Infidelity: Should You Forgive? Can You?

In my childhood days, my grandmother told me stories of a little man in Heaven who sat between two baskets, one containing names of boys and the other with names of girls. He was The Matchmaker whose job was to pick one name from each basket and tie them together with a long red string.

The two people whose names have been tagged together will somehow meet and marry on Earth in accordance to their destiny.

This story may have gone the path of dinosaurs, but now that I’m grown, I know that it is nothing short of a miracle when two people come together in matrimony. Even in a world with 7 billion people, it is not easy for one to love someone and be loved in return by the same person.

Yet, infidelity between couples is nothing new.

Whether a one-night stand, a short fling with an office mate, a rekindled online romance with an old flame or a polygamous relationship, they all spell the same thing: being unfaithful to the one person you promised to love foever, for better or for worse.

The question is, should you forgive a partner who has strayed? Can you move on with the life you shared once an affair has taken place, whether or not it is still happening?

In an exclusive interview with Urban Health, Dr Khairi Rahman, consultant psychologist at Pantai Kuala Lumpur, shares some insights on this heartbreaking  issue.

DISCOVERING THE AFFAIR

As expected, the first thing that strikes one when they discover that a partner has been cheating is anger and resentment. What’s interesting, though, is that these emotions are not always let loose but kept hidden out of shame especially when the partner is someone of high profile.

“Not talking it over and getting help can be detrimental, because it eats away at the insides of one’s soul. Usually it won’t be long before the simmering emotions begin creeping into their everyday life- you can sense a deep-seated resentment or bitterness which is extended to the whole family,” says Dr Khairi.

The ones who bear the brunt of the whole episode are usually the children or elderly parents who live together with the family. Hence when one partner strays, the impact is upon the entire family, not just the spouse.

SHOULD I FORGIVE?

In his practice as family therapist, Dr Khairi has seen many cases of spouses who seek help in resolving their marital conflicts.

“Usually it is the man who strays, although there are also many wives who cheat these days,” he says.

He continues, “When the wives ask me if they should forgive their husband, I always tell them that the answer lies within themselves. From experience, I can tell that just asking the question or coming for therapy is an indication that the wife is ready to forgive and wants to find ways to salvage the relationship.”

Although many would balk at the idea of forgiving a cheating partner, Dr Khairi points out that a relationship or marriage is not based on love alone.

“There are shared responsibilities, such as children, property, parents, sometimes even business ventures. So it’s not really easy for one to just walk out of a marriage,” he says. There are also practical aspects to be considered, such as finances and childcare, should a divorce take place.

Cultural and societal responses also need to be taken into consideration. Even in this day and age, single parenting is not viewed kindly by society, because women are often unfairly accused of being unable to keep her husband interested in the marriage.

There is also poor social support for single parents, as evidenced by the recent cases reported in the newspapers of children who are abandoned at home while their single parents left for work.

OPENING THE HEART

Different people respond differently when considering reconciliation. Some start internalising their relationship, trying to find out what went wrong and what can be done to remedy the situation or prevent the affair from continuing.

Others just prefer to close one eye, preferring not to create a fuss as long as the needs of the children and family are still being taken of well. Dr Khairi shares a nugget of information: these cases are most common among wives whose husbands have taken China dolls (immigrants from mainland China) as mistresses.

“I see around three new cases every month, which is alarming. The advent of drugs for erectile dysfunction has made men in their fifties and sixties feel like Superman. That is why some wives wisely decide to stay in a marriage even when the husband has another lover, especially if he continues to be a responsible and loving father,” he says.

What happens then when it is the wife who strays? Dr Khairi pauses before replying.

“You know, years of societal conditioning have made most women feel that it is their fault when their husband gets another woman. Yet, when a woman has an affair, the first thing that comes to the husband’s mind if he still wants to maintain the marriage is her functional aspects- that she cooks and cleans well, takes good care of the parents and the children or manages the business like clockwork. Nowhere in his mind is the possibility that he should also bear responsibility, that maybe he had neglected her emotional or physical needs. It’s just the male ego at play,” he states.

WHEN TO SAY NO

After all that has been said and done, Dr Khairi’s final take on infidelity is that there must be a cut-off point to how much emotional pain one can take. For instance, if you are married or attached to a Casanova, you might as well let him go because straying is part of his life.

“There are also the health aspects; for instance sexually-transmitted infections that manifest only decades later and may cost your life, such as HIV/AIDS. Would it be worth hanging on to someone who gives you a nasty STI?” he asks.

He terms these partners as risk-takers; those who take their lives and relationships lightly by dabbling in dangerous behaviours such as gambling, getting drunk, getting into an affair.

“Some men are beyond help. We can use Cognitive Modification Techniques to help people who want to quit smoking, drinking or resolve phobias by making these activities unappealing to them during therapy.

But the reward and motivating factors behind these behaviours cannot be applied to Casanovas. You can see the ill effects of smoking or drinking; the bad breath, smoker’s cough, risk of lung cancer, dangerous driving, etc. But none of these are present when you are having an affair- the stolen glances, the sexual excitement, the thrill of having the best of both worlds,” he elaborates.

Forgiveness aside, can one ever forget the incident? Not likely, says Dr Khairi, saying that the victimised partner often feels vindicated when the partner gets a STI or when the mistress or China doll runs away.

His parting words leave me with food for thought. “One may be able forgive, but it will take much more to forget. Once the trust is broken, it will take much more time and effort to rebuild the relationship.”

Perhaps that was why the red string in the classical Chinese tale was so long. Maybe it was meant to last through the ages, through thick and thin, through good health and bad. And perhaps through heartaches such as losing their heart to someone else along the way, but coming home to stay at the end of the day.

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