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After the Storm - Page 3

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.

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