(Note: This was previously posted as one of my Questions and Responses.)
by Peggy Vaughan
The question above refers to a "sense of safety" being shattered both by the spouse's affair and by the 9-11 tragedy. What was shattered was actually the illusion of safety. We weren't safe to begin with; we simply didn't know it or didn't recognize itso we inadvertently failed to take the steps necessary to try to prevent it. Whether affairs or terrorism, we tend to think that we are not personally vulnerable, but this false sense of being somehow immune makes us even more vulnerable because we fail to be aware and informed about factors that could make a difference.
There's clear evidence that people who had studied terrorism for the past few years were well aware that a major terrorist attack in the U.S. was likely. But in general, we preferred to ignore or deny the signs. With extramarital affairs, we have also preferred to ignore or deny the prevalence of affairs. We've tended to buy into what I've called the "monogamy myth," a set of beliefs that leads us to think we can just assume monogamy, that our marriage is somehow immune. In neither case (in dealing with the threat of terrorism or the threat of affairs) have we openly shared the kind of information and perspective that might have helped prevent them.
The hope we can find from these events is that now we are more aware/wiser when it comes to both terrorism and affairs. Therefore, we can better protect ourselves and others from being "victims" in the future. The national "wake-up call" that is so evident in the public's reaction to 9-11 stands as a great example of the kind of wake-up call that is also needed within marriages today.
For instance, the airline passengers who confronted terrorists on a plane in Pennsylvania after the World Trade Center was hit (as well as other passengers who confronted another would-be terrorist on a later flight) would not have reacted as they did without the knowledge gained from this new awareness of the risk of terrorism. Now that terrorism has reached our shores, we recognize the need to become more aware and involved in the protection of everyone.
Whether dealing with affairs or terrorism (as well as any significant problem we face), it's important to recognize that we shouldn't wait until it affects us personally before we try to address the issues. I learned that lesson the hard way many years ago when I was trying to deal with my husband's affairsalone, without the kind of information and support from others that could have been so helpful. (I am now committed to "breaking the code of secrecy" about affairs in order to help others be more aware and informed.) I again learned the importance of talking about crises when I faced breast cancer about ten years ago. I was somewhat more informed about that, but again, had not talked about it and learned as much as would have been helpful.
Dealing with the 9-11 tragedy has raised our awareness of the importance of caring, service, and communityand has brought out not weakness, but strength and an indomitable spirit that will better prepare us for whatever might happen in the future. In a similar vein, dealing with an affair can raise our awareness of the importance of honesty, trust, and marriage in a way that may have been either assumed or ignored for too long. If we learn from such a crisis (and share these learnings with others), we will all be better prepared to address any relationship problem in a more realistic, proactive, positive way.
So far from feeling helpless and hopeless when faced with life's challenges, we can use the experience to become stronger by being more open to learningand sharingour experiences with others. As for feeling "helpless" (as described in the above question), we are actually far more helpless when we are unaware and uninformed about dangers or risks. Once we know about certain risks, we're much better prepared to deal with them if/when they happen to us or to someone we love. The risks exist, whether or not we are aware of them, and knowledge can bring not helplessness, but power.
Here is some additional information about some of the points mentioned above: