Monday, March 17, 2008

Private Is More Public in Community

I’m working with two couples who are going through the painful process of trying to recover from a freshly uncovered affair where two people not in the same marriage jumped the fence and got together on the sly. As a further complication, both couples have been living in the same cmty, and they are all trying to figure out a way that they can still do so. It’s a mess.

While there’s nothing new about married people having affairs, I want to focus today on how this impacts the cmty, and the ways in which that context can be turned into an asset.

On the one hand, the cmty is another player in the equation. At some point, tensions between the couples (or even within a couple) cease being wholly private and spill over into cmty life. (Let me give you an example: imagine the now-informed cuckold being sarcastic and over-reactive in response to his wife’s lover’s proposal to the cmty about a new way to allocate parking spaces. Cmty members may need a more forthcoming response than “none of your business” in reply to a query about why he’s being so critical.) Can it ever be better to simply let people guess what’s happened? Is the part-fact-part-fiction distortions of the rumor mill ever better than the truth? I don’t think so.

Still, it can be excruciatingly hard to launder one’s intimate indiscretions in public and to share the hurt and pain with the full cmty. It can take a lot of moxie, and it’s not too hard to sympathize with those who feel too overwhelmed to make the attempt.

Communities involve a commitment by members to be more in each other’s lives than what you’d find in your average neighborhood—they’re called “intentional” for a reason. Unfortunately, most groups are rather casual about defining how much more, and it often takes a problem (or crisis) to make clear the extent that other members now see themselves as stakeholders in your well-being. Nowhere is that more tender than when a family gets into deep mud and the whole cmty gets splattered in the thrashing.

The good side of this closer connection is that you have the possibility of a broader network of support (think of how other cmty members will rally to provide food and succor for families in times of illness). The challenging corollary is that there is now a much wider circle of folks who are affected by your life and may expect to have a say in how things unfold. In the case of extramarital affairs, this can move you into an arena where you never expected to have the spotlight shine, much less be in the center of it.

To be sure, there are still boundaries of privacy in cmty—they’re just narrower. And perhaps fuzzier, since everybody doesn’t draw the lines in the same place and it’s difficult to find the motivation for the conversation short of a specific incident to push your nose into the ambiguity. At what point does a couple’s struggles become cmty business? Arguably, when the distress starts leaking into cmty interactions—which I’m defining broadly enough to include normal social interplay, not just maintenance and governance.

The two couples I’m working with have lived in the cmty for a while, and have already had first-hand experience with a prior affair (not involving any of them) being revealed to members via the grapevine. They all know how potentially damaging that can be—both for the cmty and the couples.

As hard as it is to face the music about embarrassing moments, in a situation like this it’s better that it’s your tune and your band. Not because the cmty has the right to tell the couples how to do their marriages (they don’t), but because the cmty needs to know what’s going on—in order to better understand why there’s tension, and how they can be of help to both couples as they work to repair their marriages. Cleaning out the wound may be painful, but it accelerates the healing.

Here’s the way I'm advocating doing this, all with the help of a strong facilitator:

1. Given the volatile feelings running in several directions among the two couples, the starting place needs to be an opportunity for each to tell their story and the emotions they've been going through. While I don't expect there to be ongoing friendships between the couples (given the depth of hurt and sense of violation that’s just occurred), I think it will go better for both partnerships if they can approach the cmty in a combined effort to tell the story and hear the cmty's responses. The hope here is: a) to establish a uniform story about what happened (to the extent possible); b) to give the cmty a chance to get the information all at the same time with all key players present; c) to define what support and healing will look like to all the key players (not that the answers will all be the same; but that the requests will all be on the table at the same time); and d) to steer clear of asking people to take sides.

In order to accomplish all this, it will go much better if all four people are allies in the attempt, and I don't see how that will be possible without first clearing the highly charged air among them.

2. If we weather the first step OK, next we’ll discuss what a constructive future will look like for each person, based on the assumption that both couples will continue to live in the same cmty. I’ll be asking each person to offer their best thinking about what they'll need to heal their damaged marriage (not just from their spouse, but from the other partnership, and from the cmty), how they'd like to participate in cmty life, and how they'd like to handle moments when someone from the other partnership triggers them (which we have to anticipate will happen).

3. Next we'll set up the mtg with the cmty. I favor asking for a special session (as soon as all four feel up to it), where the goals would be:

a. All four principals can tell their stories and their reactions. In addition, each couple can relate where they're at, how they're trying to heal, and what, if anything, they want in the way of support from the cmty to accomplish that. Included will be an opportunity for all four to state whatever boundaries they have for being approached about this in the future.

b. People can ask questions—which the four will answer if their willing and able—and the other cmty members will be given a chance to share their reactions. (I expect these will be all over the map: some will be outraged, some angry, some sympathetic; some sad; some scared; some will be blown away by the vulnerability—it will be a kaleidoscope of responses. No small part of the benefit of doing it this way is the value to the rest of the cmty of their hearing the breadth of each other’s responses and feeling emotionally connected in a troubled time.)

c. Unless any of the four have specific requests from the cmty, this will not be an action mtg; it will be a time for sharing and listening carefully from the heart.

It will be a tough mtg, yet it can also be very important one in its healing potential for both the couples and the cmty. And that’s the most exciting part, helping the cmty be a place where truth can land softly and be a catalyst for healing, rather than an invitation for tribunal and judgment.

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