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Post-affair: Should you stay or go

Infidelity column evokes strong response from readers

QUESTION:

I disagree with your response (a Sept. 11 Live section column) to the wife who is upset with her husband's decision to stay friends with a woman that he had an affair with.

You suggest that the wife should step back and see the affair as a symptom of stress either in the marriage or in their lives in general.

Marriage is a commitment, stress or not. She should tell him to end the friendship or get out!

Answer:

I have had a number of strong responses to that column and they represent the reaction to an affair: the "kick him to the curb" response, which is, in my view, problematic.

Affairs are often seen as the ultimate betrayal. Couples who survive affairs, and there are many, are those who can step back and see the affair not as a betrayal isolated from the context of their lives, but as an indication that the system they inhabit is under stress and out of balance.

Affairs, like any other symptom, benefit from exploration. They usually throw a couple into intense emotional turmoil and that is never the best place from which to make a decision.

Keep in mind that this couple has three children, and all will be affected by the direction that is decided upon.

Stepping back and getting calm does not preclude a decision to end the marriage. Affairs come in all shapes and sizes.

At times, they are the final straw in a conflicted and unhappy connection; at others they are a careless and misguided move that fills both parties with regret.

In the case at hand, the husband's decision to continue a connection with his ex-lover may well further the turmoil and muddy the waters in the effort to rebuild trust.

My suggestion to the wife was to get clear about her position and let her husband know the difficulty his decision presents for her.

Of course she can threaten, "It's her or me," but it is rarely wise to issue an ultimatum that you are not prepared to follow through on.

A different but equally critical response to the column came from a young man who complained that women just don't understand men and that given their higher sex drive, men find it much harder to remain faithful than women do.

He continued, saying that marriage is an unnatural institution, that affairs have little to do with an increase in stress, and that a man can truly love his wife and still be susceptible to the urge to have sex with other women, "Even if his wife is a knockout."

First of all, it's important

not to generalize.

There are more differences among men and among women than between them. Not all men are tempted to engage in an affair.

The suggestion that some men have a higher sex drive and more difficulty staying faithful may well be true.

However, when a man makes a commitment to marriage (however unnatural the institution) he is committing to controlling his sex drive.

There are important principles and values at play here. Does it not make sense to presume that something significant is askew in the world of an individual who allows sexual pleasure to override integrity and deception to erode trust?

Stepping back and widening the lens on not only the marriage but on the complexities in the lives of the people involved remains, in my view, the most mature approach.

Margaret Anne Speak, M.A., C.C.P.A, works with couples, individuals and families from a Bowen Family Systems perspective at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write onthecouch@familyservices.bc.ca or call 604-988-5281.

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