Infidelity… it is indeed our secret epidemic until the next celebrity like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child tragic saga unfolding rivets the nation’s attention to the fact that betrayal, in all of its various forms, is alive and well in marriages across our nation.
The question many are asking is this: Can a marriage actually be saved following an affair? Is it really possible to survive infidelity or is a divorce inevitable?
In our book, Surprised by Love we address and answer that question head on with a resounding – yes! It is very possible if you are willing to do the work necessary to heal and redesign the relationship that’s been damaged by the affair.
The answer to the question “can it be saved” has less to do with the circumstances of the affair and much more to do with the responses to it by both people involved. Marriages don’t end because of infidelity; they end because of how infidelity is dealt with.
The real question is “how do you define love” and “is your definition of love large enough to encompass profound failure”. The only limitations on love are those we place on it; that of the imagination or lack of in this case where possibility is foreclosed on due to overwhelming emotion that is not managed as it can be. For example, people often claim as a matter of fact that certain things are simply “unforgivable” (some famous gurus like Dr. Laura actually preach this regularly!) or as I heard one client recently try to sell me, “There are limits to how much you can love someone”.
If you define love as “contingent upon” your spouse always being faithful, never failing you especially in the arena of fidelity, or your relationship cooperating with your ideas about how it “should be”, then I agree with the naysayers, it isn’t possible to save a marriage following an affair and you’re destined to be consumed by resentment forever; forget forgiveness.
However, if you define love as we do, as “unconditional contribution” in the face of unbelievable failure that can accompany being a human being (and, with the caveat that there will be boundaries and standards an unfaithful partner agrees to live by to do the work of healing and redesign), then it is not only possible to save a marriage after infidelity, it is possible to thrive beyond it.
The truth is anything can be forgiven because doing so is an act of will, not a movement of circumstances to align with what we deem they must as that represents a set of conditions that have little to do with the work of forgiveness and even less to do with what it means to love.
Forgiveness that is grounded in “true love” is as much about the willingness of the forgiver to evolve as it is for the forgiven to be worthy of forgiveness based on a genuine change in expected behavior over time. Both are fundamentally choices, therefore whether a marriage can be repaired or not rests more upon a decision to grow by leveraging that pain, as brutally painful as it is, and choosing to use it as a source of evolution, both individually and as a couple, rather than a rallying call for the destruction of a marriage and family.
For us, we found life-altering love and true fulfillment in our marriage after an affair and divorce. By working through the pain and committing ourselves to both healing and designing a new relationship, we found the secrets to a stronger, more satisfying marriage.
To succeed in love has more to do with becoming someone capable of loving than it is about finding the right person who will love us and meet all our needs perfectly.
In relationships, you can complain or you can create. Our greatest freedom is to choose which of these will get our time and energy. One leaves you victimized by the events and circumstances of life, the other allows you to be instructed by the wisdom in every failure. Recovery from infidelity is no different than any serious life challenge. Contained within its experience is both pain and opportunity. We chose to leverage the opportunity by accepting responsibility for how we failed one another by making everything else in life a priority except the core of what brought us together – our friendship; we together decided to evolve as individuals first, by learning how early wounds set us up to fail in love, and then, acquired the art and science for how to love more profoundly.
Sometimes your barn has to burn to the ground to see the moon. Quite by surprise following the devastation of an affair and divorce, we discovered the best part of who we were in our failed marriage. By using the pain of our failures as sober motivation, we made the necessary changes required of us to design the relationship of our dreams. Instead of blame we chose grace. Rather than vindictiveness, we loved from compassion for how we hurt one another. Instead of being self-righteous and “right” about our story of the other, we got curious about how who we were in the old marriage contributed to it failing. And rather than hiding in resentment, we embraced forgiveness as a pathway for a new future.
Beneath the ashes of our burnt lives within the debris of divorce the seed of a deeper, more mature love never before experienced was birthed, and in doing so, a legacy of love rather than divorce was created.