The discovery of an affair ranks as one of the most traumatic events in the lives of an intimate couple. The sexual violation and, more than that, the dishonesty and betrayal make the recovery process a fragile one. Probably one-quarter of the couples I see have experienced an affair, or a quasi-affair. Often they call me immediately following the discovery of the affair, when the wounds are fresh.
Two things about an affair: First, an affair almost always grows in soil of the relationship itself. There is usually something significantly out-of-balance between the couple that they have been unable or unwilling to resolve, or even acknowledge. And typically, the couple’s dance involves a large dose of conflict-avoidance. These couples often specialize in the “Sweeping Under the Rug” duet, though this process may be unconscious.
The other axiom about an affair: If the couple genuinely engages in looking at themselves and each other, the affair can be the best thing that could have happened. It allows the couple to experience a deeper, more authentic connection than they’d previously known. And they weren’t apparently able to get at these issues any other way. But more about that later.
Meet Annie and Christopher: They initially came to see me in after Annie found out that Christopher had been infatuated with an office colleague. Though he claimed they didn’t actually sleep together, the relationship became sexy and intimate. It lasted for almost two years. Annie found out about her husband’s cheating when she came across Christopher’s email intended for the girlfriend.
They handled what I call “The First Phase“–right after the bomb drops–very impressively. (I have a few models in my head from couples who’ve taught me what a healthy response looks like.) Annie showed herself to be one of the “healthy” responders: She kicked the stuffing out of her husband–symbolically, of course. She was furious! Then she proceeded to insist that he divulge every detail of his relationship with this woman. Christopher clumsily complied. He appeared open, if not eager, for these discussions. Annie didn’t let up. She even did what I consider the coup de grâce of being on the receiving end of this betrayal: She went to the office and confronted the “other woman.” Annie did not hold back.
Most of this they recounted to me. I didn’t have to encourage her into a healthy response, though I looked on admiringly while she carried on. According to them, this kind of aggression was way out of character for Annie, who struck me as quiet and introspective. A professional poet, she laced her speech with metaphor, which, to my ears, sounded like music. I let her know how much I appreciated her thoughtful responses in our sessions.
I understood that Annie historically tended to retreat from conflict and now, her take-no-prisoners approach looked to me like a refreshing change. I also openly appreciated how, in our initial sessions, Annie seemed intent on acknowledging that she “made mistakes” in their marriage. She wasn’t merely interested in holding her husband to account: She was in pain, and curious about where she” went wrong”, as she put it.
“Phase One” as I think of it, involves, from this therapist’s point-of-view, clearly siding with the injured party. Often, but not always, the cheater is the husband. The husband needs to stay in the Dog House for as long as it takes. He needs to be there, since–no matter what his wife “did”–he took the coward’s way out. Whatever suffering the marriage engendered in him–and it always does–he took a damaging shortcut. For this he deserves the responsibility that comes with it. Most important, he needs to fully acknowledge his betrayal. This is often a process, but once he fully comes clean and commits to repairing the damage, he’s got his ticket out. At least he’s got his reservation.
But “Phase Two”…different story. Back to Annie and Christopher. After several months, Annie seems to have accepted her husband’s acknowledgement/apology for his betrayal: His full commitment to repairing the damage brought some healing to the wound. We were ready to move on to exploring the underpinnings of their marriage. As we began this exploration, I understood, more clearly than ever, how Annie helped to create the conditions for the affair.
At one session, the couple reported that they had had a “difficult” weekend.” Most of their conflict centered on their two young daughters, and their differences in parenting. As is typical, they fought out their differences through their kids, with Dad feeling Mom was too hard on the youngest, and Mom feeling that Dad gave her a “free pass.” This played itself out in an ugly way around this child’s birthday, where Mom ended up stalking out of the house, feeling like Dad preferred the company of his children to her. She felt invisible.
As we began to explore these parental dynamics, Christopher suddenly changed his tone. He said the kids are sensitive to “the family hierarchy,” meaning that he’s “low man on the totem pole.” He described what he saw as a pattern of having to ask Annie for “permission” with their kids. I asked if he thought the kids would say that Mom was his boss. He looked to Annie for her response; his feelings were clear. She equivocated, Christopher had no doubt. According to her husband, Annie was the boss with the kids, he just worked for her. (And not happily.)
I began to see a different Christopher. Throughout our therapy thus far, he presented himself as soft-spoken, open, worried about his wife, and guilty.He had never so much as raised an objection about anything she said or did. Now, for the first time, I saw more of him, and their marriage. He talked about how even when he was with the kids, she would call to him from the other room to monitor his parenting. He said he always had to do it “her way.”
Christopher elaborated on his feelings of being marginalized in the home. Annie listened, interrupted to dispute his rendition of their family, but I signaled for Christopher to continue. Something new was happening and I wanted to encourage it. He said, “You totally lock me out of even buying Christmas gifts for the kids. You take their list and have everything bought by Thanksgiving. I can’t even participate in buying gifts for our kids!”
Annie didn’t like the way this session was going. I had until now mostly supported her, while maintaining a good connection with her husband. But clearly, without being aware of it, Annie helped to create this imbalance where Christopher lacked his own voice in the parenting department. She became defensive, and started to throw in the kitchen sink, especially the affair. Christopher rightly commented that this distracted them from a more meaningful discussion. I supported him.
Annie said, “I’m not just talking about the affair. I’m talking about how he always disappeared.” I said softly, “He’s not disappearing now.” Though still tender toward her, Christopher took the risk by telling Annie how she made him feel peripheral. He hadn’t dared to talk about this before. He’d been afraid to make her the least bit uncomfortable. He was searching for some new notes in their duet.
The session was getting ready to end. Annie looked clearly upset. She was frantically reaching in her purse for something. I asked her what she was looking for. She showed me. “Worry beads” , designed to calm nerves in a crisis. She didn’t smile. She was rattled. She was used to a cautious, more distant husband. She didn’t know this guy. She wasn’t sure she liked him.
Wow–I thought to myself. This guy is really used to tip-toing around his wife. And she is used to him being away, not present, not always reliable–and now add “cheating” to the list. But, for the first time, I understood Christopher learned to become cautious with his wife. Now he spoke strongly, but with caring, about his experience of exclusion. These new notes in their duet clearly rattled Annie– she looked like she would fall apart.
Our therapy lasted for several more months. The young daughters were included for a few visits, which gave the Annie and Christopher a chance to explore some of their unspoken tensions around parenting. The balance of power between the parents began to shift, with Christopher gaining more of an autonomous voice with their kids. And Annie, after some initial discomfort, seemed to welcome this change. Less work for her with the kids. She now had a real partner. After about six months, the therapy came to a close. This couple looked very different than the people I’d first met.
Annie and Christopher stand as an example of folks who get the most out of a relationship crisis. To her credit, Annie didn’t hang on to her privileged position as the wounded one in the dyad. She showed a lot of courage in her willingness to look at her unintended contribution to the marital tensions that preceded the affair. And Christopher did not attempt to shortcut or minimize the wounding nature of his betrayal, and, through the work, fully owned his shortcomings in his relationship to his wife. When we said good-by, it looked to me like this couple had succeeded creating a much-improved second marriage–this time with greater honesty, integrity, and freedom. I think they’d agree that, despite the enormous pain, it was worth it.