What to do about the Three A’s – Adultery, Abuse, and Addiction …
and understanding marital crimes, in general
By Becky Whetstone, Ph.D.
When I think of things people do to cause damage to their marriage, I think in terms of the actions or behaviors being minor, serious, and then dangerously serious, meaning that they could lead to the end of the relationship. So what qualifies as a marital crime? Any hurtful, forgetful, inconsiderate, neglectful behavior; any aggressive action toward the partner; any unsavory passive or covert actions that a person knows their spouse would not appreciate or approve of.
If your spouse doesn’t like it, and you do it, it’s probably doing damage to the relationship, which makes it a marital crime. Whether what your spouse doesn’t like is fair or not is an issue to be considered, and therapists can really help couples sort through those gray areas if you can’t sort through it and work out a compromise yourselves.
So it’s important to understand that there are several types of marital crimes, and just like the American criminal system, I think of them as misdemeanors, felonies, and capital crimes, the last of which would absolutely, positively lead to the end of the marriage.
Misdemeanors are truly minor, and couples can (or should!) easily recover from them. Your husband forgot to water the plants while you were out of town, or didn’t bathe the baby two days in a row. It’s not good, but it’s also not the biggest deal in the world. Most healthy people can move past these things.
Then there are the felonies. These are seriously big deals, but may be fixable and not marriage-enders in and of themselves. But, understand that they can become deal-killers when the behaviors don’t end, especially after constant pleas from a partner. When I think about these, I recall several marital felonies committed by clients over the years:
- The spouse is so into his/her job and fitting into the company’s work culture that they spend every spare minute at the office or hanging out with fellow employees after work. Spouse feels he and children are neglected.
- Spouse takes out a secret credit card and spends thousands of dollars shopping … creating a mountain of debt the partner doesn’t learn about until they have to apply for a loan. What other secrets are out there that they don’t know about?
- Spouse is obsessed with his administrative assistant and talks about her frequently and shares personal information with her about the marriage. Obsessed spouse minimizes the situation and does nothing to reassure his spouse.
- The spouse is so preoccupied with her children (theirs and from a previous marriage) that her husband is completely neglected. She spends enormous amounts of money on them against his wishes. He begs for her to make him a priority and to respect his financial sensibilities, she doesn’t. They divorce.
That list could go on and on. Another sort of marital felony I have dealt with is a bit more extreme, and dangerous, and these are of the legal sort. True criminal felonies are punishable by going to prison, and by definition involve a serious lack of judgment and integrity, characteristics that make having a great marriage impossible, and they hurt the family. Of course, I understand that some people are innocently accused and there are mitigating circumstances that could be forgivable, and those should be considered on a case-by-case basis – only you know for sure what is reasonable when it comes to your relationship.
The Three A’s – Adultery, Abuse, and Addiction
Therapists would love for every marriage to be able to be saved, but that just simply isn’t realistic. Every marriage therapist knows when a couple comes into their office and are dealing with one of what we call, The Three A’s … Adultery, Abuse, and Addiction, we’re in for a very bumpy ride. These are some of the most difficult issues to manage, they are a huge deal, and any marriage experiencing it is certainly on the brink, or should be. Below I discuss all three, and how I would approach them during a marriage crisis, and in my opinion, if your marriage is experiencing any one of these three, it’s in crisis.
Few things in life are more painful than finding out that your partner has been unfaithful. Over the years I have watched hundreds of devastated men and women in the throes of this type of gut-wrenching pain, and it is never easy to sit with these people knowing what they must be feeling – a kick in the chest so intense that it takes their breath away, every part of their body in pain, their stomach turned upside down. When I see it I always wish I could punch a button and move time up a couple of years when I know they will have already been through the worst of it and probably feeling more like their healthier selves again. Recovery is a slow process.
No wonder it hurts so badly. Affairs are major traumatizing life events. Traumatizing events make us feel unsafe in our world and cause us to question what is real and who and what you can really trust and count on. To be able to have a calm life we need to operate from the assumption that certain things in our lives are true and constant, and that we are safe. Affairs totally upend that in our world.
Though most of us say that if our spouse cheats we will end the marriage immediately, the truth is that 75 percent of marriages survive infidelity. That is why I really want anyone dealing with this issue to take a second and third look at their situation, because in many cases we can get the marriage through it in one piece.
To feel crazy and raw during the days, weeks and months following such a revelation is completely normal. Most likely you will go up, down, and all around the spectrum of feelings and emotions in no certain order or in any particular pattern. Obsessing over what has happened is par for the course.
What to do in the short term
If you are the one who has been betrayed, hopefully your spouse will talk to you about it and respond with comfort and reassurance, as this is a time when you will feel completely vulnerable and will really need to be able to express your feelings and thoughts to the very person who has injured you.
If your spouse will not be that person for you, then you must find a therapist, pastor, rabbi, trusted friend or family member to be there for you. You are going to need to vent and process, and a compassionate, caring, non-judgmental, trusted person to witness and minister to your grief and pain will help enormously and set you on a path to healing. If your husband or wife is seriously involved with someone else and will not come back to the marriage, the best thing you can do is to focus on yourself and your own growth and healing moving forward, and yes, processing rage, anger, disappointment and sadness will certainly be a part of that.
If your spouse stays present with you during the crisis, you will have many questions about what has happened – the “who’s what’s when’s and where’s,” and your spouse will need to answer you. As I tell couples in my office all the time, the truth will set you free, however I highly recommend that dirty, sexual details that will give a betrayed person torturous visuals should be avoided, as should comparisons between you and the outside person who violated your marriage bond. But yes, conversations must take place and a cheating person should answer the questions about who, what, how it got started, how serious was it, how many times, where, when, what period of time, and respond to whether it is over or remains a serious threat to the marriage.
If a cheating spouse is remorseful, they must passionately and clearly express this, as well as reassure their betrayed husband or wife, as many times as is needed, for whatever amount of time it is needed, for the foreseeable future. Only a stance of humility will do in these cases, and if you must be on your knees (euphemistically) over prolonged periods of time, then so be it. Ego and attitude about why you cheated will derail any sort of healing that might have started to take place. I often tell couples, “For a while, the betrayed person will be the hammer, and the betrayer the nail, but a caution to the hammer … ‘Don’t hammer too hard or too long or the nail will give up on the marriage.’”
The way each person behaves and handles themselves during these dark days must be – as much as can be under such circumstances – intentional, deliberate, and thoughtful, with the onus mainly on the betrayer.
Is it OK to be Close?
In the coming days, weeks and months you will be working on understanding what has happened to each of you in your marriage that got you to this place? You’ll also need to take a hard look at how the affair came about, and you are going to have to figure out the best way to move forward. While doing all of these things I want you to know that of course it is OK to have closeness and intimacy, and if you feel so inclined, I encourage it. What most couples report is that they will have incredibly close moments, and then waves of upset and turmoil, and I tell them that this is normal. What is also truly helpful and healing is to have moments together when you are not talking about or processing the betrayal, but just enjoying one another’s company.
As I said, though, we are going to have to explore what was taking place in the marriage prior to the affair that left one person vulnerable to getting involved sexually with someone else. If the marriage had leaks, the leaks are going to have to be repaired and plugged. All the research I’ve ever read on infidelity, and my clinical experience, says that for a marriage to fully recover from an affair, the circumstances that got you there in the first place must be resolved. Couples who reconcile willy-nilly, have a honeymoon period of make-up sex and closeness, and who don’t deal with the root causes of the crisis have an extremely high failure rate, meaning they often end up divorcing.
Here is a list of the why-did-they-do-its that I most often see:
- The betrayed partner reported that he or she was not getting his or her needs met in the marriage, whether mentally, emotionally or sexually.
- The betrayed partner has a pleaser personality and lacked appropriate external boundaries and did not have the confidence and will to fend off personal conversations, meetings and advances by a person they were attracted to.
- Undealt with anger, resentment, disappoint, usually due to feeling taken for granted or frequent criticism, leading to a sense of entitlement.
- Sexual addiction, or a compulsion to sexually act out, whether through the high of sexual pursuit or conquest.
- A partner with low self-esteem and not receiving validation from their spouse seeks validation from another source.
- Feeling unheard and that their partner is unresponsive to pleas for change, a partner chooses infidelity as a last ditch wake-up call.
- It just happened. A one night stand, unplanned, and regretted.
You’d think all affairs are equally horrible, but some truly are more horrible than others. Compare a one-time liason that meant nothing to a long-term emotionally and physically connected love affair. Both are terrible to face and completely unjustified, but one is usually easier to process and get past than another.
What if my Spouse Will Not End The Relationship With Their Lover?
Affairs are painful enough, but if your spouse either won’t, or seemingly can’t, break off contact with their paramour, then your marriage is truly hanging by a thread. Think of it as your partner is walking on a tight rope, and he or she could fall one way or the other – toward the marriage or toward the other relationship. The wind is blowing hard up there, and one gust can blow them over into one camp or the other. The odds are stacked against the marriage because your spouse already knows of the unhappiness and discontentment found there, whereas the newer relationship doesn’t have the history and negative experiences that yours does, although research shows the odds are strongly against relationships such as these in the long term.
It is always best and helpful to the marriage if the affair partner lives far away or has a family of their own they risk breaking apart. But if the person is single and perhaps works where your spouse does, it makes things much more difficult. I always tell spouses who have lovers in the workplace that someone has to go if you hope to save your marriage – either you or your lover. In the years I’ve worked with these situations it has amazed me at how many people are unwilling to make the tough choices recovery requires. If it was me, it would be an ultimatum, “You or your lover leaves the workplace, or I leave you.” Why? Because it would be torturous to be thinking about what those two are doing on a daily basis, and winning trust back would probably not be possible. But with that said, some couples seem to recover their marriage even when both people remain in the workplace. If this applies to you, it will be something you will have to think about and seriously weigh.
If your spouse has his or her back turned away from you and is more turned toward the relationship there are things you can do to improve your chances that your family can be reconciled and the marriage improved and saved. This is where Marriage Crisis Manager Coaching and Online MCM Meetings can be invaluable. Having the self discipline to not pursue your spouse during these days will be one of the hardest things you will ever do, but it must be done in just the right way or your pursuit energy will be just the gust of wind your partner will use to make his/her decision to leave the marriage and go with the newer relationship. We will provide groups for people in your situation where you can lean on one another for encouragement and support. I will moderate the groups and make sure the advice is helpful and positive, and not self-destructive. Right now you need a place where you can get wise, intelligent, counsel, and that is what this site is all about.
To contact me for Personal Coaching or Couples Crisis Consulting or Discernment Counseling, click here.
Many of my clients don’t realize they are in abusive relationships until they come into my office and tell me details about their marriage. I listen to their stories, immediately know what’s going on, and I tell them, “You are being abused.” The reaction is often, “Really? I didn’t know that was abuse!” Well, it is.
Because so many people aren’t sure what abuse is, and you have any wonder or doubt about whether your relationship might fit into that category, then please read the list of behaviors below so that you can understand what it is and know for sure. Also, follow the links below to the National Domestic Violence Hotline to learn even more extremely important information.1.
Many of my clients mistakenly believe that their abusive partner has the highest self-esteem of any person they have ever known. They believe this because their partner seems sure of themselves, doesn’t tolerate much baloney from others, and seems in control, but the truth is the opposite.
Abusive individuals have a huge secret – they have such low self-esteem and lack of confidence that they can’t understand why anyone would want to be with them. Once in relationship, they feel tremendous insecurity, while externally exhibiting a mask of toughness or indifference. At the end of the day, they are so terrified of losing the relationship they don’t feel they deserve that they adopt a strategy of power and control over the person they don’t want to lose. It shows up in the following ways:
- Humiliating or embarrassing you.
- Constant put-downs.
- Refusing to communicate.
- Ignoring or excluding you.
- Extramarital affairs.
- Provocative behavior with opposite sex.
- Use of sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice.
- Unreasonable jealousy.
- Extreme moodiness.
- Mean jokes or constantly making fun of you.
- Saying “I love you, but…”
- Emotional blackmail: Saying things like, “If you don’t _____, I will_____.”
- Domination and control, such as creating expectations without your agreement or having you ask permission to exert your personal freedom.
- Withdrawal of affection.
- Guilt trips.
- Blaming and making everything your fault.
- Never admitting they are wrong and not accepting responsibility.
- Isolating you from friends and family.
- Using money to control, both giving, withholding, or refusing access to it.
- Accusing you of doing things that you did not do.
- Constant calling or texting when you are not with him/her.
- Demanding for you to account for your whereabouts.
- Threatening to commit suicide or take the children if you leave.
- Spying on you and your physical whereabouts, invading your privacy such as going through your wallet or purse, inspecting your phone or email, putting GPS on your car.
- Pushing, shoving, grabbing, hitting, choking, holding-down, squeezing, slapping, threatening.
What you need to know is that there is no excuse or justification for any of these behaviors. None. No one deserves that type of treatment. There are adult ways to deal with anger, frustration or disappointment in relationships, and verbal, emotional, or physical abuse don’t fit into that category, in fact, the types of behaviors listed above describe extremely immature behaviors, people who operating at a teenage level of maturity. The behaviors are absolutely unacceptable on any level.
To me, when it comes to verbal and emotional abuse and control, the second time one of these behaviors took place in my relationship, it would mean the end of the marriage. The first time, a boundary would be set and a warning made of what is to come if the abuse continued. Research shows that once a habit of repeated verbal and emotional abuse begins, it won’t end, and the mistake too many people make is telling themselves the lie that their abuser can or will change. Very few do.
Indeed, after many studies on the subject, an extremely small percentage can be rehabilitated, and in those cases, the abusers successfully complete a three-prong, long term approach to self improvement: Specific treatment, individual and group therapy specifically for abusers, and anger management classes. If your abuser won’t do that, then there is a 100 percent chance they won’t change.
What to do now if your relationship is physically abusive.
I must tell you, I don’t believe anyone should stay in a relationship that is physically abusive. Period. The first time a person does anything like that, I would view as a capital crime, and the marriage would receive the death penalty.
As stated above, studies of abusive relationships show that it will always continue, the abuser in almost all cases will not reform and will continue the behavior, and in some cases will end up killing his spouse. This issue affects people at every educational and social level, and there is absolutely no shame in getting the help you need for your situation.
Anyone finding themselves in an abusive relationship should visit their local domestic violence center for free counseling about how to deal with, and end, an abusive relationship. The first step will be educational – you will learn everything you need to know about it.
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or visit their web site at: http://www.thehotline.org/. Please take this seriously, because it is serious.
Addiction is one of the most common problems I see in my practice and it comes in many forms … alcohol, drugs, sex, love, relationships, pornography, thrill-seeking, exercise, religion, food, anorexia/bulimia, Facebook, video games and more. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that addiction treatment often takes priority over everything else, as not dealing with it means most of the therapy we will be doing will be pointless, as if treating a sniffle when a person really has pneumonia.
You will find that my attitude with addictions is tough, because that is what it takes to get an addict to do what they must do to get better. Addicts are world-class manipulators, deniers, liars and excuse-makers, because their sole objective is to keep the addiction alive, and that is why a therapist must take a tough stance with the illness. Sometimes I am the first person who has ever told the addicted person that the problem he or she has is serious and must be treated proactively. If you or a loved one has an addiction, you must get into extensive treatment such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Anon, Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous, in-house rehab, or whatever, in order to have the best outcome to your marriage crisis. I will be able to team with you to assist in making the right decision and helpful choices for you and your family, if you need help. I assure you that once a week therapy and reading books will not do the trick for someone addicted – something much more drastic must take place.
Addiction is one of those things that does so much damage to a marriage and family that I have little or no tolerance for it. It destroys people. Call me a hardliner, but I strongly believe that a person needs to take care of their addiction through serious, long-term treatment, or the marriage should probably be terminated. The problem is that any addict will say or do anything to keep the addiction alive, including denying that they are addicted! And people who deny their addiction probably are not going to get help. That is why most addicted people wear out their therapists, because dealing with liars and deceivers is not going to produce bountiful results
“Some people experience more pleasure, or glow, from alcohol than others. How much pleasure a person gets from alcohol may be partly determined by heredity.”
When someone drinks, or engages in any self-destructive activity, the pleasure they receive will be short-lived, and the feeling that follows will be discomfort. Therefore the substance of choice brings a person both the feeling of comfort and discomfort. The happy feeling is the high that the substance brings, and the unhappy feeling is called craving. To an addict, nothing quiet quenches the unhappiness like the drug that produced it. As the alcoholic progresses through the cycle of the disease, he or she will drink more to overcome the unpleasant effects rather than to achieve the pleasure that it brings.
It is important to understand that just because a person does not drink or use substances daily does not mean he or she is not an addict. Addictions can present in various forms such as weekend abuse, occasional benders, or other non-typical patterns of usage.
Common Personality Traits of the Addicted Person
The Cycle of Addiction
Addiction is a progressive disease that gets worse over time. In alcoholism, for example, the typical cycle is as follows, with the end result negatively affecting the person at work, in relationships, and with him/herself.
The Cycle of Addiction Is Characterized By:
- Frustration and internal pain that leads to anxiety and a demand for relief of these symptoms
- Fantasizing about using alcohol and drugs or behaviors to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms
- Obsessing about using drugs and alcohol and how his or her life will be after the use of substances
- Engaging in the addictive activity, such as using substances to gain relief (acting out)
- Losing control over the behavior
- Developing feelings of remorse, guilt and shame, which lead to feelings of dissatisfaction
- Making a promise or resolve to oneself to stop the behavior or substance use
After a period of time, the pain returns, and the addict begins to experience the fantasies of using substances again.
Breaking the Cycle of Addiction
The stages of the cycle of addiction can be matched up with some of the stages of the model of behavior change and its relationship to recovery.
- Precontemplation -The addict has not yet considered stopping the behavior or use of substances.
- Contemplation – The addict is starting to consider making a change in behavior.
- Preparation – The addict is mentally and, possibly, physically preparing to make a change.
- Action – The addict has taken an action, such as seeking treatment, self-help groups or counseling. Treatment has been provided and the addict has stopped using.
- Maintenance – The addict is maintaining his or her new lifestyle and behavior, following a recovery program
Unfortunately, relapse can occur during the action or maintenance stage, which means the addict or alcoholic again enters the cycle of addiction.
Porn and Sex Addiction
It’s not unusual for a couple to come in and ask if the problem they are experiencing in their marriage could be porn or sex addiction. Addictions involve a person’s compulsion to do the action, and inability to stop it, and it negatively affects their life and relationships. There’s a bit more to it, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell.
When it comes to pornography, most men have looked at it regularly for a very long time. Back in the old days, our father’s, uncles, granddads would get a Playboy or Penthouse magazine if their women were lucky. If they weren’t, sex shops throughout the nation would sell books and magazines showing fetishes and anything you can imagine, and I think they still do. I would be more concerned about this sort of gazing than the kind Playboy and Penthouse have to offer.
So, many men, maybe even a majority, look at porn on the Internet, and some spouses equate that with cheating, but I don’t agree with that. Men are visual creatures, they can look at a picture and be sexually aroused, or they can look at a woman at the bank and be aroused, while still being totally devoted and monogamous with their partner. When it becomes a problem is when a person spends an inordinate amount of time doing it, becomes unable to have sexual interaction with their spouse because of it, and it changes their behavior or life in negative and/or self-destructive way.
So what I am saying is that looking at porn is normal for most men, it can get dicey, and even illegal, depending on what kind of porn the person is looking at, and except in those dicey cases and when it becomes a problem as I described above, it is something most women don’t understand, but probably should ignore.
Every situation is different, of course. And if you can’t come to an understanding that each of you can live with, then the Marriage Crisis Manager is great resource to help you understand and work through it.
Anything that feels good can lead to addictive behavior, and sex is no exception. If a spouse continually gets caught in the sexual pursuit of other people, you not only have an issue with infidelity, you have an issue with sexual addiction.
I have talked with quite a few people who are sex addicts, most being men. Virtually every one has told me that it is the pursuit of the sex that gives them the high, not the sex itself. That isn’t much consolation to a spouse who has put up with the lies, deception, secrets, suffering and pain that comes with it.
The sex addicts I have worked with are extremely reluctant to be treated, and most often they get very defensive and nasty when the subject of treatment is broached. I have heard every excuse in the book why the person cannot receive intensive treatment. That is the nature of an addict, to fight to keep the addiction alive. I believe that people with sexual addictions will not recover without high quality, long-term treatment that often includes regular lie detector tests. I would not remain with a person who would not receive the treatment they need, and then receive family therapy to begin the healing process that will no doubt be needed.
This situation can be overwhelming, and the Marriage Crisis Manager can help you sort through all of it and help you come up with a strategy that will be intelligent and wise.
Addiction and Marriage Crisis
Just like adultery and abuse, addiction must be dealt with before any other work can be done with the addicted person. Marriage therapy would be pointless with someone who is addicted, because we will never be able to get down to the truth of what they are really doing and thinking, On the MCM web site we can help spouses of addicts with consultations and advice on the healthiest ways to handle this issue, and come with strategies that may very well end up saving a marriage you once thought could not be repaired.
 Alcoholism, the facts. Goodwin, Donald. W. Oxford University Press. 2000.