Updated: Mar 11
An Infidelity Dilemma
The following story was shared with me by an acquaintance who:
Is not a therapy client of mine
Specifically asked me to publicize the story, for reasons that will become clear
Is not identifiable due to changed details
Aviva finds herself in a painfully difficult situation. She did something wrong and she’s feeling awful.
First: some background:
Aviva is a 32 year old woman- a well-adjusted wife, mom, and teacher. She loves her husband and children and is generally content with her life. She is religious, sincere, kind, and tends to be a rule follower- genuinely enjoying doing what she feels is right, even when it’s not necessarily easy. She had a happy childhood, raised in a loving family and wholesome community. She has a pretty good marriage now- thanks to several years of therapy. She and her husband have worked on their communication issues, their physical relationship, and some other challenges they struggled with in the earlier years, but have built a loving, committed relationship together.
Her husband is a good man and loves her. He is also more emotionally complex than she is. He is sensitive, and Aviva has learned about what tends to trigger his insecurities, while he has worked on becoming more understanding of comments and incidents he interprets as hurtful. The arguments they’d had weren’t usually ugly but were hard to resolve; Aviva is quick to apologize, but her husband takes time to let go of hurt and grudges. They are finally in a better place, having done a lot of work, both in and out of therapy.
Recently, Aviva found herself in an unusual circumstance for her:
She ended up alone with a man from their community- also a married, religious person. They were discussing a project they were both working on. He made a joke, and Aviva laughed. Then, completely unexpectedly, the conversation got personal and intense. Within a minute or so, they found themselves leaning toward each other, kissing, and touching intimately, suddenly and consensually. They didn’t go further than that; clothes remained on. Aviva jumped back, shocked by her own behavior and told this man:
“I don’t know what just happened, but this is not who I am. This is not something I do. I love my husband, and I don’t have real feelings for you. This stops here and can’t ever happen again.”
The man seemed equally confused and remorseful. They agreed that this was an indiscretion, and they both apologized, with the intent to part ways hastily, permanently, and quietly.
After the incident, Aviva was consumed with shame and guilt. She was disgusted with herself- she had always felt contempt towards people who cheated on their spouses. She would normally never so much as flirt with another man. How had she allowed this to happen?
She had certainly enjoyed the couple of minutes spent fooling around, physically. But she had no emotional feelings for this other man, no desire to see him again. She felt bad religiously, but more than that, she felt terrible about betraying her husband and the sanctity of her marriage in that way. She is an honest person in general, and usually likes to make things right by “coming clean.” She rarely had serious lapses in judgement, and when she did it was never in this realm or to this extent. Sexual transgressions weren’t even on her radar as something to resist.
Aviva is someone who doesn’t try to cover up her errors; she prefers to confess when she’s made a mistake, make amends however possible, and then earn forgiveness. Her dilemma was that in this case “coming clean” would mean breaking her husband’s heart and further damaging her relationship- possibly permanently. And if it went further, could possibly destroy another marriage too.
Even with a spouse who is not especially sensitive, or in a marriage without a rocky history, a disclosure like this would be a hard blow and usually takes time and work to recover from. But Aviva isn’t sure her marriage could survive it.
She very badly wants to sit her husband down, tell him what she did, have him get upset, both cry it out, go to therapy and work through the incident together. But part of her feels that making that move might be selfishly motivated: She did something wrong, and so to alleviate her own guilt, she would now cause her husband deep pain. Whereas carrying the heavy pain in her own heart and processing her own penance would feel terrible to her, but not burden him or jeopardize their future. Neither I nor her therapist would tell Aviva what to do; the choice has to be her own. (A Rabbi she called anonymously did advise one course of action, but I won’t even share that here, because that isn’t the point, and isn’t necessarily relevant to other situations. These are complex issues.)
Aviva wanted me to share her story because she hopes it can be used preventatively for other couples. She wants people to read this with their spouses, ideally when nothing like this has happened. And ask one another: “What would you want me to do? If I had made this type of mistake: no feelings, no real relationship, no intent to continue- would you want to know? Or would you prefer not to? What if it was something more substantial?”
It can also be used to discuss other permutations of painful marital “secrets”- other mistakes made that would be hurtful for the spouse to know, but potentially shareable in the name of honesty or coming clean. For example: I’ve heard a number of times that one spouse withheld information about his/her past before marriage, or from earlier in the marriage, but then regretted it later. Or the reappearance of an old problem. Some examples are: past relationships, dark family secrets, instances of abuse, medical or mental health history, addiction, pornography use, petty crime, or financial blunders.
It can be useful to sit down with a case story like this and ask yourself: “If I were Aviva’s husband, would I want to know?” And using this as a springboard discuss the question with your partner: “I don’t have any particular secrets like these right now. But if I ever did, would you want to know?” It’s true that the way we feel hypothetically, "before the fact," might not be true to how we would feel once we were told (or not told but found out another way.) But at least having the conversation is a good way to preempt the possibility and get to know how our partners would imagine feeling. Or give each other an opening to share.
Aviva wanted me to end by saying: You might think that you or your spouse “would never do anything like this; would never even let yourself get into a situation where something like this could happen impulsively.” And that might be true. But before this happened, she would have sworn the same about herself, and so would anyone else who knows her. And I (now I’m speaking as Elisheva Liss, marriage and family therapist:) can attest to the fact that many of the infidelity cases I’ve seen involved people who probably would have felt that way too.
I know some people like to blame these phenomena on the times we live in, but these are age old dilemmas: the Torah itself discusses infidelity at length; and even the Talmud says: “No one is entirely trustworthy when it comes to sexual [temptation.]”
We don’t like to have to think or talk about unsavory possibilities: people avoid writing wills, prenuptial agreements, and buying life insurance, because they desperately want to believe things will always go well and bad things won’t happen. Especially bad choices. But sometimes they do. And I believe that it’s wise to fortify our relationships by tackling the tough questions before they arise, while they can be theoretical.