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An Affair To Remember: What Happens In Couples After Someone Cheats? Part One

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This is the first in a three-part blog series. The second installment will appear Wednesday October 27th, and the third will appear Wednesday November 3rd. The article originally appeared in the
Psychotherapy Networker in September 2010.

Couples therapists typically have no idea what really happens after an affair. We regularly help partners recover from their immediate crisis, but what happens to them after they leave therapy? Did the insights gleaned carry the couple through the years of marriage, the slings and arrows of ordinary domestic fortune? Was there a brief, second honeymoon before the marriage reverted back to its pre-therapy condition? Did they file for divorce once out of the therapist's benevolent gaze? Did either spouse commit more transgressions? Unless we're among the few therapists who seek periodic feedback from our clients, we simply don't know, and, without knowing what impact our treatment had on these couples, we have little idea of what worked and why. When couples leave us, we're looking forward to what their future holds; however, I'm intrigued by what we might learn from looking back.

For several years, I've been contacting couples I've treated to find out more about the long-term impact of the infidelity that brought them to therapy. With those couples who've remained together in the intervening years, I offered a free follow-up interview to discuss how they regard the infidelity retrospectively, and how they integrated the experience into the ongoing narrative of their relationship. All marriages are alike to the degree that confronting an affair forces the couple to reevaluate their relationship, but dissimilar in how the couple lives with the legacy of that affair. I already knew the marriages I was tracing in these follow-up interviews had survived; now I wanted to assess the quality of that survival. What were the useful shock absorbers that sustained the couple? Did they think that therapy had helped?

Specificities notwithstanding, I identified three basic patterns in the way couples reorganize themselves after an infidelity--they never really get past the affair, they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and let it go, or they leave it far behind.

In some marriages, the affair isn't a transitional crisis, but a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge, and self-pity. These couples endlessly gnaw at the same bone, circle and recircle the same grievances, reiterate the same mutual recriminations, and blame each other for their agony. Why they stay in the marriage is often as puzzling as why they can't get beyond their mutual antagonism.

A second pattern is found in couples 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.

For some couples, however, the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change. This outcome illustrates that therapy has the potential to help couples reinvent their marriage by mining the resilience and resourcefulness each partner brings to the table.

Read about the first type of couple here and find the other two patterns in my upcoming HuffPost blog posts.

Stuck in the Past

"Every time I can't get Marc on the phone, I'm reminded of how he wouldn't answer when he was with the other women," says Debbie, still bitter three years after she discovered his affair--the latest in a string of extramarital dalliances. Married to Marc for 14 years, she decided to remain with him ostensibly to preserve the family. She constantly makes him feel that he's lucky she didn't kick him out, as if he's the only one who stands to lose everything they've built if they divorce.

Since the transgression, Debbie has assumed a sense of moral superiority, believing that Marc has never fully owned up to the wrongness of his behavior. In her eyes, forgiving him wouldn't repair the marriage, but would instead effectually give him a clean slate, allowing him to feel that he no longer has any reason to feel guilty. Her refusal to "let bygones be bygones," as she sarcastically put it, was evident when they talked about sex. "I want to make love," Debbie said, "but it would be as if I'm telling him everything is OK now." They haven't had sex since the affair three years ago, except during the few days right after the discovery, when sex is often used to ward off loss.

There's no way that he can be reassuring about his renewed commitment to her, Marc says, when she only responds to him with biting sarcasm and condescension. Often, he adds, she ruins what might be perfect moments between them--their daughter's piano recital or a dinner with friends. "There are no perfect moments," she sneers. With a tired voice, he tells her, "I'm here and I'm ready to rebuild." She replies, "I haven't made up my mind." She felt so rejected by Marc that she still doesn't feel that he really wants to be with her, she explains. Their dialogue has become rigid, narrow, and predictable.

When Debbie brings up the affairs, Marc alternates between justifying and blaming himself. He says that she was no innocent bystander, citing her continual criticism of him and hair-trigger temper that predated his adulteries. While the dismal state of their marriage before his affairs was a joint production, Marc says, Debbie refuses to take any responsibility for her part in the decline of the relationship in the past or the present. He thinks he's expressed shame, guilt, and remorse, but it just won't ever be enough. Infidelity remains at the epicenter of their relationship, and they tag it onto every disagreement between them.

In fact, it's likely that the pair would have had the same miserable interactions had there been no infidelity. Couples like these live in a permanent state of contraction, sharing a cell in marital prison. To the betrayed spouse, the betrayer becomes the sum total of the transgressions, with few redeeming qualities. To the betrayer, the betrayed spouse becomes the sum total of a vengeful fury. I'm reminded of this phrase: "Resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die."

When couples like Marc and Debbie come to therapy, it's often at the insistence of the partner who endured the affair, who seeks somebody who can honor his or her grief, dismay, and turmoil. Just as often, betrayed partners need moral confirmation, viewing themselves as the victims and their partners as perpetrators, if not unredeemable villains. A first step is explaining to them that wholesale condemnation distracts them from tackling the real relationship issues. I introduce a neutral perspective that allows us to explore the motives and meaning of the affair. But in these highly reactive couples, there's little room for neutrality, because the partners take the call for self-reflection as a personal attack: "Are you saying that because I fall asleep at 9 o'clock every night that it's my fault he had an affair?" a betrayed spouse will practically shriek. "So what if I want nothing to do with you sexually? I refuse to take the blame for your cheating!"

I also have to address the obsession with the affair that seems to stay at the center of these relationships, sometimes for years. The betrayed person relentlessly replays the stories in his head and hunts for lies, even if it's humiliating to do so. He turns himself into an amateur detective. One betrayed partner told me, "I check her computer, I go into her phone. When I left for a weekend, I kept calling home and got no answer. When I found out that she'd left the kids with her sister, I instantly thought she was seeing him again." To which his wife answered with bitter resignation, "He never actually asks me, he just assumes." Accurate information--the spouse was engaged in some perfectly innocent activity--diffuses the distrust, but the calm lasts only until the next bout of insecurity. This cycle makes it impossible for the betrayed partner to feel loved again.

I believe that genuine trust rests on our ability to tolerate what we don't know about the other, and as long as we're driven to uncover every detail, we can't trust. In these couples, past experiences of abandonment and rejection loom large and keep trust from being reestablished. Reclaiming a sense of reality after the revelation of the affair is essential for the betrayed spouse, but some remain tethered to their investigative quest--rifling through credit card statements and cell phone bills, repeatedly pressing the browser's "back" button, listening in on phone calls.

In an effort to allay their anxieties, these spouses establish a regime of control in which intimacy is confused with surveillance. Their myriad questions are less about honoring closeness than about intrusiveness. The interrogations, the injunctions, and even the forensic evidence fail to assuage their fundamental fears. I help them move their stance from detective to researcher or explorer. Rather than scavenge for the sordid details, it would be more enlightening to ask questions that probe the meaning of the affair, like: How did your lover illuminate other parts of you? Did you think of me when this was going on? Were you afraid to lose me, our family, the kids? At what point did you realize you wanted to stay? If an affair is a solo enterprise, making meaning of it becomes a joint venture. Couples like Marc and Debbie, unfortunately, don't get to these questions. They want their partner fixed. For them, therapy seems more a part of the penance rather than a mending experience--there's no absolution in sight.

One feature fueling an inability to move on can be the unyielding hurt. I asked another of my clients what he longs for in his relationship, now that he's five years past his wife's multiple affairs. He replies, "To go back to six years ago." He tells her, "I used to think, no matter what, I was your man. And you just abandoned me." For him, it's the inconsolable grief that keeps him feeling unsafe and in a permanent state of unhappiness. For her, a tortured sense of guilt and failure is unending. Witnessing his unbearable pain reinforces the magnitude of her shame and guilt. In the meantime, life with children and work goes on, but the emotional abscess doesn't drain.

For these couples, it's hard to look back because they never went forward. The affair has become the narrative of their union. The marriage may technically survive, but their couplehood is dying on the vine. When infidelity becomes the hallmark of a couple's life, something has been broken that can't be made whole again. The relationship is permanently crippled.

This is the first in a three-part blog series. The second installment will appear Wednesday October 27th.


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