are in trouble.

So where does that leave us, if we're fighting our way across a gulf of betrayal?

Ms. Haag offers sound advice:

I don't think it's wise to live post-millennial marriage like a cartoon, in black and white, or a caricature, with Saints and Jerks and ultimatums.

People change. Life events happen. Some relationships will decay no matter how much of ourselves we invest. Others are salvageable -- with work, maturity, and perspective.

If marital dramas lead to divorce, let's hope we gain the presence of mind to examine our experience, learn from our mistakes, and take a hard look at our own attitudes and behaviors. Rarely is there a clear-cut hero or villain; only human beings, doing the best they can with what they know at the time.

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