As a woman who has readily forgiven a cheating husband, I’m in notable company.
Former first lady Hillary Clinton, pop singer Fergie and Victoria Beckham, wife of British soccer star David, all chose to continue relationships marred by scandalous affairs. But beneath the nobility of forgiveness lurks the shady possibility that each of these women knew, or suspected, the affair(s) all along.
In my marriage, I fooled myself into believing my husband’s overnight stays on his office sofa truly were orchestrated so he could meet deadlines, or the extensions to business trips to places like Hawaii were for his alone downtime. Or I’d pretend that the women from his office holiday parties, who would stare at me when they thought I wasn’t looking, didn’t really know something I didn’t about their boss or colleague.
Only when the marriage was over, and I happened to accidentally read in his new girlfriend’s diary that he has cheated on every women he has been with, even his wife did I fully admit to myself what I had always known. He had pursued extramarital affairs and I had chosen to not confront him with my suspicions.
Why do women like me sometimes put our head in the sand?
For one, it’s easier, especially if kids are involved. My maternal imperative to create a stable nest overrode my female pride and my desire to look under the marital rug where I knew I’d find the dirt of infidelity
And then, there’s the sex bit. He was getting elsewhere what I had little desire to provide at home—at least at the frequency he desired. I’d probably have made a great harem wife in another era because at some level, I was only too happy to share the sex load.
And last, getting real about our marital problemss, seeing a therapist, feeling vulnerable, working on the unspoken regrets, resentments and fears I had bottled up, all of that muck held zero appeal. Even had I caught him, lipstick smudged tie in hand, I would not have had the courage to follow through with repair. I would have let the damaged union limp along, albeit with an injunction to “stop seeing her.” Whether I would have enforced that is another matter.
Because in a way, I understood why my husband would go sexing elsewhere, when my sexual appetite, not to mention desire for intimacy, was as robust as an anorexic’s lust for food.
As hurt as I was, it all made a perverted sort of sense. I understood her attraction to him, a 35-year-old man in a suit and tie with a nice car. And I saw how he would be taken in by an adoring young woman who hung on his every word and read the books he suggested. It was every married man’s fantasy, especially a married man who felt unappreciated at home and overwhelmed at work.
That women might not only forgive, but excuse or accept a cheating spouse is not something most men want to hear. Arguably, men prefer to imagine they are getting away with something, that the novel sex partner is a taboo (and probably hotter because of it) and that if their partner discovered the infidelity, they would incur the wrath of a woman scorned.
One man who takes exception to the After the Affair story is gender studies professor Hugo Schwyzer, who sees the piece as an affirmation of the Myth of the Uncontrollable Boner. In his Jezebel column, he writes:
This is what makes the myth of the uncontrollable boner so seductive; it’s preferable to think that a painful betrayal was the result of irresistible evolutionary imperatives rather than choice. “My man is so manly that he gets urges that trump his very real love for me” is ever so much prettier than “In the end, he didn’t care about me enough to keep it in his pants.”
Except that what if the woman doesn’t care enough to insist he keep it in his pants? What if she is simply able to hold the contradiction of his love for her and his sexing elsewhere? Or, as in my case, what if instead of an enraged hell-hath-no-fury response to my cheating man, I simply saw the convenience of feigning ignorance. Because instead of a scorned woman, I was a women looking at my husband’s choices from a cost-benefit analysis. I was weighing into the equation the well-being of my children, my own psychic status-quo, and even the hope in some fantasy future for renewed intimacy.
In the end, I am drawn to the oft-quoted Rumi wisdom that advocates we look beyond the black and white view of any situation, to the nuanced perspective of grey. “Beyond right doing and wrong doing is a field, I will meet you there.”
What if, in marriages, we offered up the possibility of that very field of non-blame becoming the starting point for a whole new game?
In this new game field, the rules of engagement are not about societal mores of monogamy or legalities around adultery. Rather, in this liberated game of real love, we look first and foremost at our own motives, culpability and collusion in marital breakdowns caused by affairs, even when we are the one cheated on.
And what if, in every breakdown, we imagined the possibility a breakthrough is tying to happen? Perhaps then, instead of a catastrophic ending, a discovered or confessed affair could become the springboard for a transformative beginning.
And just maybe, as women we could forgive not as a matter of convenience, safety or compromise, but as matter of love.
(This is the fourth in a seven-part elephant love and relationships series with content partner The Good Men Project on the theme question, Why Do Good People Cheat? Check out , How to Be a Cheater , Forgiving Adultery and When a Marriage Melts Down.)
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