In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nineteenth century classic, if citizens were found unfaithful they were branded with a Scarlet “A.”
In a society where marriages were considered sacred, those who strayed from their vows were condemned. Forced to wear the infamous letter, many women (let’s be honest, while men were more apt to get away with infidelity, it was more unacceptable for women to commit adultery) were publicly shamed. The “A” branded them as tainted goods – pariahs of society.
Fast forward 165 years – How does the Scarlet Letter manifest today? What does it look like? With a divorce rate of 50% and rising in the U.S., leaving marriages is more of the norm than staying. And for many, straying from those long-term relationships even while in the relationship has long-since lost the societal stigma it once carried. In fact, we don’t need to look far to find examples today of society blaming the betrayed partner for the acts of the cheater.
“Do you blame him? If I were married to THAT I’d cheat too!” rings in our ears like a refrain from a familiar song. The “other woman” is simply an improved model, rescuing the cheater from a life of monotony, responsibility, and lifelessness. Clearly the Scarlet Letter today is not brandished by those who commit adultery.
So what about those women and men who decide to stay in a relationship where there has been infidelity?
What about those who decide to stay after discovering that their partner had several ongoing affairs?
Still yet, what about those who decide to stay after they discover their partner has a long-standing pattern of addiction to these behaviors?
In a society where it’s much easier to go than it is to stay, the scarlet letter today has become inverted – borne by those individuals who dare to stay in relationships after vows have been broken.
All too often, those who have decided to “work things out” with their husband or wife become shamed or ostracized by their communities for doing so.
But what if we were to look not at the ease in leaving, but rather the courage it takes to stay?
Assuming that the betraying partner is doing his/her work to better the relationship, discontinue the infidelity, and show genuine remorse, empathy, and commitment, why would we not see this as a courageous step in a society where it’s far easier to cut ties and find our next partner?
Sometimes the damage is too great, the actions of the betraying partner to egregious to heal. In these instances, it absolutely makes sense to cut losses and move on. Yet for others, the shattered remnants of their relationship can be carefully constructed with much care, empathy, and slow dedication to become an even deeper, more vulnerable, and more intimate relationship than was present before. There can be much beauty gained by walking through the relational pain after such betrayal.
Now, we must be clear again about an important point:
The actions of the betraying partner are vital in this process.
This individual must work to show true empathy and remorse, and must discontinue all activities that betray his/her partner, including any patterns of lying, deception, manipulation, or abuse. Staying in a relationship where the individual is NOT actively doing his/her work is abusive, and is not helpful to either individual.
So if you are a woman or a man out there and have chosen to stay after infidelity, you are courageously beating the odds. And if you are the straying partner of someone who has stayed, continue to do your work to heal the broken relationship you caused. Your partner has shown an incredible degree of strength and courage to stay, when many of her/his friends will say to run. The beauty that can come from the mosaic of shattered lives is unlike any art you can imagine. The healed scar from the Scarlet “A” is a reminder of the pain of betrayal, yet it also bears witness to healing made possible through the pain.