We act as though their husband's difficulties is partly their fault
Have you noticed how little attention is given to partners and spouses of notorious cheaters? It’s as if they become an afterthought or maybe worse yet, an embarrassment.
I still remember the breaking news of David Duchovny’s addiction. A diehard fan of the FOX TV show, X-Files with a secret crush on the main actor, I was heartbroken and dismayed to learn of his problems. Next came Tiger Woods’ multiple affairs along with the announcement of his addiction. Each time there was a flurry of photos featuring their heartbroken wives as sordid rumors and gossip swirled around both celebrities and their families.
And now, there's been the news of Ravi Zacharias' scandal that has rocked the Christian world with the revelation of his abuse of women around the world.
I feel sorry for the wives of these men. Maybe it's more pity mixed with a dash of curiosity, than straight up grief. I wonder how they feel. What it is like for them to be going through a private agony in the public’s eye.
If I’m being honest, I'm critical of them too. A lot. I wonder how smart women could have made the mistake of marrying that kind of a guy. An unfaithful liar. And in my analysis, I have concluded only a weak, insecure, or needy woman would have been so foolish.
What did I know about the topic? Quite truthfully, next to nothing, until recently. Now a lot on the subject.
When I met my ex, I thought I had met the perfect guy. A recent widow, I had had a few introductory dates through online dating, but was striking out. That was until I met him, my ex.
He was everything I was looking for — sweet, intelligent, handsome, charming, and educated. We hit it off right away. After a few dates, I fell hard and eleven months later we married.
There were no obvious clues that he was being deceptive. Certainly not someone who was frequently unfaithful. Even my friends and family took an immediate liking to him.
Sure, he had shared he had had a few emotional problems in the past but told me he’d gotten help. I saw no reason for concern. He seemed invested, attentive, and sensitive.
The Day It All Changed
Two months into our marriage that all changed.
Early one morning, I awoke to find I’d received a text message from a stranger. A woman. It was lengthy too. Curious, I opened it and read, “You’re So-and-so’s new wife? I guess the joke is not just on me, but it’s on you too! I’ve been dating him for the past three months.”
And with that, my marriage began to implode in slow motion.
I can’t begin to describe what it was like for me to receive such shocking and devastating news. Words fail to capture the horror I felt.
Shattered Self and Shattered Reality
Dr. Omar Minwalla, one of the leading experts of betrayal trauma, is conducting ongoing research into identifying and understanding the partner’s experience when there’s been a discovery of infidelity and betrayal. He describes the crisis as ego fragmenting and reality shattering.
At first my mind with blank as I tried to absorb the specifics outlined in the letter. It was as if two worlds in my mind were colliding: the one I thought I knew with the new shocking one she’d written about in graphic details. And in that collision, mine was being obliterated.
I no longer knew what was real or not real. What part of my husband’s story was truthful and what part an elaborate lie? Everything I thought I knew and had based major decisions on was now thrown into question as the sleeping man lying next to me became unrecognizable. A complete stranger.
I had had this feeling of surrealness before. A few years earlier I received a late-night phone call from my mother to tell me my dad had drowned in a freak accident. I still remember the exact spot where I stood in the middle of the kitchen with the phone pressed to my ear as I felt my knees started to buckle and my heart plummeted. My mind reeled as I struggled to catch up to what my mom was saying. I had just seen my dad a few days earlier and now he was gone?
This experience felt even worse. Worse than struggling to absorb the news my dad had died.
As my mind stuttered, trying to take in this new information, I laid still on the bed. Frozen. The muscles of my body shivered and jerked as if plunged into an icy bath despite the room’s warmth. Tugging the blankets higher up around my neck, I tried to stop the worst of the trembling. The sound from the chattering of my teeth was so loud I’d wondered if my ex would wake. My mind was stuck in a loop as it replayed the first sentence of the letter over and over again.
That was just the first discovery. I experienced this same kind of physical shock with every new disclosure or revelation.
If it was that bad, why didn’t I leave?
Because I believed him. In tears, he told a plausible story and I bought it. Partly because I wanted to, maybe even needed to, but also because I couldn’t be sure what was true.
What if he was sincere in wanting help? Wouldn’t it be cruel to walk away from someone in trouble?
I also wasn’t ready to go through another upheaval of my life after surviving the death of my first husband. And then there’s the simple fact that I loved him.
What I hadn’t realized was that I was being systematically and severely emotionally abused.
Men who deceive like this learn to use elaborate and sophisticated set of psychological techniques to keep the problem hidden. Gaslighting, in particular, is a frequent and favorite tool. Minwalla writes, it “intentionally manipulates a partner’s reality in order to protect reality and the truth from becoming known or discovered by the partner.” Covert manipulation is employed to erode the addicts’ spouses and partners’ belief in themselves and in their understanding of the world around them.
I stayed for two more years. Many of my closest friends and family struggled to understand this decision. What I couldn’t explain to them was how confused I’d become. My sense of reality kept shifting, making it difficult to know what was real and what was a lie. Afraid of making another wrong decision, I made no decision at all.
A Call for Greater Understanding
Looking back at my opinion of those publicized wives. I regret my rush to judgement; I didn’t understand what horror they were going through. How could I? The stigma surrounding this topic makes it tough to talk about it. The shamefulness of the addict’s behavior becomes attached to everyone associated with him, especially to the wives. In other words, his shame becomes ours.
Once again, we are silenced and victimized, only this time by the misinformed watching world as stigmatization further isolates us. This happens just when we need the loving support of others the most as we work to reclaim reality and to mend our broken hearts.
This Needs to Change
Those of us who’ve been betrayed need to find the courage to speak out. To share our stories with our heads held high. We need to come out of hiding and to expose the truth, shattering the lies and the abuse. By breaking the silence, we will regain our voice and find our personal power once again.
And as for the watching public, this is an opportunity to become better informed, so that the misconceptions and myths surrounding this disease are dispelled. Maybe if we can get the conversation started, we can come together in support and find a better solution to this growing problem.