Esther Perel is a prominent Belgian psychotherapist who lives in New York. She has dedicated 30 years to couples therapy and to the study of infidelity; and she has been traveling around the World for the last 10 years, collecting information about this topic in different cultures. The following is a TED Talk in which Esther presents her discoveries: “Rethinking infidelity”. The video is worth the time it takes to watch and to use for discussion with your spouse.
Infidelity in a marriage has devastating consequences. Going through infidelity causes a terrible pain that is considered even worse than the death of the spouse. Many couples do not survive. Marriage ends in an extremely painful way, especially if there are children involved. There are some who survive infidelity, but only as castaways who are adrift letting the current take them to wherever and end up living a marriage that is actually dead. But, on the other hand, there are marriages that not only survive but also revive, these are the marriages that Esther talks about and the ones that I want to look at more in-depth in this post.
Men and women live the experience of sin. Marriage suffers the consequences of this experience, but Jesus comes to us and elevates marriage to be a Sacrament, giving us the grace to fight against all difficulties. Infidelity is one of them.
With the intention of explaining myself better, I have divided this talk into 7 points, which I hope will help to understand the mechanism of infidelity, as well as start and interesting dialogue that will help many marriages struggling with the terrible pain of infidelity to overcome it and achieve a better marriage.
Infidelity has been present since the beginning of time. And as Esther says, it is even mentioned twice in the 10 Commandments: in the 6th “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and in the 9th “You shall not covet impure thoughts of desires”. God, knowing the nature of sin warns us twice about the pitfalls that we can have in this aspect. Both in action and in thought. Both are equally strong and both cause the same pain. It is important to keep this in mind. It is not a coincidence.
Is not that one sex is more unfaithful than the other; it’s just another point in which the differences between men and women are evident. It is said that women are unfaithful because they are looking for an intimate connection and that men are because they can’t sustain such a connection. Men brag about their conquests, women are silent about their desires. Developing the ability to look at these differences even in such situations, talking about our needs with honesty, confidence, and fearlessness within our marriage would help a lot. Personal knowledge and consciousness of our differences is key to understanding our temptations and falls.
Why infidelity? Can I come to understand my unfaithful spouse? What happens if I am the one who is unfaithful? What is it that the unfaithful partner is really seeking? What is missing in the relationship? Infidelity can lie dormant in each of us, many times it is a response to unresolved issues between spouses. Letting the monotony win or being in a painful situation can make us lose sense of our life and infidelity shows up as a window full of emotions that makes us feel “alive” again. The thing we need to remember is that we were always alive, but we let our marriage die.
Infidelity doesn’t have to do much with our spouses. It has much more to do with ourselves, with our needs and our personal unreconciled stories. Infidelity has more to do with desire than with sex. Desire of being listened to, desire of being cared for, desire of feeling valued and important, desire of being respected. It is the lacking fulfillment of those desires that causes and sustains an affair. You want what you can’t have and that makes it even more desirable. This is very similar to what happens when you have an addiction. However, because we have a conscience we can develop strategies to fight the temptation these desires bring to us. We can fill those needs, not with our spouse or an affair, but with the love of God. No person is capable of meeting the deepest desires of our heart. That is something only God can do.
Because of the widespread use of technology infidelity doesn’t only cause pain but also personal traumas, generating even more of an identity crisis. We can be front-row spectators of the husband’s infidelity and hear about the most sordid details over social media (and vice-versa). We need to be aware of this point and the additional harm it brings to a family. Nowadays, infidelity causes a profound identity crisis, perhaps even more so than in any other time.
It’s unbelievable, but in addition to the pain of infidelity, when a marriage fights to regain the relationship the couple may face adversity from those who don’t understand forgiveness. Forgiving infidelity is almost a sin of its own in today’s culture. In a world where all that matters is happiness and such happiness means the absence of pain and sacrifice, forgiving an affair is something for crazy people: “But, are you dumb???”, “A cheater never changes”, “He is coming back because she doesn’t love him anymore”. But forgiveness exists, moreover, it is a grace that God gives us in the Sacrament of Matrimony. It is possible to forgive. Forgiveness doesn’t mean to ignore what has happened and go back to the way things were before it all began. This type of forgiveness requires commitment and reconstruction. The first step is that the spouse who was unfaithful recognizes the pain they have caused to the family and is open and ready to rebuild the marriage step by step. It is important that both spouses seek to heal through the Sacrament of Confession. It is also necessary to seek counseling from a priest, spiritual director, or Christian therapist. These people will provide valuable resources in helping you not just restore your marriage, but revitalize it.
Surviving an affair creates the space to discuss and say things that have never been dared to say before: “I wasn’t happy”, “I didn’t like this about our relationship…” These honest conversations are the ones that will open the marriage for a new reality in which topics that were never discussed before can now be communicated. Talk about your desires and unmet needs. Share hurts. Share joy. Bring God into your home through your marriage. Make a commitment to praying together daily.
Esther Perel says that infidelity is like cancer: it can kill you, but if you survive your life is going to have a new meaning. The challenge of fighting to overcome an affair can lead to rebuilding a new marriage that is more aligned with God’s plan for the family.
We must remember that the Sacrament of marriage fills us with grace to overcome difficulties. We are NOT alone, God never leaves us alone:
«Christ is the source of this grace. “Just as old God encounters his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony.” (GS 48,2). Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens (cf Ga 6,2), to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ef 5,21) and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love». Catechism of the Catholic Church 1642.
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