Question: I have a friend whose husband had an affair. He is trying to make amends but trust is already broken. How should I advise as a Buddhist? (They don’t have kids.)
Answer: In the Buddhist point of view, marriage is not some sacrament mandated in heaven that has to be stuck to blindly forever; it is a social contract entirely up to humans to manage well. Of course, mutual diligent Dharma practice can foster the integrity of the relationship.
Advice from professional marriage counselling should be sought for objectivity – especially if there are clashing points of view and conflicting emotions that are difficult to reconcile. If this does not work in healing the relationship even after trying hard, the suffering spouse should probably prepare to leave.
Any relationship is not fated to remain the way it is. Departure from a toxic relationship is how one’s corresponding karma can change too. There is no point putting a hand on a hot stove to be burnt foolishly, thinking it is fated, when one can simply remove it. If the relationship is confirmed not worth saving or does not seem to be salvageable, why not just leave? One should not stay just for money and such – especially since it cannot buy happiness. Divorcing the unworthy is not a bad thing. Many who have divorced are now much happier, some with better partners too.
It might be good to live separately for a while to gradually ‘re-know’ one another, to see how both parties value the relationship. It might be easier then to decide whether to reconcile or divorce. The guilty one can be asked to do something reasonable to prove sincerity. If that thing cannot be done or cannot be accepted even after being done, the relationship in terms of marriage is probably really beyond repair. It is better to become normal friends than remain unhappy spouses void even of friendship.
Buddhist couples should especially observe the third precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct – to prevent affairs in the first place. Those who feel that they cannot commit to this precept, among others, are clearly not ready for marriage. Whether one had committed to the third precept or not, one should still abide by marital loyalty for personal, family and societal harmony. Those who had broken this precept should make amends by resolving to better abide by it, by discontinuing their ill ways. It is usually the lack of sincere repentance that perpetuates suffering at home.