And They Lived Happily Ever After . . . Or Did They?

ImageWe all have our own expectations of what makes a great relationship. While there may be a few women holding to the position that marriage is not for them; for the vast majority of us, marriage still represents that ideal which is the pinnacle of commitment. Yes, any two people can decide to live together in a house but I guess a public promise of love, unswerving devotion and fidelity is as good as it will get for most of us.

For many, marriage is superior because it signals a willingness to be held legally accountable for how we feel about the one that we love. To top this off, we usually spend enough money and work enough romantic symbolism into our wedding ceremonies to last a lifetime; or so we think. Very often, we hope that these will be enough to sustain the ideal of what we think a great marriage relationship should be. But this is usually where our problem lies; our expectations don’t usually match our individual realities. This discrepancy can actually push us at least to a lifetime of disappointment or at worst, towards the divorce courts if we’re not careful.

While not shooting down the idea of having standards or marriage goals, many of our idealistic expectations represent our childish or immature beliefs about what our marriages should look like; all the time. Without necessarily articulating it, we expect that “true love” will always bring with it fulfillment and easy transitions. Because we’ve been sold on romance, ά la the fairy tale and Hollywood, we’re often not prepared for the grueling reality that marriage is indeed hard work laced with its fair share of the mundane. But this is where fantasy ends and commitment kicks in. Whether or not we are living happily every day, are we prepared to stick it out for the long haul? Because this is where the commitment we made at the altar is actually put into operation.

When the sex is fresh and new and regular, when our partner is still bending over backwards to please us and when he/she still looks really sexy and well-kept, commitment is not so much an issue. We’re usually enjoying our happiness on auto-pilot and can’t imagine another life; of course we imagine we’re really committed! When change comes to our marriage, however, as it invariably will, this is when we have to decide daily to live the commitment we promised.

Practically, this will involve re-framing how we see the changes which come, as well as revisiting how we respond to them. For example, our partner lets himself go physically and begins to take our unswerving attention for granted. How should we respond? The easy way out may be to ignore his sexual advances, fume inwardly even as we give in or worst yet, check out the new cute guy at the office.

While these responses may be very human, knee-jerk reactions for many of us, none of them speak of commitment. Firmly and clearly communicating to our husband what we need from him, is going to be critical at this point. In another popular example, a husband may enjoy his new wife’s sexual and emotional availability for a season. When baby enters the picture, however, he experiences a significant change as he seems to be no longer the centre of attention at home. He can choose to sulk, spend more time with the boys, have an affair to ensure his needs are met or he could ditch his self-centred attitude and pitch in to ensure his wife gets adequate rest.

Again, this is where our understanding of commitment should influence behavior. Commitment is not about settling for any old thing in marriage but involves our active efforts to make the relationship work, as opposed to kicking it to the curb at the first sign of trouble.

Since I’ve been married for quite some time, I’m convinced that “happily ever after” is an individual reality born out of how we choose to handle our unavoidable marital challenges. If we do want to stay married, learning how to operationalize commitment is not an option. The following eleven tips should help us to gain some perspective on the issue of living out our marriage commitment in practical ways:

  • Accept human imperfection in both yourself and your spouse and see it as a gateway for personal development and change
  • Choose loving confrontation when unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your relationship; this means that talking about how you feel is always critical; decide from the outset that you will not choose easy escape routes like emotional detachment or affairs
  • Protect your relationship from negative external influences (friends, family, cohorts) who encourage you to bail out at the first sign of marital stress
  • Set realistic goals for your marriage and work together at making them happen
  • See love as a choice, not a feeling that is based purely on sexual chemistry or attractiveness
  • Choose significant moments like birthdays, anniversaries or any day for that matter, to relive the memories of how you met, got engaged or got married; keeping alive the magic of your early relationship is still significant to the health of your marriage but understand that while this may be a tool to enhance your commitment, it should not be the basis for it
  • Develop relationship loyalty by actively demonstrating that you and your spouse are on the same team; practice “having each others back” instead of competing
  • Never neglect your sexual relationship; keep this “one-flesh” reality of your relationship going to demonstrate how exclusive and set apart your relationship really is from all others; this means actively working to make your sex better
  • Strive to demonstrate a “higher-order” love that is unconditional  and loves “in spite of”
  • Never share your  marital challenges with someone you feel sexually attracted to; this represents the antithesis of commitment and loyalty
  • If you sense your relationship  is becoming unglued and you both seem unable to handle it on your own, choose a reputable counselor, coach, pastor or therapist to help you get your marriage back on track

So You’ve Been Cheated On; What’s Next?

In my experience as a counselor, I’ve come across a variety of cheaters and cheating styles. There are those who cheat with one-night stands where there is a one-off never-again-to-be-repeated episode (hopefully) of infidelity. There are those who have long-standing, deep emotional and sexual affairs, where very often the individual fancies himself/herself to be in-love with someone else. Then there are those no-sex affairs (ah-huh); those close friendships and soul-ties which can prove lethal to the marriage or primary relationship even when they remain only at the emotional level. There is also serial infidelity, as in, sex with a different person every time even when trying to maintain the semblance of a main relationship. Flirtatious infidelity, describes the behaviour of one partner which is inappropriate either through language, touching or looks, even when this never leads to sex; the problem here is that the affair is alive and well in the heart. Finally, there is cyber-sex or techno-sex; sex that is aided and abetted by the use of technology and or the internet.

If you’ve been cheated on, chances are you may not be interested in an intellectual or academic discussion of the thing. So much has already been said and analyzed as to why people cheat and many of us already understand that cheating occurs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the cynics among us will say that as long as there are relationships, there will be cheating. As long as there are rules, boundaries or parameters for relationships, people will break and defy them; that’s just human nature. If this is at all true, how then does a victim of infidelity cope? How does such a person live with the reality of betrayal, especially since cheating is evidently here to stay?

Factors like relationship philosophy, personality, and even gender will to a large degree significantly influence the way we choose to respond. The following represents some of the options which victims may have at their disposal after an experience of infidelity. Please note that these do not refer to initial responses but to the ongoing or long-term way an individual chooses to handle being cheated on.

Going It Alone

Some decide that they want out of the relationship that has caused them so much pain. The hurt from the betrayal has lodged in such a deep place that a separation or divorce seems like the only viable option. For such an individual, infidelity has already sealed the deal on the question of loss. Since in their books their partner is already lost to them, walking away is just a formality.

Deciding to “go it alone” has the distinct advantage of giving individuals the option of starting over again in the future. It can also provide a vital space for clearing the head and soothing the emotions. The down-side can be seen when the decision is based on unresolved anger and bitterness.

While being alone is sometimes a good thing, it is seldom a permanent state. Failure to deal with the why and the how of the infidelity as well as failing to forgive can be lethal to the victim’s sense of self and can affect the “peace” of future relationships. At the same time, a decision to distance oneself from any romantic involvement and to take the time to reflect and regroup, can lead to an amazing experience of self-discovery, especially when victims grow to understand their own self-worth.

Infidelity in a pre-marital arrangement can and perhaps should halt or delay wedding plans. It provides a window of opportunity for the engaged couple to re-evaluate their choice of a life-partner before a serious covenant vow is made. Of course deciding to leave an already established marriage is serious business and should be well thought out from all angles before a separation or divorce is finalized.

Seeking Revenge

Deciding to do a “tit-for-tat” is perhaps one of the more common and understood responses to cheating. This can be a well thought out and premeditated response or it can occur almost inadvertently because the victim’s hurt causes him/her to more readily let their guard down with another. Those who themselves pursue an affair in response to being cheated on, have decided to maintain their primary relationship but seek to exact revenge for being hurt.

Such individuals are intensely angry and seek to salvage their own hurt by inflicting pain on the one who caused it to them. Some pursue an affair in an attempt to repair damaged self-esteem and to assure themselves that they are still desirable. While some will themselves keep their affair secret and allow it to function more as a psychological boost, others will deliberately engineer a discovery in order to inflict a similar wound on their partner.

More often than not, however, the satisfaction obtained from revenge is short lived, since it is built on a faulty notion that causing pain eases pain. The retention of anger and bitterness which motivates this behaviour means that the source of the first affair is never exposed and dealt with. Such a decision of revenge is likely therefore to be counter-productive and simply ensures that the cycle of pain and disappointment continues.

Staying Depressed

A decision to stay in a state of depression usually exposes a significant problem with low self-esteem. There are admittedly different types and levels of depression and this is not meant to trivialise the issue. It is obvious that an incident or incidents of cheating cuts at the core of a marriage or of an exclusive relationship. Because we look to others for love, acceptance and affirmation of our worth, we can misguidedly take on the opposite message when infidelity occurs. We can believe that we are undesirable and unlovable. Many women especially blame themselves when their spouses cheat and this can be debilitating to the psyche. Dwelling in self-pity encourages depression and a feeling of powerlessness. This can rob victims of the belief that they have the power to act on or change the challenging situation in which they find themselves. Victims find it easier instead to focus on their pain, to own it and to repeatedly re-live the details of the affair in their minds, until the effect is emotionally crippling. This response spells disaster for the future of the relationship.

Flying Free

In Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”, the main character played by Kimberly Elise describes herself as being “mad as hell” after her husband turns her out of their house so that he can finally be with his other woman. Although she subsequently meets a very charming guy who turns out to be everything that her husband was not, she is unable to totally relax in this new love. Instead she discovers that she must process her anger, hurt and pain, articulate it to the one who hurt her and then choose to forgive. Her decision in fact “frees her” to love and live again.

Forgiveness is an act of ultimate self-empowerment. It reflects the choice to extend grace towards an individual who has done us wrong. This should not be interpreted as weakness or as an act of cowardice which condones what was done. Instead it reflects an inner resolve to be free from the hate, anger and bitterness which places the victim under the emotional power or control of their partner.

Forgiveness in fact places victims of infidelity in a psychological and spiritual space where they are better able to assess what happened to them and make the right choices. Forgiveness should never be rushed prematurely. Although it is an act of the will, it is a process and not an event. This means that it involves the articulation of anger and hurt and individuals must believe that they are “ready” to forgive, before they can actually attempt to do it.

Many individuals are unable to arrive at this place on their own but often need the intervention/assistance of a counselor, therapist, pastor or friend to help them through the process. Because women are socialized to articulate emotion, they tend to be more comfortable with the expression of anger and pain through sharing, crying and journaling. This often makes forgiveness an easier process for women than it appears to be for men. Men who have been cheated on are in fact more likely to hold on to anger and bitterness because they see expressing pain and hurt as a sign of weakness. This affects their ability to ever be free from the effects of the cheating and this baggage they take to subsequent relationships.

While forgiveness will not cause an automatic erasing of painful memories, it at least robs those memories of the power to control an individual’s pursuit of happiness or peace. If individuals are to survive infidelity and live to tell the tale, this means getting in touch with a well thought-out response which should be in their best interest. For those who choose to walk away, without forgiveness, all future relationships will suffer the effects of the infidelity. If both parties value the marriage and want to make it work again, then choosing the path of forgiveness is the better option.

Keeping Love Alive, Fresh and Kicking

Much has been said about the four-year itch. For the uninitiated, this refers to the period after marriage where both husbands and wives begin to develop a roving eye (or so the theory goes). There develops according to this trend of thought, a decided propensity for looking for greener relationship pastures. Scientific research already confirms that we humans are creatures of habituation. This simply means that after exposure to a particular stimulus over a period of time, we exhibit a decreased response to the said stimulus.

In psychology, this particular form of learning is called dis-associative learning. This simply means that through repeated exposure, we actually learn how not to respond to the stimulus in question. When we make the connection between this phenomenon and an institution like marriage which is based on longevity and over-exposure, we can begin to see the problem on our hands. In other words, if there is any credence to this theory, the more we are around someone, the more non-stimulated we are by them.

This brings us to the question of the nature of the marriage relationship. If we are to be guided in principle by this philosophy of habituation, then chances are none of our relationships would last as long as an ice-cream in the Caribbean sun. Marriage by its very raison-d’être connotes permanence and repeated exposure in the context of a voluntary and mutual agreement.

When we sign on the dotted line, we more or less agree to wake up next to that other face for the rest of our lives. We in addition make a commitment and at the highest level a covenant to keep all of our sexual eggs in one basket. When we look however today at the number of incidences of infidelity and of divorce, we must begin to question the extent to which our behaviour, may perhaps be shaped by this notion of habituation.

As a proponent of applied psychology, I take particular interest in this concept. If studies prove that adults and infants tend to gaze less at a stimulus the longer it is presented to them, what are the implications for my attempting to appear sexy to my husband after twenty-five years? Is he psychologically bent towards ignoring the body he has seen for so long and directing his gaze elsewhere? Are we human beings helpless cogs in a wheel of behavioural determination against which we have no willpower? Are we really programmed by our human DNA to become sexually bored after four years or so of being together? Can we do anything to turn this situation around in our favour?

The question of whether our adapting to the familiar automatically brings less pleasure is somewhat debatable. As much as science would like to render us human beings as entirely predictable, there is much of our behaviour that still remains a mystery. For example, if habituation is always true why do people become addicted to porn or to food or to anything else for that matter? There is in fact, an entire slew of human behaviour that thrives on and is empowered by repeated exposure.

Just take a look at our current cosmopolitan lifestyles which are defined by our addictions and dependence on a number of media-driven technological gadgets and gizmos. What is it about these inanimate or non-relational things which keep us coming back for more, while the people or institutions that should mean the most to us (our spouses, marriages and families) become expendable entities to be changed with every passing wind?

I think the answer lies in another lofty term called acculturation. We have been cultured into believing that these modern trinkets are things we cannot do without. Our commitment to “things” is sold to us on the basis of how such are essential to our quality of life. At the same time, every new version or upgrade keeps our interests alive. Maybe we can look at these ideas as a means of tricking the brain into not getting bored by the overt familiarity of our relationships.

If we take this at face value, then this may mean that as individuals in a relationship we have to assume responsibility for keeping ourselves fresh and literally “upgraded”. Lest I be misunderstood, this is not meant to absolve our partners from the responsibility of commitment but should act rather, as a vital accompaniment to it.

Explosive passion after a planned sex-break can do wonders for a marriage.

The following ten tips represent some of the strategies we may use, to actively keep  ourselves fresh and interesting to the one who sees us and lives with us daily:

  1. Preserve a sense of mystery in the relationship by not doing every single thing together; whether man or woman pursue your own interests, bring something back to the relationship that you can discuss with your spouse; something with which he or she is unfamiliar
  2. Occasionally reinvent yourself; a new wardrobe, a fresh hairstyle, a manicure and pedicure can add some pep to your steps causing you to exude confidence and an irresistible sexiness; having the exact same hairstyle, using the same fragrance or the same method of applying make-up as when you first met spells bore, bore, bore. The same goes for the guys; keeping yourself well-groomed and making sure your wardrobe is current, shows that you understand that your woman is visual too
  3. Develop a new skill or pursue a new course of study, learn a second language or pursue a new hobby, which confirms that you are all about developing you
  4. Keep some personal rituals private; intimacy does not mean you have to “do the bathroom business” while having a conversation about the kids or the mortgage
  5. Keep your date-nights diverse; going out regularly does not mean eating at the same restaurant for five years in a row; introduce each other to new cuisine, remembering that eating together is a terrific way to bond
  6. Do something spontaneous and adventurous together; (bungee jumping, hiking, paragliding?) something that may reveal a whole new side of you that your partner may be totally unaware of (I remember during my second pregnancy climbing fearlessly down the side of a cliff (at about seven months), with my husband holding me firmly of course, just so that I could get some new rocks for my rock collection)
  7. Switch up your sex life as regularly as your busy schedule will allow; try sex in a new location, a different position, with new trinkets (lingerie, feathers, candles, music, silk, mirrors), you get my drift
  8. Agree to fore-go sex for about a week or so or longer if you can handle it (the longer the better for this experiment); practice lots of teasing touching and hot glances during this time with zero sex; come together afterwards for a night of explosive passion guaranteed to wake up the neighbours; this can definitely add some freshness to the routine which sex may have become
  9. Call your spouse with a surprise suggestion/plan that knocks him or her for six; for example, “your bags are packed and we’re spending the night/weekend at a hotel”, “I’ve arranged baby-sitting and we’re going out tonight”, “I’ve booked a spa day for you just so you could unwind”; being thoughtful or showing that you have your partner’s best interests at heart, is a sure-fire way to inject some needed energy into a flagging relationship
  10. Travel together as much as possible; being tourists in a foreign location can affect the way you see each other and you get to experience new sights and sounds in a mutually fresh environment