"A lot of pain." That's how Eliot Spitzer responded to a reporter on MSNBC's, Morning Joe, when asked: "How has this changed you?" The "this" in question was Spitzer's being caught visiting a $4000 per night call girl and his subsequent resignation from his job as Governor of New York. Spitzer's interview was part of a publicity tour that coincides with his plan to run for comptroller of New York City -- the second most powerful political position in the city.
When Spitzer reiterated his account of "pain," I have to admit, my first thought was "Pain for whom?" His wife? The citizens of New York? Spitzer? Was the pain because of the damage he had done to his family, or the destruction he had done to his career? All these doubts and questions were peppered with the underlying quandary: can I trust anything a politician says under any circumstances? In sum, I was not inclined to be very generous-hearted to the ex-governor.
One of the reasons I felt angry at Spitzer is because my experience researching infidelity has shown me that few hurts in life can be more agonizing than finding out your partner is (or has been) involved in an affair. Typically, such unveilings are done in private; the public exposure of a partner's dalliances, as was the Spitzer family's case, can multiply the distress of discovery.
But my research also drew my attention to a less-than-obvious finding: that the person having an affair also suffers emotionally, and not just when he or she is caught red-handed. At every phase of the affair, cheating partners -- except for the dyed-in-the-wool sociopaths -- may experience intense emotional turmoil, from outright confusion to humiliation and guilt. An affair brings a deluge of negative consequences resulting in many negative emotions. Being involved in an affair my have its immediate "rewards," but for many people, it's a bummer.
It may seem like the decision to go outside the marriage and hunt down high-priced prostitutes is done frivolously, and often it is. But many times, individuals who have sought out extra-marital sex have struggled with the decision. For instance, the president of the largest website designed for people overtly seeking affairs describes a significant dropout rate between step 1: registering for the site and step 2: actually seeking an affair. Why? Conscience? Financial considerations? A spouse who discovers their clandestine activities? No one knows all the internal struggles of people who consider affairs and then turn away, but there is one point that has grown clear to me over the years of working with married individuals: decisions to enter into affairs are not taken lightly.
People who cheat are still people -- many of them do have a conscience -- and often they struggle with the emotional impact of their acts. In High Five: Love Never Fails, a forthcoming book about rebuilding a family during and after incarceration, author Ron Tijerina reflects on his two extra-martial affairs: "Unfaithfulness...is not the glorious act so many men think it is, or imagine that it will be. It is chasing after elusive self-fulfillment that ends with a self-inflicted mortal wound. Adultery is an act of suicide that kills the heart of honor and poisons everything it breathes upon. It is born out of brokenness and breeds even more deceit, lust and destruction. If only I had known or had been even slightly conscious that my careless action would lead to years of pain and regret, I can say with certainty that I would not have done it."
I can understand how inviting it is to consider all sorts of medieval torture that might come close to providing retribution for the heartache inflicted on others by those who cheat. It's not a very popular position to have sympathy for men or women who do have affairs. But for the many individuals who have been cheated on that choose to restore their marriage, does it really do any good to vilify a partner who has strayed? It's a difficult task, I know, to elevate the adulterous partner, and perhaps that's not possible. But keeping a keen eye open toward his or her humanity and maintaining a heart open to the possibility that there is real regret, and a real lesson learned, is a gift. It may be one of the greatest gifts a cheated spouse can give the unfaithful partner in the path toward recovery of a healthy marriage.
Spitzer contends that he has leaned from his affair, stating, "You go through that pain, you change," adding, "I'm hopeful there will be forgiveness." Heck, I don't know if he is sincere or not. After all, if you can't believe "No new taxes," or "I didn't have sex with that woman," can you believe anything that comes out of a politician's mouth? But political issues aside, his plight raises a more important question. Can you believe a cheater when he says he's sorry? Sometimes you can.
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