The Left-Behind Spouse
Most infidelity is met by one or both spouses knee-jerking to preserve the marriage. This understandable, immediate response is often replaced by one spouse choosing to leave the marriage entirely, leaving the other clinging to it doggedly (most commonly the faithful spouse), fearful and lost.
The faithful spouse opposes the legitimacy of the cheater’s intent to divorce them so vehemently that they even refuse to accept the demise of the marriage when confronted with divorce papers. It’s not uncommon at that point to find them clinging to unrealistic hope that the cheater might return to them post-divorce.
One of the most common responses we see to a walkaway cheater is the faithful spouse’s denial. It takes many forms but these are some common ones:
- Excusing/justifying/mitigating the affair.
- Splitting the awful cheater from the good spouse and waiting for the ‘spouse’ to come back, the ‘cheater’ shed like a snakeskin.
- Unrealistic hope for reconciliation, even after divorce, fueling romantic and idealized hopes for the grand gesture of reconciliation.
- A refusal to accept their loss of control over the cheater and the cheater’s actions while maintaining that the affair partner has temporary control by brainwashing the cheater.
In her article Divorce: 5 Good Things to Know, Teri Goetz acknowledges how difficult it is to accept change (even when we see that change coming) and how divorce can leave you feeling as if you’ve gone from spouse to stranger. When a divorce has been prompted by an affair, the sense that the cheater is a complete stranger is one we hear frequently, often coupled with claims that the cheater has somehow morphed into an entirely different character.
The typical response of the faithful spouse trying to preserve the marriage against the cheater’s will often includes:
- trying to ‘save’ the cheater from themselves (or the affair partner)
- trying to needle the cheater’s conscience
- using the kids as guilt-inducing tool
- ‘exposure’ of the affair to the cheater’s colleagues, family and friends
- making things financially difficult
- obstructing a divorce
Cheaters in exit affairs don’t want to participate in their old lives any more, and are understandably resentful and angry when the faithful spouse tries to engineer them into staying.
As we discussed in Self-Pity and Negative Thinking, stagnation and disaster thinking can be a tempting trap to fall into. Self-pity can be a strange comfort - it stops people from acting while they entertain idealized, nostalgic dreams of the marriage and the cheater.
For most of us who have gone through divorce, often our deepest, most painful and sometimes unknown buttons get pushed - buttons created from what I call our false belief system that we are “less than”, not worthy or unlovable. Our fight or flight response kicks in – feeling abandoned and unsafe on a very deep level. Interestingly, even if you were the one doing the leaving, you might feel abandoned too – abandoned by your partner in the marriage. You might also feel like a failure.
Often, the faithful partner’s identity and sense of worth is so tightly bound to their cheater and their marriage that when the cheater leaves them they feel valueless, getting stuck ruminating on issues of fairness, the affair partner’s ‘win’, and the cheater’s happiness and getting away scot free.
Many faithful partners try to alleviate this negative thinking by attributing the affair and subsequent exit from the marriage to the cheater’s compromised thinking -a temporary aberration from ‘normality’.
Wishing Back a Bad Marriage
Reflecting on the marriage when infidelity is discovered is a useful and rational response to identify patterns of behavior in the relationship.
As we discussed in the Halo and Horns post, many faithful spouses are more concerned with their rejection than they are with the quality and nature of their marriage before the cheater left them. Their goal is to retain the marriage and to claim reconciliation, regardless of how dysfunctional or unhealthy the marriage was to begin with.
A fascinating thing about our brains is that we would rather stay in something that we know, no matter how unpleasant, inauthentic or even abusive it is, rather than change our situation.
Left behind spouses often have a concerning tendency to resolve to tolerate and accept dysfunction, disrespect, and abuse if only their cheater would come back.
They harbor dreams that their (now ex) cheater will come to their senses, or get dumped and come running home. They see that as a win regardless of any dysfunction an unchanged cheater brings back to the relationship. They understand that they are the cheater’s fall-back position but will celebrate ‘the win’ anyway, however self-effacing it may be.
Divorce Can Have an Upside
Many are resentful, mulish, and sour at having change imposed upon them. They didn’t want change - they were content with life as it was, regardless of how their ex felt. They don’t want to redesign their life, to see the upside, or to look for positives in their new circumstances. And they definitely don’t want to celebrate their release from destructive, abusive patterns within their marriage. It’s far easier to stubbornly tread water, wishing for a return to the often idealized ‘old days’ when life was rosy and the ex wasn’t an ex.
Marking time until you can bring yourself to believe that your cheater really did divorce you forever, and that they meant to, is no way to live. It’s a refusal to accept the validity of their choice to not be with you. It’s a refusal to accept that you might not be the best person for them, or they for you. It’s a clear indication that you think you know best and that you think you know better.
You might be in fake-it-till-you-make-it mode, making a big show of living your life without them, hoping that they will see you as strong, capable and not clingy or needy. You might even dress your refusal to accept their choices as you fighting for them, love, and for family … it’s a convenient narrative, but it’s thin, easily detected, and what is says about you is not flattering.
Rather than looking at the divorce as the worst outcome, consider how it could be an opportunity to truly confront yourself, your own flaws, and your life. Teri Goetz suggests five ways to use divorce as an opportunity for growth:
- Identify what YOUR true values are – not the ones you inherited from your parents, teachers or religious leaders – yours!
- Look at parts of yourself you’d like to improve upon so that you are living a life you love, not one of reaction.
- Start paying attention to the way you internalize what everyone (especially your ex) says to you.
- Surround yourself with positive people who lift you up, not bring you down.
- Get some help to stay accountable for your shift in thinking, perspective and actions.
Instead of harboring a secret wish for your cheater to come around to your way of thinking and return to you, why not commit to truly making changes to your own world view and way of looking at life? Why not use this opportunity for your own self-improvement, and leave them to their own?