The Chastened Adulterer: How an Affair Is Like a Heart Attack and The Case for Psychotherapy

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

I read your last advice column, “Adultery Is Bad, Telling Your Spouse Is Worse,” and the comments it provoked. I have a question that no one raised: is it possible for a chastened adulterer to become a good — even a great — spouse?

Chastened in Chicago

 

Dear Chastened,

The answer is a resounding yes.  With serious introspection — if at all possible aided by serious psychotherapy with a licensed, qualified, and, in a best case scenario, a highly experienced therapist — yes.

Note: To avoid the awkward “his/her,” “himself/herself” phrasing, I’ll refer to “him” in this column, by which I intend to include “her.”  Whenever I refer to a “husband” and his conduct toward his wife, it applies equally to a wife’s conduct toward her husband, or any partner’s behavior toward his or her partner.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that your post-adultery decision to make an effort to mend your wandering ways and succeed at becoming a good or great husband should not begin with confessing your adultery to your wife, unless you’re forced by circumstances to do so.

There were many comments last week to the effect that if you don’t confess, your spouse will love a person who isn’t “the real you.” My reply is that no one knows everything, even everything important, about his spouse. It’s neither helpful nor useful to make such a confession. It’s hurtful and counterproductive to the marriage.

One reader wrote that since infidelity is grounds for divorce, a secret adulterer deprives his wife of the knowledge that she has the legal basis for ending the marriage. To that I say that if the husband has ended his affair and is seeking to keep his marriage and family intact, it makes no sense whatsoever for him to inform his wife that she has grounds for a divorce.  That’s the last thing he wants or, frankly, should want.

Others emphasized that absolution requires an apology to the person you betrayed. While no Judeo-Christian-based religion condones adultery, I stand with the commenter last week who wrote this.

Confessions to a member of the clergy can certainly give one a good start on the road to fidelity in marriage. For at least the past 20 years, many Catholic priests hearing confessions of adultery have recommended psychotherapy, and have even given their parishioners the names of competent therapists.

 WHY A CHASTENED ADULTERER CAN, POTENTIALLY, MAKE A BETTER SPOUSE THAN ONE WHO HAS NEVER STRAYED (NOT AN ARGUMENT IN FAVOR OF ADULTERY)

An errant husband with a deep desire to mend his ways by understanding why he’s been vulnerable to, or even open to, extramarital temptation has the potential to become an even better husband after an affair (or after decades of affairs with numerous partners) than a non-adulterous spouse.  This is not a recommendation to commit adultery. It’s just a statement of fact.

Unlike a faithful husband, an adulterer must — if only briefly — contemplate how much he’d lose if his wife learned of his extramarital conduct.

A man who has looked into the terrifying abyss of life without his partner and children is a man unlikely to take his wife for granted.  He’s come too close to losing her and he knows it.

To change his ways, the adulterous husband must examine the inner triggers that have led him into adultery, be it once or serially.

Some may sneer that the “inner triggers” require no advanced degrees to decipher. The triggers consist of nothing more complex than an appealing cleavage, a lively smile, gorgeous legs, an attractive posterior, or a suggestive come-hither gaze across a crowded room.

Wrong!

Such enticements are almost everywhere.  Why is a man prone to respond to one temptation, but not to all?

Through serious therapy, an individual can discover clues to when and why the urge to wander occurs. When is he most vulnerable? It may seem like a no-brainer that the reason the urge occurs is that temptation has suddenly reared its head, but the question remains: why was one vulnerable then?  Or, if always vulnerable, why is one constantly at risk?

HOW POST-ADULTERY THERAPY IS LIKE RECOVERING FROM A MAJOR HEART ATTACK

The conscious decision to make a fundamental change in one’s personal life is analogous to the choice to act in a way to make a second heart attack unlikely after a first one.

By and largewhen one has dodged a life-threatening bullet of any kind, one has a keener sense of gratitude for everyday reality than someone who hasn’t ever felt the soul-chilling breath of the Angel of Death hovering close, or who’s never realized how close he has come to losing his marriage.  It can be sobering and life-changing.

When you’ve dodged The Big One, you know it.

As in the period after a first heart attack, when diet and exercise and other lifestyle changes must be made to avoid a second brush with death, in the time after an affair a man who wants to become a faithful husband must make a conscious decision to change his ways.

No cardiologist or heart surgeon, no matter how brilliant or learned, can keep a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza out of the hands or mouth of a man who refuses to accept that these foods will do nothing but produce fleeting, albeit intense, pleasure while also coating the interior of his arteries with life-threatening plaque.

The choice of whether to prevent another heart attack or to prevent another adulterous affair is one that only the individual can make.  A choice to change one’s patterns of behavior requires high motivation and Herculean resolve.  A trained physician or therapist can help, but not unless the patient feels a deep need to behave differently in order to produce a different response to the same stimulus the next time.

Menus and potential lovers will never change: they’ll always offer up their ephemeral raptures. It is the individual who must change his approach to them – or else suffer a repetition of the past, over and over and over again, just like in Groundhog Day.

 THE AGING PROCESS WILL NOT MAGICALLY CHANGE ADULTEROUS BEHAVIOR 

If you think that “waiting it out” will work – that the onset of one’s sixties, seventies, eighties, or nineties will, without serious introspection and a strong desire to change, magically “solve” the problem of being a wandering spouse — think again.

The emotional impulses will remain unchanged.  All that will change is that the flesh will require greater patience and longer periods of physical stimulation to accomplish the act.

THERAPY IS NOT JUST “FOR OTHER PEOPLE”

As for psychotherapy, those who think it’s only for others are making a mistake.  Everyone can benefit from greater knowledge of his inner life.  Without the clarity of vision that the hard work of therapy entails, one is fated to make the same errors, and fall into the same traps, again and again and again, leaving untold destruction in one’s wake, and doing untold damage to oneself. One can pretend otherwise, but pretending won’t make it so.

 HOW THERAPY CAN HELP

A fine portrayal of how therapy works can be found not in a film about psychiatry — and there’ve been dozens – nor in the HBO series In Treatment, which was OK as entertainment but not as a serious portrayal of psychotherapy, but rather in the 2010 movie The King’s Speech.

It skillfully tells the story of the man who became King George VI, the father of the present queen of England, who was afflicted with an agonizing problem of stammering, leading to minutes of total silence when the BBC broadcast his early public addresses.

Through his wife’s intervention, he consulted a speech therapist who immediately sought to learn about the future monarch’s childhood. “We don’t wish you to examine his childhood.  Just fix his stammer,” his wife ordered the therapist.

As the film unfolds, however, the future king does, in fact, examine his childhood and comes to recognize the hitherto invisible links between how he felt as a small, defenseless, and abused child and his inability to speak without mortifying pauses as an adult.  He begins to connect the dots that connect his earliest years to his present impediment.

In 1939,  after years of intense introspection and resolute, hard work with Lionel Logue, his speech therapist, the king must make a historic speech on the radio to his country and the entire British Empire, informing millions of his subjects around the globe that they are now at war with Hitler’s Germany.

He succeeds brilliantly. Without the will to examine his inner life, he would have been doomed to stammer his way through six years of wartime BBC broadcasts. Instead, he became, along with his wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an inspiring speaker to the British and the Allies throughout the long, arduous war.

 SUBSTITUTING THE CONQUEST OF INNER DEMONS FOR THE QUEST FOR EXTERNAL TRAPPINGS

With the necessary will and the necessary help, demons can be conquered. What is needed is the determination that leads to intense, deeply motivated effort. Promises and resolutions to do better in the future will inevitably be broken without doing the work to connect the dots and to understand why a person does what he does.

Yes, it takes time, and yes, it takes money.  The time will pass, anyway: it’s better spent in therapy than in bed with a lover.  On balance, psychotherapy can be enormously worthwhile, far more so than any material object – from a closetful of shoes to a powerful, flashy vehicle or a humongous-sized television screen. Many therapists offer sliding scales of fees to enable all to benefit. If you believe that a new thing (or person) will make you feel better, it or she won’t — except fleetingly. The benefits of psychotherapy will outlast anything else you can buy.

Nothing in life is more costly than the errors we make because of woeful ignorance of ourselves.

 TO CHANGE FROM CHASTENED ADULTERER TO GREAT HUSBAND OR WIFE

I will end with part of a 1644 essay by John Milton, the towering poet of Paradise Lost who also wrote an essay titled “Areopagitica (emphasis added:)

Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involv’d and interwoven with the knowledge of evill, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discern’d, that those confused seeds which were impos’d on Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt. It was from out the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by evill. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdome can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary.

Each of our lives involves trial by that which “is contrary.”  To win those trials and emerge stronger and better human beings, we must subject ourselves to the arduous task of self-understanding.  Without that, all the tearful and abject apologies, all the confessions of guilt to one’s spouse and endless promises of change are just so much hot air.

To change is to work at change, not to believe that absolution or forgiveness is all it takes. It wasn’t in 1644, it isn’t now, and it never will be.

— Belladonna Rogers