The fractured relationship world is divided into two kinds of people: those who forgive their partners’ infidelities and those who don’t.
THREE WOMEN, THREE REACTIONS
My neighbor of long ago – I’ll call her Jean – used to describe her marriage as ideal. That was before she came home two days early from a business trip and found her husband handcuffed to the bedpost with a leather-clad dominatrix looming over him. Twenty years and many thousands of dollars worth of therapy sessions later, Jean and her husband are still together, and were seen last year at their daughter’s wedding, holding hands and beaming with shared pride.
“Lisa”, my colleague and wife of a city magazine editor, was enjoying herself at an office party when she spotted her husband’s secretary emerging disheveled from a storage closet. Moments later the closet door re-opened and her husband slithered guiltily from inside. Since that moment in 1993, Lisa has not spoken except through an attorney to the man who is now her former husband.
“Mimi” has told me that when her live-in lover fails to appear as planned, she goes out to search for him, driving up and down the streets of her small town. She usually finds his car parked in front of one of several now-familiar apartments. She leaves notes on his windshield telling him in colorful language that his infidelities are making her suicidal. She knows he’ll be home in a few hours and they’ll engage in furious quarrelling followed by extra-passionate love-making. Mimi is 62; her lover is 67.
A NUMERICAL SCALE OF BLAME?
What is it about infidelity that causes such a variety of reactions? Is it simply the fact of that infidelity, or is it the circumstances that surround it? Is there a 1-to-10 scale of blame and pain? Is catching your partner in a one-night stand a mere three on the pain scale, while learning he’s involved in a serious, long term relationship is maybe a nine? Is his secret visit to a prostitute more forgivable than a sloppy flirtation witnessed by a roomful your friends?
We are all products of our culture and upbringing, which accounts in part for why some women give straying partners the boot and others take a “boys will be boys” position. In a special category are those women who find their unfaithful partners all the more attractive (“If other women want him, he must be worth more than I thought!”). When sex after discovery of a lover’s indiscretion is all that exhilarating, these women are their cheating partners’ enablers.
Forgiving a cheater is a hot-button topic for women of any age, but for older women it has a special poignancy. No matter how strong our bodies, our egos and spirits are frail. The little voice inside says, “at my age, this is it.” Finding a lover/spouse in one’s sixth or seventh decade is a coup. It may seem as though abandoning it will close all doors, even those that are merely ajar. Without the wider opportunities and longer timeline available to women decades younger, older women are likely to stick and stay. But how to forgive?
FORGIVENESS AS THERAPY
Forgiveness may seem like swallowing too much of one’s pride, and some women disappear instead into self-pity — or revenge. But forgiveness is not condoning bad behavior, or even reconciling with someone who has done something so hurtful. Forgiveness is not for the cheater; it’s for the cheated-on. It’s not letting him go free; it’s freeing yourself of debilitating, long-term physical and mental upset.
Whether you’re a forgiver or a hanger-on, there’s one thing we all probably agree on. Hopping into bed with the perpetrator is not forgiveness in its healthiest form.