Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is the Affair the Problem? Or the Symptom...

A few years ago, a friend of mine, Mary, left her husband for another guy, with whom she had only just started an affair. I was bewildered. Her husband was a good guy. I thought they were happy. This new guy was kinda...creepy. But, Mary insisted to me, she'd never been happier.
That is...until a few months ago. When she dumped this new guy, after a few years of emotional abuse that was inching its way toward physical abuse, I figured she'd be filled with regret. After all, her first husband was really nice guy. And they'd cobbled together a really good friendship, with their three kids as a common denominator. She must be sorry for the way she'd treated him. Sorry she'd left.
Right?
Nope. Not at all.
Mary's affair had really nothing to do with wanting IN to another relationship and everything to do with wanting OUT of the marriage she was in. She just didn't have the clarity or courage at the time to recognize that.
They're called "exit affairs". And they're basically the coward's way of getting out of a relationship. They're frequently the affair of choice for conflict-avoiders, people who don't have the guts to face their spouse and state what they want.
And, at one point in my life, I was one of those cowards.
I was 21 and in a relationship that was getting out of hand. I knew I wasn't happy. I knew it wasn't healthy. But tentative steps out the door resulted in threats of suicide or bitter recriminations. I lacked both the maturity and the sanity at that point to just keep walking.
Instead, I took up with an ex-boyfriend, knowing full well that my current boyfriend would find out. And that his pride simply wouldn't stand for being cheated upon. He, I knew, would dump me.
Which, though totally passive-aggressive, worked just fine for me.
Now though, through the lens of betrayal, I recognize how hurtful my actions were. How immature.

Within a marriage or committed relationship, and when there are children involved, the exit affair makes a painful proposition – the dissolution of a committed relationship and family – so much more painful. It makes a complicated situation so much more complicated. And it makes it far more likely that bitterness and acrimony play starring roles in the divorce proceedings.

Mary was lucky, if you could call it that. Her first husband was as unhappy as she was and, though he initially directed some anger and spite at my friend for her affair and subsequent departure, he ultimately recognized that he was somewhat relieved the marriage was over. He was able to move past his anger and develop a relationship with Mary based on their mutual love for and interest in their kids.

If you suspect your husband had an exit affair, ask yourself whether you think, honestly, the marriage is worth saving. Often by the time one of the spouses wants out, the marriage has actually been dead for awhile. That's not to say it can't be resurrected – and it's worth exploring that option if you genuinely see a future together, even if your spouse doesn't right now.
But some marriages are dead for a good reason. There is a such a thing as a bad fit, two people who, when it's all said and done, simply don't want to be together for any good reason (and no, money, prestige, laziness, fear of being alone, etc. etc. are NOT good reasons).

Was your spouse's affair the problem? Or was it simply a symptom of a dying marriage? Once you can answer that, the next step often seems a whole lot more clear. Either working damn hard to build a marriage that fills both of your souls...or pulling out your best self to work toward a dignified divorce.

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