After discovery of infidelity, betrayed partners often feel pressured to make a black and white decision about leaving or staying in their relationship. Adding to this pressure is a sense that if they decide to stay, they are deciding to stay for all time. And the same is true with leaving. There is a sense that if they leave, they must leave for forever.
As for leaving, it is true that divorce is a rather permanent decision. However, there are lots of ways to create relational space temporarily while you sort out the longer-term decisions. While you make up your mind about trying to make it work versus divorcing, you can try an in-house separation, a therapeutic separation, living in separate residences for a period of time, and various other options.
A decision to stay is equally a for-the-moment decision. For those who decide to stay in their relationship, the decision can be (and usually is) a decision for the present, not a decision for the future.
I remember one of my clients who was grappling with this issue. She was more than two years past discovery of the betrayal. She had stayed through disclosure of her spouse’s sexual addiction and all the incredibly difficult and painful initial actions of recovery. She had clearly decided to stay in her relationship. Yet there we were, two years in, with her telling me how tormented she felt about whether to stay in or leave her relationship. Her behavior to that point clearly said she was staying, but her heart continued to wrestle with the issue.
As we began to name and discuss the emotions wrapped up in this decision, I saw that she was wrestling with the idea of permanence in her relationship. She had an unconscious belief that if she stayed for now, she was deciding to stay forever.
The reality is that none of us knows what is around life’s next corner. Disasters happen, deaths occur, betrayal devastates. When we decide to stay in our relationship, we are deciding for the present with an intention toward our future. But none of us can know what the future actually holds. It could be that our straying spouse strays again and at that point we choose to leave. It could be that one of us gets sick and dies and the relationship ends for that reason. It could be that we stay together and die in bed, side-by-side, at the ripe old age of 90 like that couple in the movie The Notebook. We don’t know. We can’t know. We are all living in uncertainty.
So, if you are struggling with the pressure to know, and the decision to stay or go feels final and permanent, allow me to reframe your thinking. Instead of making a permanent decision, what if you decide to stay for now, with the intention of building a healthy, trusting, long-term relationship together.
This option is not a way to take your marriage vows less seriously, by the way. It is actually a way of taking your vows more seriously, living them each day with the intention of building a bridge, day-by-day, to a 20-year or 35-year or 50-year relationship. But your focus is on the present, not the future. Your focus is on what is best for you and your relationship today. You are living in the present with the knowledge and understanding that you don’t know what the future holds.