Thanks to our President and his weaknesses, the
words “infidelity”, “betrayal”, “affair”, “liaison”
and related sin sodden expressions have been on our lips for most of this year and last. I also notice that no one is going around actually using the lame phrase “inappropriate relationship.” For gosh sakes, Bill, how much did I want you to look us all in the national eye and say, “I would like to tell you, the nation, that I had a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinski. I did it, I chose to, and while doing so, I liked it. I also know that I decided to do something that is wrong, but I didn”t care. I only cared about myself and the satisfaction I thought I could get with her. My wife and I are now going to involve ourselves in dealing with the impact of my poor judgement on our marriage. Thank you.”
Alas, Bill chose not to use these words of utter frankness. Like many who are caught in the web of their own delusions, their denial, he chose to use language that lessened the impact of his decision making in the relationship he created with Monica. In the absence of frank ownership of his behavior, Bill may well have lamed whatever hope there might have been for healing his marriage. By honestly owning the dishonesty of the extramarital affair, he might have had the opportunity to grow in wisdom.
The fact that he had the relationship proves nothing more than the obvious fact that human life has very much to do with failure. Given the opportunity to do something right, we will very often screw it up. I contend that while we all have a sex life of some kind, even if we are celibate (an erotic expression of its own kind), none of us do it right. Sex is too mysterious, archetypal, protean, dark, instinctual to be done “right.” But this article is not about mores or values. It is about the understanding of the extramarital affair as a phenomenon of human growth and development that is always morally wrong, but nevertheless crucial in the becoming of many individuals. I believe that those who scoff at the president, or who scorn or condemn him, have yet to encounter their own dark selves and come to love what lies within.
As a psychotherapist, I often see couples who are in the shockwave after the bomb blast of the discovery or revelation of an affair. Two of the most formidable emotions in human life, shame and betrayal, roam the landscape like prehistoric monsters. People are suicidal, in homicidal rages, inert and unable to rise from their beds. They flee, they terminate relationships, ruin families, quit jobs, become addicted to drugs. They take hostages at the workplace, kidnap the kids. Every affair is a killing ground, its discovery a nuclear blast. A line through time has been drawn, and there is absolutely no going back. It is my job as therapist to assist these two in finding out what it is they are being called to change about themselves in the aftermath of this potentially cleansing experience.
Whenever we commit ourselves to marriage, we also commit ourselves to its opposite, which always stands as a field of potential behavior that stands just outside or below what is actual and lived. As a couple courts, and moves toward the altar, they engage in a fantastic act of repression as they “forsake all others.” They fall into a shared fantasy of togetherness and lifelong commitment and certainty of the other’s fidelity. As the vows are taken, however, the goal is accomplished, and the necessity of repression lifts. Now the opposite of marriage weighs down on the couple like a fat guy sitting in the seat next to you on the flight from Seattle to Miami. The forsaken others return in all their allure, with their fatter wallets, better jobs, neater vacations, bigger breasts, flatter bellies. The couple, in so many subtle ways, continues to repress who they are to “protect” their spouses. They lose the frankness they once spoke to one another with. Once, my wife heard that the woman in an engaged couple who were friends of ours had had an affair, and she said, “Wow! They’re not even married yet, and they’re already starting to move away from one another!”
To become an individual is one of the greatest archetypal forces governing our lives. Jung called this drive individuation. We become individuals by transcending boundaries. The child disobeys Mother and experiences himself as bad, but also experiences himself. Not Mother’s rules. And so it goes. Wherever we experience a boundary, we must break it, or at least fantasize its breaking. To experience oneself as cut off from the rest of humanity, from the Divine through one’s sinning, is one of the crucial experiences of coming to know oneself as individual. That is, separate and apart from others.
When a marriage becomes troubled, and they all do, the primary malady is the sense of loss of individuality of the partners. My spouse becomes a two-dimensional image walking around on a featureless landscape of nothingness. Nothing is happening anymore, nothing takes place, there is no tension, no dialogue. We are governed and bound by a set of rules that imprison us with people we no longer know, understand, feel anything for. To be free, I must break the rules. The defining rule of marriage of course is sexual fidelity, and thus that is the rule that is sacrificed in the person’s lust to experience himself as himself. It is not with too much difficulty that I assert my belief that the purpose of sin is to break oneself loose from all that is so that we may return to it refreshed and renewed from our skirmishes in the Underworld. Sin is the means by which Shadow is brought into the land of the living.
However, this only takes place when individuals take ownership of their actions. We must give up the quest to appear “good.” Jesus himself taught again and again that he was not all that interested in those who sought to be without sin. For he knew that no man can be other than his own individual self, and the mark of his separateness and uniqueness his “sin”. All that he asked was that the sins be confessed, that is, owned as one”s own, for he understood sin to be endemic to humanity and was already accounted for in the plan of salvation. As long as the sin is not owned, it owns you, and you are no more than a Pharisee, equating the impossible absence of sin with goodness.
So the infidel spouse plunges into his sin and drinks deeply of the empurpled world of the forbidden. He experiences the demons of isolation and alienation, bewilderment slashing at his understanding of himself. He is in an agony of shame, paranoia, guilt, lust, fear, lust, and fear. His life is a death march, an impossibility that goes on 22 hours a day. However, there are those moments of the sublime that take place in the rented room, the hotel, the park, the out of town business trip, at her apartment. Somehow, life has been compressed into the stolen moments with her. He is an addict, drinking a dark elixir. He does not know that his behavior is a compulsive attempt to blot out the pain of being nobody, and to be somebody is to push back at the constraining boundary, to sin, to set oneself apart from all that is.
It is for these reasons I contend sin is a necessary component of successful adult life. It is always wrong to betray one’s spouse, but quite plainly, many cannot be faithful until they have betrayed her. It is never to be recommended, or justified, or held up as “the right thing to do”, but just the same, when the sin is discovered and owned, then the pretenses are pulverized and Mr. and Mrs. America can get down to the business of being together, instead of being perfect together.