The Road to Reconciliation: See the Context

The world may have been created out of nothing, out of a nameless void, they say; but since then, anything that has happened has arisen out of something else. We call this context. If you want to come to some peace over something that has happened to you, then see the context from which it emerged.

Notice I carefully used the word context, not reason. Don’t look for the reason something occurred. Many things just aren’t reasonable. Much happens for no reason, or, at least, no good reason. Similarly, don’t look for justifications; and if anyone offers them, don’t accept them. Justifications are closely related to explanations, rationalizations, and vindications. Stay away from all of them. They all contain too much of that quality by which we sort things out into good or bad, loving or hateful, healthy or unhealthy. I want you to just stick to the evidence without drawing too many conclusions about it. Just the facts, ma’am.

If you don’t like the word context, then look for factors, conditions, background, or the scene. The point is to disengage the judging apparatus in your mind long enough so you can take in all the needed information. Remember, I value feelings and, if you’re a victim, I especially value your feelings as things that can tell you something is wrong and re-connect you to your values. Once feelings do that for you, their job is done and they should be quieted, in much the same way as, once you have woken up and leave the house, you have no more use for a fire alarm. Indeed, a loud and insistent alarm can get in the way of being able to think straight.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say your husband cheated on you. You’re trying to come to peace with it because you’ve decided to stay with him anyway, for the kids’ sake. If you looked at the context, you might see, for instance, that he came from a broken home and married the first time when he was young. His first wife cheated on him, they split up, and he met you shortly thereafter. He quickly got a divorce and married you after you got pregnant. You love being a mother and had two more children in quick succession. They don’t like to sleep alone, so, every night, at least one of them migrates to the bed you share with your husband. Needless to say, you barely have sex anymore. You actually seem to miss it more than he does. He says he doesn’t like to ask because you always seem tired and distracted. He works in a large company with many women. He travels for business and it was on a trip that he began an affair with a colleague. They were out celebrating, having made an important deal, when one thing led to another.

I could have gone on and on, describing the context in which this affair occurred. Obviously, I just included factors that could be related somehow to his unfaithfulness. I could have also said that your eldest son won a competition at a science contest and your husband’s best friend is battling cancer, but those facts are less likely related. Maybe not, though. Maybe his best friend having cancer reminded him that life is short; so he wanted to grab for all the gusto he could. Maybe your husband’s ego was threatened by his son, who is so smart; so your husband wanted to prove he was desirable to someone. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what factors are related. Motivations often come from unexpected directions.

Notice, when I described the context, I tried to keep a neutral tone. I didn’t say, for instance, it’s no wonder your husband had an affair, you guys weren’t having much sex. I also didn’t say, he came from a broken home and didn’t have positive role models, so he didn’t know how to be a good husband. We are looking for correlation, not causation; and remember what I said about justifications, explanations, rationalizations, and vindications. We’re not trying to say more than the evidence can bear.

If you really want to look for the cause of the affair, you can see, in my description of the imaginary husband, that there are a number of factors that could have contributed. He had poor marriage role models. He never had a chance to sow his wild oats. He was cheated on before, so he may have thought it was normal. Your marriage was almost accidental. He may feel left out of the alliance you have with the children. Then there’s the lack of sex and privacy.  He believes he cannot ask for what he wants. Paradoxically, you have poor communication because he tries to protect you or is afraid of rejection. He’s around a lot of women, with some opportunities to be unfaithful. He may be able to be more open with them because there’s less at stake. Presumably, there was alcohol involved when he and his colleague were celebrating and the affair began under its influence.

You can see how all these factors might put a hapless husband on the path to being unfaithful. The context is quite powerful. However, there is one thing missing in our formulation. He made a choice. All of these factors could just as well have put him on guard, watching for just that thing. That’s not what happened, though. He let down his guard and made a choice. That’s why you want to stay away from causation, justification, explanation, rationalization, and vindication. All of them forget that there is a choice.

Another thing to keep in mind when looking for the context, is that not all of the context resides in the past or present. Sometimes the most relevant context is the hopes and dreams the person has. Let’s take this husband, for instance. He strikes me as a very isolated person, abandoned many times over, first by at least one parent and then by his first wife. Even in his present family, he’s the odd one out. He thinks he cannot express his desires to you because he fears he would be too demanding and will be rejected. It’s not too much to believe that he desires affirmation, recognition, and respect and may have gotten embroiled in an affair in an attempt to get it.

I admit that having an affair and putting his marriage, as well as his relationship to his children, at risk is hardly the best way of gaining affirmation, recognition, and respect; but people adopt desperate, reckless measures when they are, well, desperate. Again, we’re not looking for excuses, we’re looking for context.

What is the value of looking at context? How can this help you? Let me tell you a story.

I was walking around in Manhattan once. I turned the corner and saw a man with a gun, shooting another man. Blood spurted out everywhere and the victim fell. I reacted quickly, ducking behind a car before I got shot; but I was curious and peered out. Then I saw cameras, lights, microphones, and a director, sitting in one of those director chairs. I had come upon a movie set, not an actual shooting.

When you see the context you see more and understand more. Look at the context.