When I first learned of my wife’s affair, I actually held myself responsible. I focused on the guilt for my role in our marriage going bad, and I barely blamed her for her actions. My therapist identified this in my first session speculating that I felt that I had wronged my wife was now trying to change into what I thought she wanted. She was absolutely right, and I now realize how unhealthy that position was. As it turns out though, it was one of the keys to our recovery.
Since that initial shock, I’ve tempered my opinion in the sense that I now hold her solely responsible for her actions. But while I don’t accept any responsibility for the affair, I share in the responsibility for the problems in our marriage that led to her seeking it out. I also contributed to the lack of communication that resulted in a marriage that actively avoided issues of deep significance. We would choose to pretend that all was normal rather than actually acknowledge any significant problems that we might need to confront. This situation certainly fit that category, and we were completely unprepared for it.
There was no distinct point where our marriage suddenly turned bad. As I outlined in Our Story, it happened so gradually that it was virtually imperceptible, at least to me. I wasn’t even conscious of any problems until the jolt of the affair made me realize what had been in front of me for so long. When the kids were younger, we would regularly have evenings where we put them to bed early and I made dinner for the two of us. Now she and the kids went upstairs immediately after dinner while I remained working in my office until well after they fell asleep. The only times I would cut my personal evening short was when I thought we might have sex. She would leave for the evening with friends, and while I would happily take care of the kids, I would barely show any interest in where she was going. I certainly didn’t spend much time asking her about her evening. She didn’t have to bother to hide the affair, because I wasn’t even bothering to pay attention.
I certainly had no appreciation for the life issues that she dealing with. I would often comment about how I couldn’t wait for the kids to be grown and out of the house so that it could just be the two of us with complete freedom. Of course, the kids had been the center of her life for years, and being a mom was her primary function in our family. Without them, how was she supposed to spend her time, let alone take any pride in her daily accomplishments? What’s the point of having freedom with a spouse who can’t be bothered to spend time with you let alone show the affection that actually makes you feel desired? She later admitted to me that any thoughts she had of her future included her on her own. I hadn’t earned a place in her mental picture.
None of these are excuses for her affair. They aren’t excuses for lying. She should have confided in me and explained how serious things had gotten for her. If she needed to give me the ultimatum to make changes in our marriage or start planning for divorce, then that’s what she should have done. I honestly don’t know whether such a confrontation would have jolted me into action the way the affair did, but I deserved the chance to at least understand the truth of the situation. I was completely ignorant while she was actively preparing for a future without me. Rather than confide in the husband who had been committed to his family for twenty years, she chose to leave him behind to address her personal needs.
Regardless of her actions in response to our marital problems though, those problems were very real, and I shared equal responsibility for them. She has since taken full responsibility for the affair and makes no excuses for her behavior. But if we didn’t work on the underlying issues that drove her to that affair, then they would still be there when the recovery was complete. In fact, with those problems still existing, what would be the point of recovery only to return to a marriage that neither of us was particularly happy with? I have no interest in being married to a wife who is acting out of guilt, constantly working to atone for past actions. At some point, I needed to fully forgive her so that we could once again be equal partners, and the only way we could achieve that is for us to take an equal role in our recovery.
This may sound as if I’m making excuses for my wife and trying to soften the seriousness of her indiscretions by assuming some of the responsibility for them. I’ve actually found this to be an empowering position for me though. Any victim of an affair will tell you that the hurt and anger will still manifest itself even years later. Many people appear to limit their recovery to simply waiting until those feelings magically disappear. They take the attitude that their spouse bears sole responsibility for recovery since they are the one who caused the situation in the first place. I’ve experienced too much anxiety and sense of powerlessness over the past couple of years to be passive now. Taking an active role provides me a means of channeling that anxiety and giving me some control in achieving the marriage that I want.
I actually don’t think I would have made it through the recovery had I not carried that initial guilt, and I doubt I would have wanted to. I would have been far less forgiving of her actions, and I’m not sure whether I would have wanted to return to a marriage that could never match its previous quality level. That marriage was forever tainted, so our only option was to work toward something entirely new. Through personal changes that we both made, we started to find a relationship with each other that neither of us had experienced. Instead of simply working to return to normal, we were working on a completely new and improved version of our marriage.
I feel for fellow victims of affairs who can’t see past their anger to accept any personal responsibility. I’m not saying that they should claim responsibility that they don’t deserve. But if they truly don’t see their role in the degeneration of the marriage and are willing to actively work on changes in their own behavior, then it probably means that they are actively refusing to acknowledge it. The only other option is that they actually are blameless, and they have a spouse who didn’t share their commitment to the marriage. In either case, I don’t see how a return to a quality marriage with mutual respect and trust by both partners would be possible.
An irony in all this is that while I am just as committed to my marriage as ever, I’m now less scared of losing it. When I found out about the affair, I assumed my only two options were to save the marriage or to be alone. I had been married since my early twenties and suffered from a lack of confidence in social situations. As a result, I dreaded the idea of dating and didn’t feel capable of finding a new companion with a similar set of qualities as my wife. As I worked through my personal issues in an effort to improve my role as a husband and father though, I gained a new confidence in my ability to relate with other people. The marriage that we have now is not just a result of two people who worked to improve their relationship but also two people who worked to improve themselves.