Marriage at the Turning Point

Marriage at the Turning Point

The Affair as Crisis and Opportunity

By Don-David Lusterman

May/June 1989

Back in the 1950s, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Hollywood's perfect young couple, shocked their fan-magazine public by divorcing after Fisher's scandalous affair with Elizabeth Taylor. In those innocent times, lots of people, myself included, took this spectacle very seriously. Newly married, not yet a therapist, I could barely conceive of divorce, let alone infidelity. Affairs happened in movies, but almost never involved "real people," even "real" movie stars. Furthermore, I could not believe Reynold's claims of ignorance about what was going on right under her nose. Didn't she notice that Eddie was always coming home late from the studio? Or that his tie was askew? Or that he didn't croon love songs to her any more? Didn't she notice that their marriage was failing?

Today, after thousands of hours spent with couples struggling through their own infidelity crises, I know that both victim and unfaithful spouse often believe that their marriage was just fine until the affair struck from nowhere,

like a perverse tornado. Victims, particularly, often believe their unfaithful mates have been stolen or seduced or bewitched away, as if against their will. My goal is not merely to help these couples weather the crisis and patch things up, but to help them understand how both spouses created the marital context that made an affair possible, and how the crisis itself can be the spring board to a healthier, more satisfying relationship.

By infidelity, I do not mean occasional one-night stands, compulsive philander ing, or a mutual "understanding" between spouses that theirs is a non-monogamous marriage. Rather, I refer to the consistent violation of trust by one spouse, who carries on one or more long-term affairs while his or her mate still assumes a relationship founded on mutual trust and fidelity. Generally, among couples I have seen, the infidel is a man, the victim a woman, though I have treated male victims whose reactions were very like those of women. Perhaps because of the stigma attached to being cuckolded, fewer men seem willing to expose themselves in therapy, and many prefer to move quickly towards divorce.

When Dora called, she had just discovered her husband's infidelity. She told me he had admitted to the affair, but said it was over, and that he did not want to hear any more about it. She felt very angry, and couldn't believe even now that he was telling her the truth. When I saw Tom and Dora, she was tearful and red-eyed as she described a fight they'd had in the car. Tom sat silent and stone-faced, only speaking to insist that the affair was finished and he saw no reason for bringing it up. I explained that it was necessary, because Dora felt that she had been a vic tim of Tom's dishonesty, and was over flowing with anger against him and the woman. "Right now, she feels she'd be a fool to trust you ever again," I told him. "It's important to both of you to begin talking about this loss of trust and its consequences."

"Right!" Dora snapped. "How can you ever trust a liar?" I was glad to hear Dora's outburst, because until the issue of trust is explored and dealt with, there can be no progress in therapy. Furthermore, both spouses must leave this critical first session with the sense that I understand their dilemma, that the crisis ends a long chain of events which must be explored, and that I have a plan for treatment.

Contrary to common belief, the victim's rage doesn't focus on the extramarital sex. Even if he has convinced her that there was no sex, she is still furious—shocked and angered by both his secrecy and her own gullibility. She is deeply grieved by her husband's intimacy with someone else—intimacy that she believed was hers alone. The infidel is by turns silent, apologetic, defensive, protective of the other woman, and ambivalent about the marriage. He finds his wife's anger threatening and repellent. Her rage can indeed take on majestic proportions, but until she feels it rightfully acknowledged by both husband and therapist, no other marital issues can be productively explored. Even as other problems are raised in future sessions, I remain alert to the resurfacing of distrust, ready to return as often as necessary until the issue is resolved.

Towards the end of the meeting, I tell the couple that the purpose of therapy will be to work towards a better marriage or a better divorce. When Tom asks, "What's a better divorce?" I answer that a non-adversarial divorce protects children from being caught in angry crossfire, and helps the couple mourn the death of their marriage, rather than spending years in endless and exhausting disputes. In a "good marriage," I explain, people talk to each other freely and honestly about what bothers them, so that they can work together to solve problems that might otherwise fracture the relationship. In my waiting room is a framed reproduction of a Chinese word, meaning crisis, which is composed of two characters, one meaning danger, the other, opportunity. I ask Tom and Dora if they can look at their own crisis as an opportunity for personal growth, a thought they seem to find appealing.

In almost every case I have treated, Dora's question, "How can you ever again trust a liar?" is critical, and must never be shunted aside. Barbara and Leo came to therapy when she discovered that he had been involved in an affair for several years. She was particularly pained because he had had an affair about 10 years earlier. They consulted then with a therapist who told Barbara that she found her constant expressions of anger "boring," and pressed her to overcome her "jealousy and possessiveness prob lem." At the time, Barbara meekly agreed, but now she realized her anger had never been resolved, only suppressed. "I felt so betrayed," she said, "by him, his girlfriend, my own stupidity, and by Dr. X too. She and Leo ganged up on me and shut me up. So how am I supposed to feel now?" I explained to both of them that anger is a normal and healthy reaction to feeling betrayed. "You'd better be prepared," I told Leo, "for plenty more. She is angry about what happened. She's afraid you're still doing it. And she's checking back constantly over all the lies you told to cover the affair." Leo listened intently as I told him that she needed from him not only an honest admission of the affair, but a sense that he was truly remorseful for the years of deceit.

Bill and Claire's situation was different. Bill stubbornly denied that he had had an affair, insisted that he wanted to remain married, but couldn't stand Claire's irrational outbursts. Yet, I felt that an affair was indeed going on, and in an individual session, Bill told me that he was deeply involved with a woman at work. He did not consider this an "affair," since they had not had intercourse. Instead, they spent many hours together talking very tenderly about work, their personal lives, and their feelings for one another. I said that keeping secret a deep involvement with someone else, whether sexual or not, made marital therapy based on honest and mutual self-disclosure an impossibility. Bill refused even to consider telling Claire about his "platonic" friendship, but finally, reluctantly agreed temporarily not to see the woman while he worked on his own marriage.

Claire was still convinced that Bill was having an affair and lying about it. Nonetheless, because he was not seeing the woman for the time being, we resumed conjoint meetings. After a few sessions he admitted that he had been attracted to a co-worker, and that Claire's suspicions were not crazy, even though "nothing had happened." Once Bill validated her suspicions and became more willing to talk to her, they could begin honestly to discuss what each saw missing in the marriage.

In another case, after an initial meeting with Tony and Lisa, I met with Tony alone. He admitted to an affair of over three years, including vacations together disguised as "business trips." He refused to give up the affair, but did not want to terminate the marriage either. I told him that I could not see him and his wife together under these circumstances. "I'd be backing you up in a lie, and keeping Lisa in denial." Admitting that he was confused and ambivalent, he agreed to see me alone for a while to think about his own situation, while I saw Lisa individually as well. He feared that his secret would come out during my sessions with Lisa. I assured him that I would not break his confidence. If she expressed suspicion of an affair, however, I would encourage her to check out her feelings, as I would any other patient.

Eventually, he agreed to cease his extramarital relationship, but he claimed that, as a lawyer, he knew that any admissions could be used against him, and so he refused to admit to the affair. Lisa said that she was all but positive that Tony had been unfaithful, but realized that she too had done many things through the years to alienate him. In their first meeting together, she said, "Tony, I assume that you were having an affair, but are too damned stubborn to admit it. I think you've stopped, because you're around home a lot more now. I'm willing to work on what's wrong with our marriage now if you are." Tony sat impassively, neither denying nor confirming what she had said.

The remaining sessions dealt with a long history of very poor communication between two people who loved one another but didn't know how to show it. Some time after this, Tony came in alone, and told me how pleased he was with the change in their marriage. Towards the end of the session, I couldn't resist asking about the other woman. "Oh, her," he said. "I haven't seen her in months. We agreed on a moratorium, but I'm not going back. I couldn't get over how well Lisa handled that confrontation with me." He added that he had been deeply moved by her courage and her commitment to the marriage.

When the affair has just been discovered, the victim feels infuriated and betrayed. By simply admitting the affair the infidel rarely satisfies the victim's need for some kind of emotional catharsis. The infidel may say, in effect, '"Yes, I did this, but now it's over and let's get on with our lives." But the victim wants much more; she wants clear and repeated statements of remorse, and needs to know that he is aware of the pain and feelings of craziness that his dishonesty and unfaithfulness have caused her. She experiences wildly ambivalent emotions about the unfaithful partner, venting intense rage at one moment, experiencing a deep sense of closeness at another, often including passionate sexual longing. The victim may want to spend a great deal of time with the infidel, usually much more than has ever been the couple's normal habit. This period of wild emotional swings can be frightening and disorienting for the infidel, who had never imagined that the affair could generate suchsturm und drang, as if it had existed in a bubble, somehow completely separate from the marriage.

Furthermore, the victim is often obsessively driven to know every detail of the affair, and afterward the infidel will be pressed relentlessly for assurances that the affair has stopped and contrition is deep. One woman, after her husband had admitted an old five-year-long affair, spent frenzied nights searching through his checkbooks, personal diaries, stacks of office papers, and office calendars, to be sure she knew everything,and could never again be fooled.

In another case, long after Roger's wife had admitted and ended her affair, Roger still called her as often as 10 times a day from his office to be sure that she was at home when she said she would be. He insisted that she write out a daily schedule of her whereabouts so that he could check on her. Frequently, he left his office in the middle of the day and drove nearly an hour to drop in on her at work, or at the beauty parlor, or at a P.TA meeting. At night, he woke her to review her day minute by minute, or remind her of still another lie he had recently uncovered from the time of the infidelity. Far from finding Roger's hounding unbearable, his wife admitted it was "kind of a turn-on," and both agreed that they felt an intensified sexual passion for each other.

Such behavior is to be expected and may persist for a long time, even alternating with periods of increased closeness. The victim is angry that the affair ever happened, and even more afraid that it is still continuing. Sometimes the betrayed spouse uncovers old information that simply opens the wound: "You bought her awhat!!?? She may mistake such newly discovered evidence of the past infidelity as proof that the affair is continuing. The therapist can expect to receive panicky phone calls and may have to schedule emergency meetings during these times. In truth, these feverish searches rest on the profound hope of the victim, who also feels distaste for this process, not to find the very evidence being sought. The victim needs the support and patience of the spouse, because each such episode that ends reassuringly is a step towards reconciliation.

Restoring trust also involves the victim's recognition that the infidel needs her support as well. After breaking off an affair, he may feel depression, grief, shame, and the fear that, no matter what he does—stay or leave—he is going to hurt someone. When the victim can accept these emotions and really listen to the infidel, progress is more rapid. And, it is very touching to see two people in so much pain reach out to comfort one another.

Arthur and Jean came in following a six-month separation after Jean had discovered Arthur's infidelity. About a year earlier, she had been in intensive individual therapy for severe agoraphobia. During that time, she said, she had been a "real pain," and Arthur had been very patient with her clinging and whining. In an early session, she was outraged to learn that he had had another "fling," as he called it, after they had gotten back together. She told him that she did not consider this a "fling" but a final betrayal. At this point, Arthur seemed to collapse. He had always appeared at sessions dapper, cheerful, charming. Now he arrived unkempt, sometimes unshaven, red-eyed, and filled with remorse. He had broken with the other woman for good, but felt both guilt about his treatment of Jean, and sadness about giving up the other relationship. He found himself calling the other woman and hanging up, following her car, wondering what she was doing and with whom, but resisting the urge to contact her again. He told Jean how he felt, how he hated what he had done to her, but how he still desperately craved the excitement of the affair. He associated the other woman with his frenetically glamorous "high life" as an arbitrageur—lots of fast money, easy coke, and "foxy ladies."

Jean commiserated with him, saying that they had both had a hard time. Living with her agoraphobia, she pointed out, had been tough on him too. Now she encouraged him as he poured out his confusion about work and relationships— his fear that he could never be good for anyone, his mistress, his kids, his parents. "Maybe I'm just a selfish bastard," he said, unable to hold back his tears. Months of anguished soul searching followed, with gradual transformations in his work and home life. For the first time, Arthur and Jean found themselves talking to each other as trusted friends, and five years after therapy they agree their marriage is now better than when they were first wed.

During therapy I often encourage the couple to take risks in speaking honestly with each other. They may eventually discover together that their marriage can never work. A couple came in because their bright and usually academically successful children had begun to do very poor work in school. During early sessions with the family, the tension between the parents was so obvious that I scheduled a period to speak with them alone. The husband knew of his wife's current affair, but tolerated it because he had done the same thing in the past. These affairs, both agreed, distracted them from their sense of being trapped in their own bleak relationship. They no longer loved each other, but could not bear the thought of breaking up their family and injuring their children. They finally agreed to a trial separation, to which the children seemed to adjust surprisingly well. After about six months of therapy, the parents decided to divorce. By this time, the school reported that the children were doing well again.

Once trust is on the way to being restored, the second phase of therapy begins—an examination of what led to the infidelity. We discuss first their courtship and early marriage. How did they deal with serious differences of opinion? Were there differences of values? Were they discussed and resolved satisfactorily, or left unspoken? Generally, reviewing the early days of courtship and marriage tends to bring the couple closer, as they laugh and sometimes cry together, remembering the mutual love and trust they once felt for each other. These reminiscences may even begin a re-bonding process. One couple came into therapy with a long history of sexual problems culminating in his affair. As we talked about their courtship, they recalled the hours they spent in his car talking, holding hands, watching the sunset, hugging and kissing. Both came from divorced homes, and had promised each other they would build a secure home for their own children. Now they realized they had poured all their energies into parenting and neglected their own sexual relationship, which had all but died. They later reported that this session helped them begin talking about what they still shared, and the value their marriage still held for both of them.

Another couple remembered being forced to marry by their parents because she was pregnant. She felt betrayed, he felt ashamed, both felt imprisoned. His first affair began with a woman he met in a bar the day his wife gave birth. Eventually, this couple decided to divorce, but without bitterness and acrimony. Mourning their failed marriage, they nonetheless could agree they had done a good job raising their daughter and would continue doing so. They agreed to mediation and arranged very liberal visitation rights.

I also explore the model of marriage that each experienced growing up. Did either know of or suspect infidelity in their parents' marriage? In one case, a male infidel denied that his father ever had an affair. But his wife remembered that, during their own courtship, his mother had told her about his father's philandering and warned her not to marry the son. The couple had been married for 15 years, but this was the first time he had heard the story. As they talked, they began to see parallels between the two marriages. "Your mother controlled everything," the wife said, "the way she raised you kids, how money was spent, and what friends they had. I think I do a lot of that too." They began talking about their own relationship, rather than fighting over his affair.

We then discuss crisis points in the marriage, like the death of a child, responsibility for aging parents, or radical shifts in work. Healthy couples can weather such crises by freely and openly telling each other how they feel. When couples can't talk to each other, however, each crisis seems to drive emotions fur ther underground. Almost invariably, the inability to talk honestly about their dis tress increases the likelihood of infidelity.

In the final phase of therapy, we build on a couple's newly discovered ability to acknowledge and support each other. At this point, I often ask, "What is better in your marriage?" One wife recent ly answered, "I don't feel like a victim any more. Now I can see how we both con tributed to this mess, so I'm not so damned angry all the time. Last week he was late coming home, and I didn't even call the Long Island Railroad to check on his story!"

Sometimes couples are stuck. After a number of sessions, a husband was asked, "What's better?" He replied, "Basically, nothing." She confirmed this with a discouraged look I suggested that we explore the possibility of separation or divorce, and we discussed different methods (adversarial or mediated), how to explain it to children, and the spouses' own fantasies about what their lives would be like independent of each other. In this case, the couple began talking seriously about separating. Sometimes, though, merely talking about the grim specifics of divorce can drive couples back to thoughts of how they might improve their marriage.

Even in this final phase, issues of trust and old grievances continue to surface.

In one case, a husband had long withheld information from his wife about serious business problems. For years he had assumed the macho position of protector, while she had played the protected little woman. Both acknowledged that this collusion prevented mutual honesty or empathy. Over time, he was able to see that his secretiveness about business was as much a source of distrust for her as his affair had been. He also realized the connection between his frequent headaches and long denied anxieties. Now he felt greatly relieved to share his fears and burdens, while his wife felt happier to be a more important part of his life.

During this phase, I like to discuss everyday marital conduct and courtesy. When couples cannot face each other comfortably at night, they tend to suppress painful issues, which then pile up, increasing feelings of distance and suppressed anger. I encourage couples to review unresolved problems before they end the day. This can be an exhausting process, however, as one couple learned when it took them the entire night to thrash out an issue before they fell into a well-earned sleep.

Few couples I see are good at praising or thanking one another, or even making requests rather than giving orders. Many show affection only as a prelude to sex, and need to learn the importance of tenderness for its own sake. Such couples discover that arguments about withholding or initiating sex are really about the absence of affection. At the same time, once couples have learned to trust each other, they can more easily respect each other's privacy.

Near the very end of therapy, I urge couples to practice their new-found skills. Small successes make a big difference in their everyday lives. They may not always agree, but they learn to view differences as a natural part of life and find their marriage enriched. If their differences are irreconcilable, they will know they are heading for divorce, but they can handle it sensibly, with a minimum of rancor. When they do elect to stay together, however, their marriages are no longer tense charades, clouded by suspicion and anxiety. "In a sense, I'm almost grateful for discovering the affair," one woman said. "We might never have come to know each other." She smiled, "You know what? We're a happily married couple!" •

Don-David Lusterman, Ph.D., is in private practice.


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