A few weeks ago, I was at a party. It was a run-of-the-mill sort of family party, with couples and their kids, grandmas and grandpas, the usual. Towards the end of the gathering, as I was collecting my things and my child, I overheard a conversation in the living room between two couples. One of the women I had just met said to the other couple, “my husband doesn’t hit me and he doesn’t cheat on me!” Then she glared at her husband. She said these words with such ferocity and determination that no one could mistake the implicit or else!. In her, I recognized a current of fear that runs beneath many relationships—the fear of losing love, the fear of love betraying us through infidelity or violence. I also realized that it would be impossible for me to have an earnest conversation with this woman. She would hear my story and it would trigger her fear. She would be outraged and tell me that I should leave my husband and break up my family. She would tell me everyone would be better off. She would judge me if I didn’t do as she said. My pain would hit close to her fear for her own marriage and family, and it would be silenced. She would shame me as a weak woman who is more afraid of being on her own than living through abuse. And she would not understand how wrong she was.
In truth, I am not sure if that particular woman would have had this reaction, but I have seen many people react in that manner, and I feel deeply shamed by this reaction even while I recognize it for the fear it is. My shame tells me that I can not tell my closest friends and relatives of my husband’s infidelity and how it has hurt us, especially not in detail. I know that they will judge him for the choices that he made. I know that they will lose trust in him. I know they will treat him differently. And I know that they will judge me as well. They will wonder why he cheated on me. They will wonder which of my defects drove him to it. They will tell me I should leave and judge me if I stay. Either way, silence seems like the best course of action. Unfortunately, this sort of silence is also deepens shame and adds a dose of loneliness.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connections between infidelity and shame as well as the connections between shame and trauma. This exploration led me to read an interview with Esther Perel where she states that infidelity has “always been painful, but today it is traumatic. Why? Because …. it shatters the grand ambition of love.” While I do feel that the love my marriage was based upon was a beautiful illusion that I desperately want even though I now realize that does not and did not exist, I also think there is more to the trauma. Perel’s statement explains the deeps sense of loss, but the “more” lays in the shame that people feel when they experience some traumas, like when a spouse cheats. It lays in the “why?,” in the “what did I do to deserve this?,” even if the “what did I do” is related back to something unknown or unknowable, something like “I made a bad choice in partner.” It is the regret that lays in the “if I had only…”
There is a dividing line between a terrible experience and a traumatic experience that seems to be based in understanding the experience. For instance, when children are involved in a car wreck, research has shown that what determines if the experience will be processed as scary or traumatic is the caregiver’s reaction. If the caregiver acts rationally and spends some time explaining why the crash happened, the child will process it as an unpleasant, scary experience that would be best avoided in the future. If the caregiver does not offer explanations, if the caregiver refuses to talk about the incident, the child will process it as trauma. The child will wonder why this scary thing happened, and not seeing a connection between actions and the event, she will not think of it as a result of something that she or the drivers did, but as the result of something she is. She will think of it as a the universe’s commentary on herself. In other words, if we think of trauma as an intensely negative event that one suffers from for no apparent reason and regardless of their personal actions or intentions, the implication is that the person suffers and is judged not for something s/he did but because of something s/he is.
The “I am flawed” is shame.
Interestingly, on a certain level, this shame allows the traumatized person to feel more control over their environment, even though this control is façade. If they can change who they are, then they can either change the situation they are in or prevent another such event in the future. If they can not change or prevent the bad things, then they can believe that they deserve those things because they are bad.
In infidelity, the trauma and shame gets translated as my spouse cheated because something about me is (insert insecurity, i.e. unlovable, not sexy enough, not a good enough listener, a pushover, etc.). For me, this happens on an almost subconscious level. I will wonder if I should change my clothes to something that my husband will think is cuter than what I am wearing. I will look at picture of potential babysitters and think, “nope, she’s too cute.” I will refrain from wearing my hair up in a style that my husband teasingly called “marmy.” These thoughts are a reflection of my deep, lingering feeling that that my husband’s infidelity was his commentary on me as a person. This feeling of not being enough in his eyes or in the eyes of my family and friends may not be rational but it is a key component of my shame.
The fear of not being enough in the eyes of the people we love is a common, possibly unavoidable sentiment, and in relationships, we should be mindful of it. It was expressed by the woman at the party and her fears about her husband being unfaithful or violent. It says, “I want you to love me. Please love me like I love you. Please love me despite my failings. Please love me for what I am.” And if our love rejects us through infidelity, then we deeply internalize the rejection. In our shame, we ask, “what did I do to deserve this.” And we refuse to believe the answer, “nothing. You didn’t deserve this.”