I think, generally, the kids and I are now in, what I suppose could be called ‘recovery’ from everything that’s happened to us over the last five years. We’re in a pretty calm place these days and, although, for me, there are clouds on the horizon in the shape of the threat of E withdrawing some financial support when Oldest Son is no longer legally entitled to it in August, I’d say we’re all ok most of the time. Certainly, compared to this time two, three, or four years ago we’re doing really well.
But every now and then, something happens that opens the wound and makes me realise how much healing I still have to do. This week, the slice to the still red raw scar, that I hope one day will be silvery and old, came in the shape of a comment in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/jan/14/all-efforts-should-go-towards-repairing-the-trust-how-to-survive-an-affair This article cites experts on relationships and infidelity. Among them, is one who feels that the betrayed partner must accept that they co-created the affair that wrecked their life.
Now. I’m (sort of) used to infidelity being endlessly discussed on the media, and either mawkishly or sensationally dramatized for entertainment. I can choose not to watch when it happens in ‘entertainment’, but it’s almost impossible to avoid when it happens to public figures. The awful playing out of the results of Matt Hancock’s affair, and the almost abusive Media focus on his wife, what she was wearing, what she was doing, what her background was (the unspoken undercurrent of all of this was, of course, did she do something to deserve his betrayal, was it partly her fault, was she less attractive than the ‘mistress’?), was particularly hard for me to watch. Like me, Matt Hancock’s wife chose to maintain a dignified silence regarding what had happened (I didn’t start this blog until over a year after E had left, and, to this day, it remains anonymous) and emerged, beautifully dressed, every day to walk their dog – which earned her a big ‘tick’ from the media (and an actual paragraph in one paper re where to buy the clothes she was wearing). But this didn’t stop the sly comparisons between her and the other woman and the speculation re what went wrong in her relationship.
By contrast, Alice Evans – wife of actor Ioan Gruffud –poured her terrible hurt, heartache, and grief onto twitter. This, apparently, is Not On…. “don’t air your dirty laundry in public, whatever you do, love…” doing so, invites speculation and censure (“she must have done something to deserve it”, “there must have been something wrong with the relationship”, “don’t blame him, she’s clearly unhinged”, the comments were endless). Of course, there were also pictures of Alice, who has had children and is in her 50s, which compared unkindly to her husband’s new, younger, slimmer, childless, squeeze, and added daily to the humiliation she’s already experienced. Every article about her, contained the unspoken implication that her behaviour was somehow not rational and that this might somehow have caused the relationship breakdown.
A certain ‘newspaper’ (I use the term loosely) is currently running a particularly nasty series of stories regarding the BBC’s Dan Walker – whose extremely attractive Strictly Come Dancing dance partner, Nadiya Bychkova has split up from her fiancé. Each article is peppered with pin prick insinuations about infidelity and mentions of their ‘extremely close’ relationship on the show. Each article is also full of glamorous pictures of Nadiya, and has just one, less than glamorous, screenshot of his wife, and mother of his three children when she was watching him on the show. The comparison is there. The dull wife, the beautiful blond (extremely slim) dancer. They’ve said nothing, but they’ve said everything. I don’t know if there’s been an affair this must be deeply, deeply hurtful for Dan’s wife. Whatever has or hasn’t happened, this poor woman is already being held up for scrutiny and found lacking.
All three of these recent cases have invited salacious comparisons between wife and mistress, a tacit acceptance that ‘boys will be boys’ (Matt Hancock even earned the congratulatory title ‘Top Shagger’ – in a meme which replaced the ‘NHS’ on the blue badge he always wore, with these words) and, inevitably, a head shaking suspicion that something must have been wrong with the relationship for the affair to have happened in the first place and that it can’t all be the adulterous partner’s fault. And this, is what the Guardian’s expert interviewee, Neil Wilkie, is reinforcing. He says that in order to repair a relationship affected by an affair, the betrayed partner: “will usually have to accept that they had a part in co-creating a betrayal,” he continues (sagely) “My experience is that a betrayal never comes out of a clear blue sky. It usually happens because there was something lacking in a relationship”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have never, ever, said that there was nothing wrong with my relationship with E. On the contrary, the daily relief I feel that I am no longer together with him, is probably testament to just how much was wrong with it. If it makes Mr Wilkie happy, I will gladly accept, even own, the fact that I co-created a relationship that failed. But I did not co-create a betrayal. E’s infidelities were not, even partially, my fault.
It has taken me the last 14 years (I discovered E’s first affair in February 2008) to even begin to accept this. I still compare myself to the much younger women he was involved with and find myself inferior – I’m older, I weigh more, I was not as interesting (they had jobs, I was ‘just’ a stay-at-home mum), they were closer in age and looks to the women his internet search history (mostly gambling and porn) suggested he was interested in. It has taken me 14 years to start to accept that none of this mattered – my age/weight/job did not cause him to seek out other woman – his ego did. He was actively looking for affairs (back in 2008 his internet history, along with the usual sites, also showed he’d accessed several dating websites on a daily basis, and his messenger history showed he’d contacted several of his students with flirty messages). This was a man intent on finding other women, with no interest in the woman he was in a relationship with.
I remember back when E first left, reading something along the lines of ‘one affair can suggest a problem with the relationship, more than one suggests a problem with the person’. I still tend to agree with this – anyone can make a mistake, anyone can react to a problematic relationship by giving into temptation or seeking love elsewhere and, with love and forgiveness, when this happens relationships can heal. But, when this happens, the unfaithful party must take responsibility for their decision to have an affair. The fact remains that, if one person in a relationship is unfaithful and the other person isn’t, that the unfaithful person is the one who has betrayed their partner. They decided to do that, they are responsible for that. Their relationship could have been completely shitty – arguments, no sex, no communication, selfishness, manipulation, daily, nasty, petty spitefulness’s, but they are still the only one who reacted to this by betraying the absolute trust that a relationship is built on. They need to own this, not their partner.
The thing is, in my experience, and the experience of the many people who have contacted me as a result of this blog, when an affair happens, the default reaction of the betrayed partner is not, as Mr Wilkie blithely suggests to protest “It’s all your fault, I had nothing to do with it”, it’s actually to look inwards, judge themselves and see all of their physical and personal faults exposed and laid painfully, publicly, bare. In many cases all we have left is the fact that we didn’t do the betraying. That’s not to say that we don’t accept that the relationship had problems (trust me, when your partner has an affair, all you can do is see the problems, you even see things that probably weren’t even there), that’s not to say that we’re not taking responsibility for the relationship failing, and (in some cases) that we don’t want to repair the relationship, but we did not make the other person be unfaithful. That was all them. For most of us, the unfaithful partner accepting that, owning that, apologising for that, is the only way to move forward. That’s not to suggest there isn’t other work for both partners to do, but this should be sacrosanct.
But, as the media coverage of affairs shows, whenever an affair becomes publicly known, there is always a faint whiff of suspicion that the betrayed partner has somehow co-authored their own heartbreak. Until we ask those who decide to be unfaithful to take responsibility for their actions, this will ways be the case. Betrayed partners – let’s face it – already mostly blame themselves for being somehow so inadequate that their partner sought out someone younger/slimmer/cleverer than them. All many of us have left is the fact that we had the integrity to not be unfaithful. If we do as Mr Wilkie suggests and also take some of the responsibility for the affair itself, instead of letting that responsibility sit squarely with the person who decided to have the affair, we don’t even have our integrity left, and that would be one loss too many.