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Ruth Bettelheim, Ph.D. Headshot

"Victims" of Infidelity?

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It is hard to imagine four more successful, intelligent, and tough - or to use the press description, 'steely' - women than Hillary Clinton, Jenny Sanford, Elizabeth Edwards, and Silda Spitzer. In addition to their accomplishments, these four women have another point in common: their husbands have all been involved in highly publicized extramarital affairs.

In each case, the press has depicted these women as stunned, unknowing, innocent victims betrayed by their duplicitous spouses. They have been described as in a state of shocked disbelief, as the aggrieved, disappointed, betrayed, and severely injured party. Their husbands, on the other hand, have been depicted by the press as sleazy, vile, and dishonest. These men, we are told, have committed a crime against their wives and the media has rushed to express outrage at their dastardly and selfish behavior. They have broken their vows and are not to be trusted.

In the news articles and op-ed pieces about extramarital affairs, there is always a perpetrator and a victim. These are stories about Good and Evil, the righteous and the sinner. It is a convenient fiction and makes for a good story that grabs the audience's attention. It appeals to the most basic and immature parts of us all.

Despite its seductive simplicity however, this story is also fundamentally false. The reality of marriage is not one in which one partner is the innocent victim and the other the abuser. In the 40 years of my practice as a marriage, family, and child therapist, and as described in the professional literature, the reality of marriage is that in most cases, whatever one partner is experiencing the other partner is also experiencing in some form. If one partner is suffering from loneliness, abandonment, anger, sadness, or lack of sexual gratification, the other partner is almost always having a similar emotional experience.

It is likely that both wives and husbands in these marriages betrayed their vows to love, honor, and cherish, and to provide each other real sexual satisfaction, long before the extramarital affairs occurred. Only the mentally incapacitated and those who wish or need to delude themselves fail to sense when a marriage is no longer satisfying the needs of both partners. When they are unable to face such feelings, evidence of infidelity may come as a "shock," but once they examine what has happened they frequently find that, at least on some level, they had known it all along.

When a marriage isn't working anymore, both spouses need to take steps to repair the marriage, leave it, or agree as reasonable adults that the important needs, (including sexual ones), not met within the marriage will be satisfied elsewhere. If marriage partners do not address their difficulties openly, and actively work to either repair the marriage or to accept its limitations, allowing their partners, if necessary, to meet important needs outside the marriage, they have functionally abandoned the marriage, whether they recognize it or not.

Staying in a marriage in which both partners do not love, honor, and cherish each other undermines the self-worth of both partners. Living with such a spouse insidiously infiltrates and undermines our sense of who we are. There are few experiences which are more damaging to our self-confidence than remaining with a spouse who is no longer beloved, or who no longer loves us. Both partners lose ground in terms of self-esteem and self-respect. Not facing our feelings in an effort to save a marriage, is a far from innocent deception.

By portraying infidelity that results from a marriage that is not meeting the needs of one or both partners in terms of victim and perpetrator, the media are unwittingly contributing to a mind-set, which causes many marriages to fail. If we allow ourselves to think of marriage in terms of victims and abusers, good and bad partners, the righteous and the wronged, it impossible to see our partner as our ally in solving the problems of marriage. We are no longer seeing our spouses as companions in confronting the difficulties of life together, but as adversaries. We see the other person as the problem. This produces more conflict and faultfinding, whether open or underground, causing us to forget that marriage is a dynamic relationship in which it always takes two to succeed. Both partners are the responsible parties, and perpetrators. No one is an innocent victim or bystander in a marriage.

In order to actually find solutions to the problems in marriage, one must truly keep the vows to love, honor and cherish one's spouse. We need to see our spouse as a profoundly valued partner whose help we need. We must seek to attack not each other, but the problems in the marriage. It requires the thought, creativity, intelligence, sensitivity, and most of all, good will, of both people working together as a team to solve these challenges.

Unless and until we all grow up and understand that marriage is a team effort, not an individual challenge, we will never get it right.