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After the Storm - Page 4

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.

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