Cheating on your partner is usually considered the deal-breaker in a romantic relationship. I was listening to a talk, and the speaker gave a very thought-provoking alternative to breaking up. The talk is in Chinese, so below, I’ve done my best to translate his words.
One time, I got a call from a friend who said her husband had cheated on her. She asked me for my opinion on what she should do. I told her, “When an outcome like this happens, there’s no way it’s 100% the other person’s fault and we’re 100% innocent. So the first thought you must think is, What did I do wrong? What’s my contribution to the outcome? When we only think about the other person’s wrongs, our emotional state will get worse and worse, and we become prone to acting irrationally.”
I continued, “Lets say it’s 80% their fault, and 20% our fault. We need to calm down and figure out what our 20% is, and then fix it. That’s the first important attitude to have. The second important attitude is to not put our messy emotions onto the other person. The third attitude is this: When your husband is right, view him as your husband. When your husband is wrong, view him as your own son. If your son makes a mistake, would you abandon him and say it’s all his fault? Of course not. That would be very unfair.”
A lot of people would say, “He’s already so old, how can he not even know how to be a good person?!” I reply, “He’s old how? His body. What how about his wisdom? You say he should know. He really shouldn’t know because no one taught him. Has anyone ever taught you how to nurture a good spousal relationship? You’ve gone to school for over 10 years, yet have you ever learned about how to nurture a relationship?”
My teacher, Teacher Yang, once had a student come to her sobbing, saying that her husband cheated on her. What did my teacher say? First, she exerted a calm presence to calm that student down. Then she asked, “Are you here to truly solve the problem? Or are you just seeking to rant?” The student said she’s serious about solving the problem. Yang said, “Then you must seriously act on what I tell you to do.” The student complied.
Yang continued, “You must use tenderness to resolve this problem. Starting from today, his wrongs come second. Your wrongs come first. That means you must complete your duties fully, whether that be taking care of the kids, serving the in-laws, or anything else that’s your duty. Make sure you do your part completely. Over time, your virtue will awaken his sense of shame.”
So the next day, the woman put on a light layer of make up to look pleasant and presentable. At night, she made sure the children’s bags were packed for the next day, and then she put them to sleep. Then she sat and waited for her husband to return home. She watched the clocked tick away, second by second. 10:00PM. 10:30PM.
Suddenly, she understood an important concept: endure. If she were to let her anger rise now, then all of the previous effort she put in would go down the drain. So she continued to endure. After 1:00AM, she heard the door open. What now?
She immediately went over to the door, gave her husband a big smile, took her husband’s brief case with both hands, and said, “You must’ve had such a long and tiring day, coming home so late. You must be hungry too. I’ll go prepare some noodles for you right away.” Then she went to make some noodles. The husband was very shocked and confused, wondering if something had happened to his wife.
Starting from that day, the wife waited patiently every day for her husband to come home. Even though this husband had cheated on her, he still had a little bit of shame. After about two months time, one day, this husband came home very early. As soon as he came in the door, he knelt down and said, “Please forgive me.”
The husband continued, “These past couple of months, I received such kindness from you, it’s been tormenting me. I don’t know how much more I can take.”
And so the wife was able to overcome her husband’s faults with sincerity and virtue.
I think this story has so many deep and important lessons for all relationship conflicts.
First, everyone has faults. If we ever get angry and start thinking it’s 100% the other person’s fault, we’ll get irrational, and when we’re acting out of negative emotions, we often do things that we’d regret later on. We have to shift our mindset to, What’s my contribution to the problem? Then we’ll calm down and see things clearer.
Second, we often tell others to change out of displeasure, annoyance or anger. As much we’d like to think otherwise, that just simply doesn’t work. If we really want others to change, we have to inspire them to change, and that takes time. We often think, If I shout at you, you’ll realize how much you hurt me and how bad you are, and then if you really love me, you’ll change for me. What’s the reality? They’ll think, You’re such a bad-tempered and irrational person. Why the heck should I listen to you? You’re no better than me. You have no credentials to tell me what to do. So we must become someone worthy of respect and trust before we tell others to change.
Third, it might seem unfair that WE have to do the heavy lifting, that WE have to be tolerant and endure their bad behavior, while they get to have the benefits of our kind treatment despite not “deserving” it. But consider this: Is it fair that you got to learn about solving relationship problems while your partner didn’t? He probably would want to learn if he knew the benefits, but he never had the opportunity. Also consider that when you got together with your partner, you didn’t have problems. People are heavily influenced by their environment and their peers. So after spending time with you, they changed, and a large part of that change was influenced by YOUR behavior because they spent so much time around you. So it’s really quite unfair for you to expect your partner to be the one lifting the relationship up. They don’t have the knowledge, and they’ve become the way they are in part because of the way we were. That’s why the least we can do is pick up our slack and be a good role model.
Fourth, we have to endure. Just like when the wife was waiting that first night, our habitual thoughts will come up again: This is so unfair. He’s such a bad person. Why do I have to be kind to a person like this. If we don’t endure, we’ll fall into a downward spiral again. But if we do endure, it’ll get easier and easier over time. We’ll realize, Oh look, I can be tolerant after all. I feel pretty good about that.
Fifth, we have to be patient. The wife in that story persisted for two months! I imagine it must’ve been so hard in the beginning, but it probably got easier and more natural as her identity shifted from I’m a victim to I’m a great wife and role model regardless of what my husband does. By the time her husband finally pleaded for forgiveness, I imagine the wife had already reaped most of the benefits by simply going through the process of becoming more tolerant and loving. So when her husband asked for forgiveness, she probably wasn’t bitterly thinking, That’s right. You better apologize. I’m right and you’re wrong. I’m so much better than you. Instead, she was probably happy to see that her husband had improved, and she’d want to help her husband further improve. Then, their lives and the family will just keep getting better and better.