I listen to a lot of talk radio during my commute on my XM/Sirius radio. I frequently listen to the radio shrinks who deal with relationships (Dr. Laura, Dr. Jenn, Dr. Joy Browne), and some who aren’t even qualified to do so but do so anyway (Tiffany Granath!! You’re funny, hon, but you’re not the sharpest tool in the drawer! You shouldn’t be dispensing relationship advice given your history, but I listen anyway because it’s entertaining!).
And sometimes calls are about affairs. And sometimes I hear something that strikes me between the eyes on the topic. Yesterday was one of those days.
A couple called up where the wife had an affair 3 1/2 years ago, but the husband was struggling still and throwing it in her face whenever they had fights. And the “trigger” for him was that he felt that, although his wife wasn’t having an affair any longer, that her behavior (on facebook, and how she dressed, and dealt with men in real life) was inappropriate. And they had fights. He would accuse of her of flirting. She would, understandably, get defensive and yell that she’s not doing anything wrong and when was he going to get over something that occurred almost 4 years ago? They were at an impasse.
So this shrink gave some great advice that gave me pause. She told the wife basically this — Even if you aren’t doing anything wrong, to give even the appearance that you are continuing with previous behaviors — flirting, seeking male attention by dressing provocatively, being overly nice to men on Facebook — is making your husband not feel safe. That you’re reminding him of what you did. That it makes him feel that you MIGHT do it again. Even if you don’t, you’re making him very uneasy. And by making him uneasy, he can’t fully forgive you and get past this. You need to do all you can to make him feel safe again. And you need to be sensitive to the devastation your behavior caused, and go out of your way to not repeat this behavior, even if it’s all innocent. You have to stop “shining up your ego” by seeking the attention and affirmation of other men. It’s hurting your husband.
That’s exactly right. However, I would give this as an extension of this thought. You SHOULD change your behavior significantly to make your spouse feel safe again. It’s important. However, this can be taken too far. This is where the shrink failed, albeit in a less than 10 minute phone call. I think that TOO many controls and restrictions by a betrayed spouse can breed resentment in the former cheater. That some demands that a betrayed spouse asks of a former cheater can be a bit over the top and a bit ridiculous. That you need to make sure that you’re not putting them on too short of a leash indefinitely. That most will eventually rebel because they resent it. Over time, true trust must be given again. You can definitely overdue demands in such a way that you drive the former cheating spouse out the door anyway.
BUT that being said, the shrink was right. It’s not enough to no longer be cheating. It’s not enough to just go into a defensive ball when confronted with a questionable post to a member of the opposite sex on Facebook or the touch of an arm at a cocktail party. You have to understand what you’ve done. You’ve devastated your spouse’s self-esteem and security. Your behavior must be more than merely avoiding inappropriate “actions” and “intent.” It has to be in “appearance” as well. It’s more than apologizing and asking forgiveness. It’s more than just bringing them flowers. All important things but not enough. You just can’t do things that make your spouse think that nothing has really changed. That you might do this again.
I am guilty of this. I saw it yesterday directly in this radio call. I was glad I was alone. I literally blanched listening to it. I’ve changed — but perhaps not enough. We’ve had fights over Facebook and the way I deal with “fans” at my shows (I’m a musician). I have sworn that I’ve done nothing wrong. ALL TRUE. And it’s led to fights. I feel the weight of judgment and accusation, and she’s telling me her fears!
I feel like when I’m accused of things like this it’s just her way of reminding me that I’m still not trusted or to shame me over my past behavior. I’m not 100% wrong, but I’m not recognizing how I contributed to her insecurity with behavior that at least appears questionable. That’s on me. I need to be better about that.
I’ve done many things to help my marital recovery and to show my wife I love her. But it’s not enough. A rabbi is not to be seen walking into a deli on Saturdays — even if he purchases nothing. It tends to give an appearance to the congregation that undermines his authority and character.
We are no different.
Avoid the appearance. It’s a must if you want your marriage to recover. Yes, it does take time. Patience. And maybe it will never recover. And yes, sometimes you have to swallow your pride and check your impulses to strike back. But if you want any chance at all at building a better marriage, you have to try.