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This is the second in a three-part blog series. The third and final installment will appear Wednesday November 3rd. The article originally appeared in the Psychotherapy Networker in September 2010. Read Part One here.
Last time, we looked at couples who are stuck in the past after extramarital affairs. Now, read up on the partners who remain together because they honor values of lifelong commitment and continuity, family loyalty, and stability. They want to stay connected to their community of mutual friends and associates or have a strong religious affiliation. These couples can move past the infidelity, but they don't necessarily transcend it. Their marriages revert to a more or less peaceful version of the way things were before the crisis, without undergoing any significant change in their relationship.
On Friday, Joanna was all set to go. On Saturday, she couldn't sign the lease. She'd fantasized about the moment for almost two years: she'd leave her husband, Michael, move in with her lover, Eric, and be bathed in a state of bliss and sensuality that had been sorely missing from her life. Eric had showered her with affection and a sense of importance--attention she'd only ever received from her children, since Michael had excused himself from these gestures, saying he wasn't that kind of guy. Lassitude had gradually crept into her marriage, leaving her feeling more attached to the habit of being married than to the man she'd once loved.
Joanna's transgression was an attempt to recapture what she'd shared previously with Michael and didn't want to live without: a sense of importance and belonging, relief from loneliness, and a feeling that life was basically good. Unfulfilled longings for feelings like these drive many of today's adulterers. Joanna carefully plotted her departure, but when push came to shove, she couldn't do it. She thought about the 24 years she and Michael had been together, their unwavering friendship, his dependability, the comforts of their life, and, most important, her kids--realizing that once she turned her affair into her primary relationship, there'd be no turning back. Often people begin to see what they want to preserve at the moment that their affair is about to come out of hiding. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also when they realize that the lover was meant to be exactly that: a lover.
Joanna didn't want to leave Michael partly out of fear and partly because she still loved him. It wasn't clear which was stronger, fear or love. "Part of me was very disappointed in myself for not being able to leave Michael, and I wondered if I was letting go of the love of my life," Joanna recalled. "But part of me felt relief that I was going to stay and not destroy my family." Michael alternated between panic and rage, between begging her to stay and chasing her away. "I couldn't believe she was ready to jeopardize everything for this guy, Eric, and I felt trapped because I suspected that her reasons to stay ¬didn't have much to do with me. It was more about what we had than about who I was."
At the core of Joanna's predicament is a conflict of values, inherent in the affair itself, not just in its resolution. When people talk about their fears, often they're really pondering their values. When they say, "I don't want to break up my family," they're also saying that they hold dear family continuity. When they refer to the shared history with their spouse, they express their respect for loyalty and commitment. Following Cupid's arrows is akin to losing one's moral compass, and, in this sense, the affair brings about an identity crisis: how to reconcile the enchantment of an experience with the feeling that it's fundamentally wrong. For Joanna and others in her place, lying and deceiving are more agonizing than thrilling. They don't set out to betray their partners. Sometimes, as in the case of Joanna, they're motivated by a yearning for what they're no longer willing to live without: passion--not in the narrow, sexual sense, but as
a quest for aliveness and erotic vitality. Although a glimmer of passion can be intoxicating, many of us shudder at the prospect of losing everything. The volatility and unpredictability of desire is scary.
For these partners, sexual excitement and what they regard as self-centered desires for more romantic "fulfillment" aren't powerful enough incentives to turn them away from the more meaningful, long-term rewards and vital obligations of family. They hold themselves to the premise "when you marry, you make a commitment and you must honor it." These couples value family integrity, security, continuity, and familiarity over the rollercoaster of risky romantic love. There can be deep, enduring love and loyalty in these couples, but passion doesn't feature prominently on the menu. Doing what's right creates a wholeness that helps the unfaithful person come to terms with the sacrifices they make. However, while people's values can remain intact, the decision to stay in the marriage can be heart-wrenching.
When I work with these couples, I always include joint and individual sessions, keeping all information from the individual sessions confidential. The purpose of solo meetings is to provide a private space in which each partner can resolve his or her individual predicament, no matter how long it takes. With these couples, the therapeutic process is one of reasoning and rational thinking, as a way to temper the turbulence of their emotions. Our sessions are meant to shepherd them through the crisis and to anchor their relationship. Couples like Joanna and Michael had carefully crafted a path for themselves in their marriage, and much of what they seek in post-affair therapy is to reclaim a sense of control. They aren't looking for massive renovations in their relationship; they simply want to come back to the home they know and rest on a familiar pillow. On the road back, they make amends, they renew their vows, and they make sure to plug any leaks.
In therapy, I explore the riches of the love affair, what they found in their relationship with the "other," and what they can take from it into their primary relationship. We draft the new amendments for their life, in the singular and plural. We weigh the pain of ending the affair--that fact that "it's the right thing to do, but it hurts"--and I always ask how they imagine themselves 10 years down the road.
With the betrayed person, we examine the ebbs and flows of trust, the sense of impermanence that snuck into the relationship, and their wish to return to familiarity. Therapy offers couples like Joanna and Michael a place to evaluate the fundamentals of their lives. We also address the hurt that persists even though the couple remains together. One of my patients told me, "A few years ago, when I had a car accident, I remember thinking how much support I got from friends and family. With a broken leg, the pain is visible, everybody knows you're suffering, and everybody sympathizes. But when a couple decides to stay together after an affair, it's easy to think everything is fine. People no longer bring it up, and you're left living with an invisible pain."
Joanna and Michael ultimately were able to resume a life similar to the one they'd had before the crisis. "We weren't ready to divorce over this, but we don't see the affair as being good in any way. It was a kind of temporary insanity," Michael sums up. Listening to them, it's clear that they're both relieved that they were able to pull through. Once in a while, Michael can feel a surge of insecurity, since Joanna and Eric occasionally meet professionally, but his suspicion is intermittent and easily absorbed. He'll inquire, "When's the last time you met him? Does he have a new girlfriend? Do you talk about personal things?" On occasion, humor is the perfect antidote. Once, when Michael asked Joanna if she thought Eric was still interested in her, she told him, "I don't think so, but here's his telephone number. You can call him and ask."
Stay with me for the third installation of this article--looking at couples who have been totally transformed by affairs.