Being committed to a healthy, respectful, and fulfilling marriage is an admirable trait, but what happens after an affair hits the relationship?
Committed relationships aren’t perfect relationships, and most of us would agree that even where relationships are robust and honest they are still flawed in unique ways. Part of commitment to a healthy relationship requires that partners work together on issues and problems that arise, putting equal effort into both solidifying the relationship’s foundations and growing and improving as individuals.
After an affair, the bonds of trust and commitment are weakened or broken to such an extent that the bedrock of the relationship has been terraformed into a new relationship landscape. Both the cheater and the faithful partner will have changed to some extent as a result of the affair, and successfully carving out a new relationship from the rubble requires effort and cooperation between the couple. Not only does the relationship need new, mutually defined and agreed goals and boundaries, but both partners must identify and address their own flaws and failings before the relationship can move forward into a matured, authentic, and secure state.
Sadly, however, reconciliation is often entirely one-sided. The cheater may return, apologize, and want to put it all behind them. The faithful partner may say that they forgive the ‘transgression’, and then scramble to save their relationship, hoping that ingratiating themselves with their cheater will mean no more affairs. All too often the faithful partner makes all the sacrifice, change, and concessions against the backdrop of betrayal, disrespect, and rejection caused by the affair, without taking a firm stance about their expectations and limits with the cheater and the ‘new’ partnership.
Reconciliation on these terms can often result in continued pain, anxiety, anger, and frustration in the faithful partner. They can become almost evangelical about their commitment to their marriage, their determination to be selfless ‘for their family’, and their sense of being a righteous and good person for doing so. Lurking behind this self-effacing front is often someone who seeks validation and reassurance from their support networks, wanting affirmation that their anxiety, doubt, and trials are normal and understandable.
In short, they seek approval for remaining in a relationship in which they are not happy, or are disrespected, or are taken for granted - often years after they claim to have successfully forgiven and reconciled with their cheater.
At what point is a betrayed partner in a one-sided “reconciliation”, willfully choosing to remain in the problems resulting from the affair?
Bravery vs Convenience
Being prepared to make hard choices, by either walking away or by insisting upon the renovation and remodel of foundations crumbled and broken by an affair, is brave. Working towards reconciliation by expecting and requiring change in both yourself and the cheater takes grit, enterprise, and lion-heartedness.
Demanding a post-affair life where the cheater equally commits to and shares in the reconciliation, and being prepared to leave if they do not (despite love, codependency or fear making this enormously difficult) is courageous and commendable, because it requires guts, self-esteem, and fortitude to refuse to settle for dysfunction.
Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.
~ Elizabeth Cody Stanton
Staying unhappily, while complaining about the state of the marriage and the faults of the cheater, requires less risk, less action, and less inconvenience. There are many who choose this path for themselves, bemoaning that they are disrespected, abused and unhappy even years after the affair, but who stay in the marriage despite its dysfunction, expecting approbation for their bravery.
‘False reconciliation’ is a term that is often applied in other support forums to indicate that the cheater had another affair or renewed contact with an affair partner, while claiming to be reconciling with the faithful spouse.
However, there may be another way to look at false reconciliation, and that is where the faithful spouse stays for reasons related to their convenience and self-image, not because their post-affair relationship is a positive, empowering, equal, or happy one. It could be a situation where the cheater is coasting by because divorce would be financially ruinous, and where the faithful partner is hanging on for a different, improved post-affair relationship for years after the affair, despite having no material evidence that the cheater is working towards that.
To suggest that this type of ‘false reconciliation’ exists would probably be considered heinous, lacking in understanding, and misinformed. However, stories that reflect this reality are easily found in support forums and are concerningly common. It’s real and it conceals the truth - and that dishonesty fosters hope in others that could be equally damaging.
Staying in a post-affair relationship is challenging and difficult, there is no doubt. It’s valid and understandable to make a decision to stay for finances or lifestyle - in fact, staying for your own benefit in the aftermath of an affair should not be seen as negative at all if it is the springboard to a better life for yourself later.
However, hiding the real reasons for such a choice behind declarations of duty, sacrifice, and righteousness, all while seeking commendation for the same (and support for your unhappiness), is an entirely different matter.
You can either choose to fight honestly for your life, whether you reconcile or leave, or you can martyr yourself to your marriage while complaining about your lot in life. I vote for the fight.
The Role Of Victim or Martyr
Ten Differences Between Being a Martyr or a Victim
1. Martyrs are people who recognize they are being taken advantage of and choose to remain in the situation. Victims are people who are taken advantage of but are unaware of being treated as such. Once victims recognize that they are being treated unfairly, they have the choice of remaining in the situation or not. If they stay, they risk becoming martyrs.
2. Martyrs are those who recognize that their rights are ignored and abused but choose to remain in the situation and continue to be treated this way. Victims are individuals whose rights are ignored and abused but were unaware that they would be treated in this manner before they entered the situation.
3. Martyrs are people who let others know how unfairly they are being treated but choose to remain in this unfair position. Victims are people who let others know they have been treated unfairly. They have the chance to leave or change the situation in which they have been victimized. Victims often suffer silently for long periods of time before they are able to verbalize the unfairness of their life situations.
4. Martyrs often knowingly continue to enable or set up situations in which their rights are violated or ignored. This “setting up” is like a prediction or prophecy of failure into which, consciously or unconsciously, the martyrs play, fulfilling the prophecy. Victims often unknowingly set themselves up for continued abuse and violation of their rights. They are often confused and bewildered as to why this occurs. They lack insight into the actions that bring on this abuse.
5. Martyrs often seek sympathy for their plight. They seek support, advice and help from others. Yet they seem stuck in their current course of action and seem to be unable to resolve it. Victims frequently never seek help. They are often frustrated and lost as to what needs to be done to get them out of their current situation. Once victims have been offered help and make a conscious choice to remain stuck in their situation, they become martyrs.
6. Martyrs frequently let the people whom they feel are taking advantage of them know how badly they are being treated. Martyrs often resort to badgering, nagging, scolding, threatening, belittling, antagonizing and verbally putting down those whom they perceive to be taking advantage of them. Victims rarely let the people who are taking advantage of them know how they feel about this treatment.
7. Martyrs often believe it is their obligation to remain in their position in life. They would feel guilty if they let go of the current situation. They fear taking the risk to change the situation. They are apparently comfortable, habituated or submissive to the situation and believe a change would be worse for them and for the others in their lives. Victims often want a change and are desperate for a solution to their situation. As soon as a victim gives in to a situation, choosing not to resolve or correct it, they become martyrs. The saying, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” applies to the martyr’s state in life.
8. Martyrs have a story line which is stereotypical and habitual. They rarely change their tales of woe. One can meet them several years later and find them still suffering from the fate they were experiencing when you last talked to them. Victims experience their plight temporarily, get help and are more apt to get out of the situation. If after getting help and changing, victims experience the same problems later, they could be martyrs at that time.
9. Martyrs often mask their behavior with an aura of willingness and desire for behavioral change in their lives. Usually they are only fooling themselves, since the others in their lives can see by their behavior and attitude that there is no possibility of change. Victims usually are open and honest about their discomfort and willingly seek behavioral change. Their sincerity is easily perceived by others due to the actions and behavioral changes that take place.
10. Martyrs are “professional” help seekers. They make the rounds of paid and volunteer helpers, advice givers, counselors, consultants-anyone willing to listen to their tale of woe. Unfortunately, they usually ignore the assistance, advice or direction they are given. This frequently results in their “helpers” giving up on them in frustration and discouragement. Victims, on the other hand, seek help in a “crisis” only after the pressure of their problems becomes too great for them to bear. They are highly motivated for a “change” and are rewarding people to work with as they and their helpers witness the benefits of the help, advice and direction given.
A comparison of victim and martyr characteristics
|1. Usually has short-term problem||1. Long-term problem|
|2. Motivated to change||2. Stuck in their problem|
|3. Rights violated by others||3. Rights violated by others|
|4. Did not choose the problem||4. Chooses to remain in problem situation|
|5. Never complains||5. Complains all the time|
|6. Lacks insight into problem||6. Frequently has insight into the problem|
|7. Unknowingly plays an active part in the problem||7. Frequently knowingly plays an active part in the problem|
|8. Doesn’t often seek help||8. Seeks help all the time|
|9. Wants to let go of the problem||9. Holds on to the problem|
|10. Guilt free||10. Guilt driven|
|11. Solution oriented||11. Problem oriented|
|12. Powerless due to lack of knowledge||12. Powerless out of a free will choice to be so|
|13. Unique problem||13. Habitual problems|
|14. Sincere desire to change||14. Mask of sincerity|
|15. Honest to self and others about the problem||15. Dishonest to self and others about the desire to change|
|16. Hesitant to get help||16. Seeks out help habitually|
|17. Reticent to talk about problem||17. Relishes the attention received in talking about the problem|
|18. Embarrassed about the problem||18. Wears problem as a badge of courage (purple heart)|
|19. Wants a quick solution to their crisis||19. Creates crises out of everything but blocks all solutions|
|20. Open to all new ideas||20. Holds a “yes, but” attitude to all new ideas|