Lets Talk About It

When the guilty get away

Many romantic relationships end because one partner is “guilty” of doing something that destroyed the relationship, which makes us conclude that the other partner is innocent. Is this really so? Too many partners get away with the “innocent” cry because the spouse has done the obvious – committed adultery or had a non-sexual affair. Then you hear the innocent party exclaim, “I am innocent. I did not break my marriage vow.” The sad thing is that although it may be true that one partner did have an affair, we often come to the conclusion that the “innocent” partner did no wrong. The other painful result is that the “innocent” goes on living a well-respected life because, to the world, they have done nothing wrong.

I avoid coming to the conclusion that since a partner did the “wrong” we all can bear witness to, then the other partner is truly innocent. Many partners have committed adultery after years of loneliness, abandonment, abuse, or not having their emotional needs met. This does not excuse the behavior, but it sure does not exonerate the “innocent”.

The irony is that the “innocent” does look innocent in public. He or she is usually well-poised, gracious, kind, respectful and well-mannered. However, no one sees the ugly, dark side displayed in the home. There are cases when even the children will vouch for their parent’s “innocence” – this is usually because the “innocent” knows how to camouflage the behavior with kindness, or the children are too young to understand what is happening.

For decades, I have been saying that unmet needs in a relationship makes one vulnerable to having an affair. Yes, no one goes looking for an affair and most do not want to have an affair. It starts very innocently with a “healthy” friendship-relationship. The partner feels comfortable with this new friend because he or she listens, is kind and pays attention to his or her pain. Then the “wounded spouse” who is seeking attention wakes up one day to the realization that he or she is caught in the emotional web of a romantic encounter. Although it may be confusing at first, it feels good.

The “innocent” partner may suspect or actually discover the questionable behavior and warns or argues with the “wounded” or “guilty” spouse. The “innocent” partner refuses to hear the plea for inclusion and romance. The “innocent” partner comes home anytime, often very late at nights, does not discuss where he or she has been, and in some cases, does not get involved in sharing household duties. Many “innocent” partners are emotionally or physically abusive, utilizing perhaps one of the most subtle, yet powerful forms of abuse – intimidation. It is as though the “guilty” has become the slave and the “innocent” the slave master. But we do not know that the “well-behaved and respected” spouse is a “slave master” or “cold ice box” in the home. We quickly throw stones at the one who did the “terrible thing” and never pause to question or challenge the one who appears to be innocent. Even family members of the “innocent” are often blind and provide biased support, criticizing the “guilty” partner, condemning and causing more emotional pain and frustration.

Yes, there are many partners who are truly innocent when the other partner violates a marriage vow. But far too many are not innocent. Our role is to help expose the truth, even if it is painful. We must stop preserving the “good image of the family” at the expense of the emotional health and destruction of a relationship.

Are you innocent or guilty?

Before you accuse or condemn your guilty partner, pause and take a look at your behavior. My concluding statement is one that should cause you to think – the “guilty” may have painted the room red, but the “innocent” bought the paint. Think about it.

• Barrington Brennen is a counseling psychologist and marriage and family therapist. Send your questions to question@soencouragement.org or call 242-327-1980 or visit www.soencouragement.org.

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