Four years ago, my wife had an affair. We went to counseling and patched things up. Everything’s great except for my lingering guilt. I knew that my wife was being unfaithful before I confronted her. I took advantage of the situation by having some one-night stands as revenge, but I never told her, even during counseling. The thing is my conscience bothers me. I don’t know whether I should tell her now or just deal with the guilt. What do you think?
I think guilt means you know you did a bad, bad thing and you’re psychologically healthy enough to have a conscience that tattles on itself. How you proceed forward is significant because you are standing at one of life’s crossroads. Choosing to remain silent means you can never trust yourself completely because you know you lie to justify revenge. That impacts your self-esteem. Silence also affects your marriage. Transparency is an essential ingredient for emotional intimacy. If you choose not to tell your wife, you limit your capacity to be close to her. You also will avoid the joy and vulnerability of being fully known and accepted as you are: a human being who is fragile and imperfect. (Don’t take it personally; it’s true of all of us.)
How will you explain the inclination to punish your wife for betraying you? As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And, yes, he was referring to a reality between nations, but it’s also true between individuals. Seeking revenge prevents you from feeling the deep sadness, hurt, confusion and despair that accompany the revelation of infidelity. By engaging in one-night stands, you became like your wife, and you did it to avoid the pain of being the cuckold husband. But blindly choosing payback also stunted your personal growth. Instead of learning how to engage in real emotional intimacy, you hid your heart and continued to pretend to be someone you are not. At least, not yet.
If you get naked about the past now, your wife is tossed into the tsunami of emotions that you avoided previously. You can assume the position of power over her again and repeat this chapter of your life. Or you can join her in the muck, grieving for the person you pretended to be. The latter journey is messy, but will guide you into actually becoming an evolved human being.
My sister is a very religious woman who has always seemed to do everything right. She always received top grades, never gave our parents trouble growing up, went to a respected university where she distinguished herself, married the right guy, excelled in her career—you get the picture. I just learned that she has had a 10-year affair with a minister and is now pregnant by him. On one hand, I have to admit, I am relieved because she was always so perfect and shoved it in our faces all the time. On the other hand, how did this happen?
“Exaggeratedly good people are dangerous,” says Robert Johnson, a Jungian psychologist and author. In your sister’s case, she never integrated her shadow, which Johnson defines as “the characteristics which are unwelcome in your life.” Johnson points out that “a cheap way” of living out one’s shadow is to project it on to another person or situation. The healthy alternative is to accept ourselves as we are and consciously act out of the best parts. Failure to integrate the shadow is the root of concepts like the midlife crisis. That’s when people either scramble to cling to their youth or embrace who they are while making small adjustments to become more loving toward all.