What is infidelity?

So there I was, languishing in the wreckage of my marriage trying to piece together whatever I could. My husband insists to this day that he never physically touched any of the people who he formed relationships with so on some level, I think to myself, his transgressions are not as bad as they could have been. Other people have experienced a lot worse. And some people, I know, would not even really consider his actions infidelity since nothing happened in person. However, this knowledge does not make me feel any better. It does not make me feel like I can trust him. It does not minimize the fact that he lied to me every, single day for at least a year and a half. He lied to me every, single day multiple times, thousands of times overall.

How can people’s experiences differs so vastly? I wondered. How can something that is so horrible for me be negligible to someone else? What is this infidelity thing anyway?

At a loss, I started reading books about interpersonal relationships by such authors as Brene Brown and Esther Perel. I read pages upon pages, books upon books, and even looked up the definition of infidelity to see if that would help me better understand my deep sense of loss. Here’s what I was able to piece together:

Fidelity, being the opposite of infidelity, is faith placed into something or someone. Faith, in turn, is complete trust or confidence placed in someone or something. Infidelity, then, is essentially a severe breach of trust, a breach in the confidence that we have another person to look after our best interests. This I already knew. What I found difficult to internalize is how one minute could completely shatter something that had taken years to build. The equation seemed logically lopsided, and I began to wonder if I was overreacting. On some level, I also secretly hoped I was overreacting, that this would turn out to be not as big a deal as I deeply felt it was. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fill the gaping hole that my marriage had become in my mind with that bit of self-doubt. The puzzle piece didn’t fit.

A little while later, I came across the book Daring Greatly, in which Brene Brown talks about trust as a marble jar. She’s tells the story of her daughter’s third grade teacher who kept a jar full of marbles on her desk. Each marble in the jar represented a good action or behavior by one or more of the students. Each marble subtracted from the jar represented a negative action or behavior. Brown likens this to the way in which trust is built. She describes that trust is built over time by many little actions where someone demonstrates themselves to be trustworthy. Each of these little actions, she says, is like adding a marble to the jar. Like the jar on the teacher’s desk, sometimes marbles can be removed when a person proves themselves to be untrustworthy. In cases like infidelity, the marble jar is overturned and the marbles cascade off the table and hit the dirt.

This is it, I thought. This is what has happened. My husband’s betrayal overturned the marble jar of our marriage and scattered my trust in him.  I’m sure I screamed out something to the effect of “our marbles are on the ground” when I made this connection. The challenge of course comes with picking the marbles back up. Which marbles it go into the trust jar? There are some obvious ones that remain on the ground—the gifts he gave to these women, the money taken from our family to spend on these women, the time taken from our family to spend on these women. In some ways, those were the easy ones. Cut and dry, those ones remain in the dirt. In fact, I think I might throw them in the rubbish bin. The ones that happened to remain in the jar though rolling close to the edge were little more difficult—I think I can trust him to take care of our child, I am fairly certain I can trust him to make dinner if he says he will (note the doubt that creeps in). All of the rest were much harder. And for me this was, and still is, the crux of infidelity—when all the marble spill out, each one needs to be picked up, dusted off, scrutinized, and either put back into the jar or thrown in the rubbish bin.

In other words, non-metaphorically speaking, infidelity is a betrayal of trust of such magnitude that it forces the person who was betrayed to view their life and their memories through a new lens, to reevaluate all of the little things that had happened in the past on a daily basis with the new awareness that every single one of those things may in fact have been a betrayal of trust. Was his offering to go to the grocery store actually an opportunity for him to buy his girlfriend a present? Is the time he said he needed for himself actually time for him to go talk to his girlfriend? For me, this new lens made all of the memories, all of the wonderful things that we had done together like going to Europe or playing with our child, seem fake. They were no longer real to me because what I had believed happened was not what actually happened. I was not in Europe with my loving, devoted husband. I was in Europe with the man who was betraying my trust, and he brought his girlfriends. Through messages and photographs, he included them in the things that we did together, unbeknownst to me. All of those memories are tainted. All of those marbles belong in the trash heap. The jar is mostly empty. This is what infidelity is.