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? 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.
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 okay 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." Their dialogue has become rigid, narrow, and predictable.
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!"
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. Most couples 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 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."
Reinventing the Self
Couples who can successfully recover from an infidelity often display a significant shift in language: From "you" and "me" to "our," from "when you did this to me" to "this was an event in our life." They talk about "When we had our crisis," recounting a shared experience. Now they're joint scriptwriters, sharing credit for the grand production of their life together.
Couples who think in absolutes are less able to integrate the infidelity into the new substance of their marriage and likelier to get stuck in the past. For them, the affair is entirely bad and destructive, a transgression against commitment and morality. Complete remorse, followed by dramatic confession, unqualified promises of "never again," unconditional forgiveness, and categorical absolution are the only acceptable outcomes. But things are more fluid for those who see an affair as an event that, no matter how painful, may contain the seeds of something positive. Such couples understand that forgiveness doesn't happen all at once, and they feel okay with partial forgiveness. To be sure, after betrayal, trust isn't likely to be total. When declarations like "How can I ever trust you again?" are made by such couples, I often interject, "Well it depends. Trust for what?"
People stray for many reasons—tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust. At times, an affair is a quest for intensity, a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be liberating, a source of strength, a healing. And frequently it's all these things at once. Some affairs are acts of resistance; others happen when we offer no resistance at all. Straying can sound an alarm for the marriage, signaling an urgent need to pay attention to what ails it. Or it can be the death knell that follows a relationship's last gasping breath. I tell my patients that most of us in the West today will have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. For those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person. An affair may spell the end of a first marriage, as well as the beginning of a new one.
Esther Perel, MA, LMFT, is the author of the international bestseller Mating in Captivity, the consultant on the Showtime series The Affair. She’s currently writing a new book called The State of Affairs: Cheating in the Age of Transparency. Her TED Talk has reached more than 5 million people.
This blog is excerpted from "After the Storm" by Esther Perel. The full version is available in the September/October 2010 issue,
Illustration © iStock
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