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After the Storm - Page 6

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."

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