Marital Infidelity: Existential Uncertainty in Spades

Sunrise or sunset, existential Uncertainty in Spades

Facing marital infidelity means facing more than the loss of the unique connection.

One life challenge that may bring a man or a woman for help in psychotherapy is learning of the infidelity of a marital partner. Over the decades of my practice, I have worked both with men and with women suffering anxiety and serious depression after learning about a partner’s extra-marital sexual activity.

Over time, I have found useful something I heard decades ago from a Buddhist teacher in an ashram in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Sooner or later, everyone will let you down.” This tough existential truth is well-partnered with another from my wisest mentor, the legendary teacher of psychiatry, Dr. Elvin Semrad, who said: “Everything has a cost”, “What are you willing to pay for what you get?”

Marriage is an opportunity for the deepest ongoing connection with a person other-than-self; one cost of marriage is the risk of being let down — sexually betrayed in a painful and serious way.

Certainty is an illusion. We’ve heard, “Nothing is certain, save death and taxes.” If certainty is an illusion, what is a marital contract? A cynic would say that contracts are made to be broken. A realist might say that contracts are made to provide work for lawyers. Contracts actually are statements of what each party is prepared to pay for what they have the specified right to expect to receive.

When my patient says, “How can I ever trust him/her again?” the truth is that she/he cannot, ever, know for certain. And that, actually, she/he could never have ever known absolutely that the marital partner would never choose secretly to break the contract of sexual fidelity.

R.D. Laing, the British existential psychiatrist, observed that our primary work as therapists is to help our patients to develop increased capacity to tolerate uncertainty. The foundation of one’s ability to live with the inevitable uncertainties of life is the experience of developing sufficient resources both inside and out to prove to oneself that one CAN manage — that one can be okay pretty much whatever happens. The capacity to manage when circumstances don’t correspond to expectations —- or even better, the capacity to live with fewer expectations and more openness to what may evolve, is solid preparation for the uncertainties of life.

The work of psychotherapy with a man or woman suffering betrayal by a spouse is not only grief at the loss of the unique and private bond, but also, at the deepest level, the confrontation with Uncertainty as a fundamental life challenge.