Infidelity: My Cautionary Tale
A spouse's infidelity is one of the most traumatic events one can experience.
I have been coming to Aish.com for guidance for years. The content is educational, inspirational, entertaining, thought-provoking and often applicable to my daily life. I have often wished I could share a life experience with the Aish.com readership with the intent of helping others as I have been helped by Aish.com. I had hoped that my tale would be an example of heroism or personal growth. I never dreamed that my experience would instead be a traumatic cautionary tale. Some facts have been changed or omitted to protect my anonymity.
I was a 35-year-old professional living in a mid-sized city, in a close-knit Jewish community. I was married, the father of three beautiful children. Because our children were still young, my wife and I were very busy. Despite this, we usually found time for each other: we went on "dates" almost every week, and we dedicated time to being intimate, as is encouraged by the Jewish laws of family purity. We fought like any couple, but the lines of communication were always open, and we always reconciled. I was proud of the fact that after years of marriage, we were still attracted to each other and loved each other deeply. I felt as if we were one enjoined soul and I was certain my wife felt the same way.
Unbeknownst to me, there was an insidious evil lurking in our community.
To all outward appearances we were the luckiest people in the world: We were educated, financially comfortable, active in the Jewish community, well-loved by our friends and family, and, most importantly, in a harmonious relationship. I include these circumstances to indelibly burn into your conscience that what happened to us can truly happen to anybody.
Unbeknownst to me, there was an insidious evil lurking in our community. My wife and I were friends with another couple. We spent a lot of quality time with them on Shabbat, in synagogue, and various social functions. We would double date and our children played together. They were fixtures in our house and we were fixtures in theirs. The husband, in particular, spent a lot of time at our house.
One day, out of the blue, my Rabbi approached me and told me that my wife is too relaxed around this man, and that we should take measures to limit their time together because their conversations are peppered with lewd humor and playful innuendos. I was dismissive because nowadays that is how friends relate to each other. I understood the Rabbi on an intellectual level, but viscerally I could not appreciate how a friendship like this could degenerate into something worse. This man was very helpful to us and I trusted my wife to be a mature adult, capable of setting her own limits on what is appropriate. Nevertheless, I heeded the Rabbi's advice and notified my wife. But as time passed, the boundaries of their relationship again grew lax. Quite honestly, I did not have the time or energy to enforce my wife's boundaries for her.
A few years later, this man began to experience marital problems. He stopped by our house more frequently to confide in my wife. Although I was troubled by how comfortable my wife was around this man; I did not feel threatened in any way because my children were also in the house and I felt like they would act as a buffer for any potential mischief. I was not adequately familiar with the Jewish laws of yichud (seclusion). Around the same time, texting had become more prevalent and in retrospect, my wife's cell phone began buzzing around the clock. This, too, did not seem unusual because texting had become the new way to communicate. So again, I remained unconcerned about the amount of time my wife was spending with this man.
My trust was based on the fact that I still deemed our marriage to be healthy: we shared values and our life mission, we communicated our feelings easily, and we were still attracted to each other. My wife adhered to the laws of tzniut (modesty) by covering her hair and dressing appropriately in public, and she regularly visited the mikvah. Despite all these safeguards, I still suggested that she not get too involved in this man's life, but my suggestion went unheeded.
The bomb dropped on our tenth wedding anniversary. A few months prior, my wife told me that this man said something inappropriate to her. She also told his wife, and he was quite insulted that my wife informed on him. This episode reinforced my sense of security that my wife knows how to set and enforce boundaries of decency with members of the opposite gender.
On the morning of my tenth wedding anniversary, however, I discovered that for the last three months my wife was having an emotional affair with this man – one that included physical contact, and was on the verge of being consummated. The reason my wife confessed on that day was because the other woman also found out and had threatened to tell me. While this man appeared to be a poor "lost soul" trapped in a loveless marriage, he turned out to be a predator of the worst sort, confessing that he had been pursuing my wife for years. Worse, the affair was consensual – although my wife tried to minimize her own involvement. Despite all the warning signs, I was caught completely off guard.
What followed was a physical and emotional turmoil from which I am still reeling six months later. Although difficult to describe, it is a near-lethal cocktail of loss, rage, fear, sadness, shame, confusion, paranoia, disgust, and helplessness, coupled with the physical symptoms of hyper-vigilance, loss of appetite, sleep disruption, and weight loss experienced by all trauma survivors. I continued to work, but I sat at my desk unable to focus, a hollow, empty, grieving shell of my former self.
Shame prevented me from confiding in anyone. This was a mistake, as the burden is impossible for one person to shoulder.
The shame prevented me from confiding in anyone. In retrospect, this was a mistake, as the burden is impossible for one person to shoulder, and my colleagues began to notice my odd behavior and decline in productivity. After two unbearable days, I called my sister and confessed what had happened. Acting on her advice, I made up an excuse at work and drove to her house. I could not remain in the toxic environment of my own home any longer. I returned home a few days later, still devastated, but with a plan on how to survive.
Everything God does is for the best, but I could not see this in the midst of my pain. For a few weeks, I walked away from God, and withdrew from all aspects of my Jewish observance: I stopped going to synagogue, learning Torah, putting on tefillin. I felt like an onen (one who has suffered the death of a relative and is discharged from the obligation of mitzvot prior to the interment). In the ensuing days, with the help of my sister and a trusted Rabbi I regained some clarity. I began to see the hand of God even in the midst of the upheaval: The Rabbi and my sister were available exactly when I needed them and told me exactly what I needed to hear. I could not reach my mother by phone on that day – the news would have devastated her and probably further jeopardized my now-shaky relationship with my wife. My children were young enough not to recognize the turmoil in our house.
I am still digging myself out of this trench with the help of a therapist, Rabbi, marriage counselor, support group, journal, and a lot of prayer. Even writing this story is therapeutic. There is still a lot of work to do to repair the relationship and recover, but there is also hope. And I have come to realize this upheaval was placed in my path as a growing experience. It did not kill me because God also gives the strength to withstand life’s challenges. I am also grateful that the infidelity, as traumatic as it was, did not blow up into a full-fledge illicit affair that would have irrevocably destroyed our marriage.
A spouse's infidelity is one of the most traumatic events one can experience, akin to the loss of a child or a terrorist attack. Anyone who dismisses this has not experienced it. Still, I learned that there are things that both the betrayed and the wayward spouse can do to survive the initial trauma and begin healing. I will highlight these below in order to help others survive, as a gesture of gratitude to God for helping me survive.
If you have just experienced infidelity of a spouse:
1) Your actions in the first few days are critical. Things that you do or say in response to the shock can preserve or destroy the now-fragile relationship. lt is hard to believe in the immediate aftermath that reconciliation can occur, but it can. So you need to avoid hasty actions that can further damage the relationship. lf you cannot control your actions or feel the urge to act on your violent revenge fantasies, then leave for a few days to collect your thoughts. Make any excuse to your boss that you need, but please escape. No decisions regarding divorce, confrontation, or retaliation should be made in the immediate aftermath. Also, recognize that your body will experience physiologic aftershocks that will last for months, so make a conscious effort to take care of yourself.
2) Find one confidante, but choose wisely. You will need rational, sage advice in the immediate aftermath as you cannot count on yourself to be reasonable. I recommend you speak to the most level-headed, objective relative, friend, or therapist that you have. A qualified, trusted Rabbi is ideal since there are very serious and complex matters of Jewish law that will need to be addressed in the aftermath.
You should, however, limit the number of people you tell because not everyone can be trusted, and once the secret is out, it is much harder to control the damage. You should also avoid those who may fuel the flames of your anger. If you have no one in whom to confide, the internet and your local library have invaluable resources and on-line support groups (e.g. aish.com, dearpeggy.com, survivinginfidelity.com, beyondaffairs.com).
3) You may be tempted to blame yourself. Instead, take consolation in the fact that you are not alone and that you did not deserve this. Just because shame prevents people from talking openly about infidelity, it does not mean that it is not happening in your community. Infidelity is not talked about in religious Jewish circles. Although we have all heard stories, no one seriously thinks it will happen to them. Being observant does not provide complete insulation. Very little can soften the blow to your ego, and surviving infidelity is the toughest thing I have ever been forced to do; but I did it and so can you.
4) God does not only forgive us for our small insignificant transgressions. He forgives us for all our transgressions, regardless of size (think Golden Calf!). If we are to emulate God, then we must eventually forgive our wayward spouses. Forgiveness does not require condoning their actions, nor is it unconditional. Rather it is contingent on their admission of guilt, remorse, and taking steps to prevent it from happening again. This can take many forms and is a very long process, but it has to be the focus of all your efforts in the months to follow if there is any hope of salvaging the relationship.
If you are the wayward spouse:
1) Confessing before getting caught is ideal, but if you are discovered, full disclosure is mandatory for optimal healing. You will be tempted to continue lying about the details of the affair in order to minimize your involvement in it, to protect yourself, or to avoid further hurting your spouse. But take it from a betrayed spouse: counterintuitive as it may seem, full disclosure from the moment of discovery projects cooperation, goodwill, and a willingness to put the affair behind you – three things in short supply that the relationship needs to help restore trust in the long run. After six months, I am more bitter about the additional lies and the trickle of painful truths that I subsequently exposed on my own than I am of the affair itself.
2) Break off all ties with your affair partner immediately. You may feel ambivalent about this, but nothing is more damaging to your marriage than demonstrating on-going loyalty to the person who helped you damage it. You may feel sympathy for the affair partner, but you will quickly realize that this sympathy is misplaced when you reflect on what this person has done to your life.
3) Expect your spouse to act very erratically following your disclosure because a betrayal of this magnitude is a very disorienting experience. Nevertheless, be patient and try to empathize with your spouse in the aftermath of discovery. If you cannot do so, then a few days of forced separation may be helpful. Also, know that there are books written specifically for wayward spouses on how to handle the affair.
Recognition of the threat is the first step in eliminating it.
No relationship is 100% affair-proof. Before the affair I would have scoffed at this notion, but I have learned that every human has an illogical animalistic side that will permit us to rationalize anything when faced with a strong enough temptation. We call this the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and one need not look further than Adam and Eve, a piece of chocolate cake on the counter, or this story to prove its existence. The yetzer hara does not knock on your front door; it is much sneakier. My wife is a refined, observant, mother of three, who had a very normal upbringing and marriage. Such is the power of the yetzer hara, that she almost destroyed herself, her husband, and her children's lives by succumbing to temptation.
Jewish law has much to say about how to reduce the likelihood of infidelity. There is no substitute for strict adherence to these laws, open communication between spouses, and most importantly, a realistic awareness that infidelity exists even in the observant Jewish community.
Maimonides wrote 900 years ago that seclusion between a man and a woman in a private setting is the greatest cause of mistakes and grief in these matters.
Of course, a man and woman who seek to violate these norms will not be stopped by any such guidelines. But they do help to prevent good people from falling prey to their base desires. We are too lax in socializing with members of the opposite sex and don’t appreciate the potentially dangerous temptation that lurks just beneath the surface.
Recognition of the threat is the first step in eliminating it.