When I was doing my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I was blessed with some amazing classmates. We worked together learning about ourselves as well as how to bring quality pastoral care to those hurting at a Trauma One center in Hartford, CT. This unit took place while I was separated from my (then) wife. I was still desperately trying to reconcile our marriage. Unbeknownst to me, she was already involved with the individual who she later confirmed was her sexual partner while we were still married.
As part of this chaplain internship, I would commute from New Haven to Hartford with my peers who were current students at Yale Divinity School. These commutes gave me time to share my heart with these men and find support. I will forever be grateful to these two men (and another who joined us in our carpool commute occasionally). They were true friends during a real difficult time for me.
One of those trips I vividly recall a conversation I had with one of my CPE classmates. He was aware of my (now ex) wife’s tactic of slandering me as abusive. This charge actually made him angry. I can still recall him telling me that it angered him that my (now ex) wife said such things as it devalued other people’s experiences who actually are in abusive situations.
But let me tell you, her tactic worked “well” for her. It had helped her in garnering her parents’ support as well as helped her pick off a (now former) friend of mine. They were more than happy to try and rescue a “damsel in distress.”
My (now) ex even tried to pick off my own mother and sister-in-law with this tactic. They both shared how she insinuated that I was a wife-beater a hair’s breadth away from losing it and hurting her. My mother and sister-in-law took the charge seriously but followed up asking her if she had any hard evidence I had acted this way in the past or really any reason behind such fears. This gutted her attack on the spot with her even admitting it was groundless when pressed as such. You see, I am not a wife-beater and had made it explicitly clear to her that I never would hit her, ever. Unlike her parents, my parents had raised me with to have good character. I knew from an early age that it is completely unacceptable to ever strike one’s wife or cheat on her. Both were and are unthinkable to me.
When it comes to manipulation tactics, I see two common tactics used by adulterous spouses to discredit faithful spouses:
1) For men, the adulterous spouse may launch a campaign to characterize them as angry, controlling, and abusive. Because the church often treats adultery as a symptom, pastors and counselors are quick to focus on these abuse or anger accusations to the exclusion of seeing the infidelity (which, I am personally convinced, is a very nasty form of abuse). The idea that a husband’s soul may be reacting to being violated by infidelity or the accompanying contempt from his wife does not register on these people. They hear “wife beater” and swing into action against the faithful spouse.* The nefarious genius of this tactic is how it effectively cuts off sympathy for the faithful husband who is cast as always wrong (like the violence he allegedly used) while garnering complete and unqualified support for the adulteress who takes the role of “damsel in distress.” More than one trained “Christian” counselor and pastor fell for this one in my personal experience.
2) For women, I have seen how adulterers work to convince everyone their wives are hysterical and crazy. They may even use the court system against the faithful spouses in doing this. This tactic works to discredit the voice of the faithful female spouse. If they speak up, people dismiss them as crazy. Who is going to believe a crazy woman?
Usually, it does not cross the outsiders’ minds how extreme trauma and loss can make a person look crazy. Think of a mother who has lost a child. We understand that she might look “crazy” with grief, and we accept that as we understand she has lost someone very precious to her–i.e. her child. The same thing works with faithful spouses. We have lost a lot and may look crazy from our grief.
Besides the grief aspect, that is not even including the active ways the adulterer is likely gaslighting the faithful spouse suggesting she is just imagining things (like his mistress) even though the faithful spouse has photos and phone records saying otherwise. Like the tactic used against faithful husbands, this tactic comes built in with sympathy for the adulterous spouse. People are quick to support the poor husband (i.e. the adulterer) as he has had to put up with such a “crazy” wife.
Both these tactics are wicked and evil. They abuse faithful spouses who are already victims of horrific sin done against them. And they can cause incredible damage if the faithful spouse is an introspective type willing to mull over such lies. I know. It took considerable time for me to unplug the lies planted in my heart on these matters by my cheating ex and her cohorts.
So, I write this both as an encouragement to faithful spouses reading that they are not alone in experiencing such tactics. And I write this to expose these works of darkness.**
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
-Ephesians 5:11, ESV
*Just as my CPE peer pointed out, this is a horrible thing for an adulteress to do. It cheapens the situations where such abuse actually is taking place and swift protective action is needed. This is another example of adulterous spouses’ behavior negatively impacting more than just the faithful spouse.
**I will add both tactics need not be exclusively used against one gender or another. There can be overlap. But they do tap into our culture’s gender training in powerful ways as I have assigned them in this post.