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After the Storm

After The Storm

by Esther Perel

The Affair In Retrospect

The desire to find happy endings for sad human stories is probably lodged in most couples therapists' DNA. When the "sad story" is about infidelity that threatens a marriage, therapists generally aim for their favored resolution: saving the marriage. As a field, we've tended to think about this story in terms of a straightforward, three-part narrative: Part 1: A couple is shattered by the discovery of an affair and comes to see us. Part 2: We help them get through the immediate crisis, tend to the underlying wounds in the marriage, and then take a deeper look at childhood scars. We provide compassion and advice as needed, and encourage new trust, forgiveness, and intimacy in the relationship. Part 3: As our preferred denouement, the couple leaves therapy weeks or months later, their marriage repaired, stronger, even transformed—or at least improved. We consider treatment a success; the couple has weathered the storm. Of course, some couples refuse this neat storyline and, instead, use therapy as a gateway out of the marriage altogether. But, hopefully, they still live happily ever after.

However, we typically have no idea what really happens "ever after." Helping couples recover from the immediate crisis is critical, 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?

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