Jenny and Peter live in a white picket-fenced house on Washington Drive with their two young kids. For the most part, their lives are vanilla -- pedestrian. Peter's work as a lawyer means that he spends long hours at his firm, while Jenny's day follows a typical soccer mom's schedule. Every day pretty much follows the same routine. After dinner, and once the kids have been put to bed, Jenny and Peter have one-on-one time. They make plans for the weekend, pay bills, watch TV and then go to bed.
Enter Jake. Recently divorced, Jake moves into the house next door. Being neighborly, Jenny and Peter go over to introduce themselves. They learn that Jake's two children, who are roughly the same ages as Jenny and Peter's kids, go to the same soccer practice. Jenny offers to help out with driving.
An affair evolves. It begins slowly. When Jake does have time to watch the occasional soccer match, he and Jenny sit together and then take the kids for ice cream. They enjoy each other's company, the conversation flows easily, and chemistry develops. The friendship morphs into a thrilling affair.
The attraction is physical and mental. The sex is electric -- it amplifies their magnetic connection.
One day, a friend tells Peter he saw Jake and Jenny enter a hotel holding hands. Peter doesn't know what to do, maybe his friend was mistaken. He decides that before making accusations, he'll apply the mantra he uses every day in his legal practice -- innocent until proven guilty. Later that night, when Jenny is in the shower, he looks at Jenny's open computer screen. And there it is: that one incriminating email. It's so intimate and inappropriate that Peter knows without a shadow of a doubt, Jenny is guilty.
Peter confronts Jenny and she confesses.
Now what? For many like Peter, Jenny's betrayal is an unpardonable wrong. If she was unhappy in the marriage, why not mention it, seek counseling, or ask for a divorce? Unfortunately, Jenny lives a messy life like a lot of people in this world.
There are four basic ways this scenario can pan out (or a mixture of one or two).
1. Jenny can ask for forgiveness and hope to reconcile. This approach is common. Many people have affairs during a marriage, and some partners will forgive. For this to work, Jenny must cut all ties with Jake. She and Peter might consider moving to start afresh. Jenny's years, history and life with Peter and the kids should count for more than a six-month fling. The question Peter (and Jenny) face is whether they want to mend their broken marriage. It's not easy, but it can be done.
Here's how it would play out:
- Jenny must feel regret and endeavor to make amends.
- If Peter senses Jenny's sincerity, he may slowly begin to trust her again.
- Ideally, Peter will eventually accept Jenny's apology. Resentment is poison.
- Peter may begin to see his role in weakening the marriage.
- Peter and Jenny start fresh, with renewed commitment and honesty.
2. Jenny asks for forgiveness but the marriage ends nonetheless. Jenny or Peter may not want to reconcile. Either way, Jenny can still feel regret and make amends. She can do this by not blaming Peter for the affair and doing whatever she can to be supportive of Peter during the divorce. Jenny needs to protect her rights but not escalate things unnecessarily. She'll have to accept that Peter may not forgive her. Or he may come around, especially if he ends up feeling okay after the divorce. The question: what about Jake?
- Jenny may insist on continuing her relationship with Jake. This is not a great idea. It would be wise to wait a long while before seeing him again. Things need to settle down.
- Jenny drops Jake realizing that his presence confuses the children and humiliates Peter.
3. Peter calls off the marriage and makes no room for discussion. This is the more severe version of option two. Here, Jenny may feel badly, but Peter won't have it. It's a simple formula: Jenny is a terrible person. No one would deny Peter's right to be angry, but it may obscure what's really going on. Peter need not forgive, but what if he uses his "moral" position to poison the children against their mother? Or, what if he's threatening in public? Under these circumstances, Jenny will need good council and psychotherapy both to protect herself and to not make matters worse. Anger keeps people engaged, even as they break apart.
4. Jenny can blame Peter and leave the marriage. In this scenario, Jenny is behaving like a typical narcissist. Narcissists feel entitled to what they want, have zero consideration for consequences, objectify others, and show little remorse. Jenny might justify her deceit and the affair. She may even blame Peter and accuse him of playing the victim. Where narcissists are concerned, it's best to cut your losses and move on.
Most narcissists lack the capacity for regret or remorse; they are too preoccupied with justifying whatever they are doing. Regret is a powerful human experience. It makes us moral beings.
Why Regret Is Important: Regret involves introspection and holding yourself accountable. It comes when you learn painful lessons. If Jenny experiences regret, then she'll realize that she not only betrayed Peter, but she betrayed herself as well. Jenny may regret the affair, but she'll also regret not having confronted her marriage problems earlier.
Many people have affairs -- a breaking of a sacred trust. But some know what regret is all about. Those people become better souls in the long run. And, sometime the aggrieved party gets it -- and heals.
Follow Mark Banschick, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarkBanschickMD