An extra-marital affair is one of the most profound “Stress Tests” of a marriage. Many couples who use this crisis as an opportunity to examine the state of their marriage end up with a more alive, more genuine connection. But others fail this test. What’s the difference between these couples? Here’s what one couple who didn’t make it looks like.
Amy: In an earlier post, “Affair Repair”, I talk about the potential for something good to come out of that most painful of relationship infractions, the affair. In my experience, most of the couples who come for therapy following an affair end up, after doing some painful work, reaping the rewards that come with a deeper, more genuine relationship. This requires time and some typically grueling therapy sessions, and some don’t make it. Here’s a case of a couple who failed that most difficult Marital Stress Test.
As I began thinking about that handful of cases where the couple does not “recover” from the affair, when they split up despite coming for therapy, I wondered what separates these couples from those stay together and gain from the experience. I’ve seen several different scenarios: Occasionally, the problem is that the affair has lasted too long. Too much damage done, too much deception over too long a period. Or the guy who cheated balks at severing the connection with his lover. In other words, the affair is still (semi) going on. He doesn’t want to let it go. No healing can begin while the intruder hangs around. Sometimes, when it’s the woman who has the affair, the man’s pride is injured; his hurt and anger don’t allow him to consider that HE might have had something to do with the sorry state of the marriage pre-affair.
But, sometimes, even without these factors, the marriage fails to recover. This happened with a couple I saw quite a few years ago: The case still stays with me. Here’s a glimpse into their story:
Bill and Esther, a rather proper-looking couple in their early 40’s, came to see me after being referred by Bill’s family doctor. Bill had recently “confessed” to his wife that he had been having an affair for last several months with a woman he’d met at a local bar. When they came to see me, I noted to myself that a confession like Bill’s was unusual. Most cheating guys wait until they are busted, and are cornered into confession. Even then they often deny it. But Bill said he “couldn’t live with himself; he said he “cared about” Esther and loved their two kids. He couldn’t stand the guilt. He needed to figure out what to do.
Indeed, he looked pretty rattled when I first met them. He, in fact, looked much more distressed than Esther. While she admitted to being “shocked” by this betrayal, her tone and demeanor remained rather cool and controlled. She hadn’t yet learned much about the affair, and, strangely, didn’t seem especially curious. It looked like she wanted to keep the affair at arm’s length. But I was curious. I wanted to know what the affair was about for Bill, and what it had to do with his relationship with his wife.
Bill acknowledged that he had “fallen” for this young woman he met at a local bar where he stopped after work. She apparently recently emigrated from Albania and worked as a nanny. He described their relationship as “tumultuous”, (it sounded like he meant “passionate”) and, though he said he ended it in order to work on his marriage, I could hear longing in his voice. He described her as “very demanding”; she didn’t take the ending of the affair very well.
Bill’s wife, Esther, seemed like the antithesis of the passionate, high-maintenance girlfriend. Esther was cool, calm and collected, despite having her world shaken to what should have been the core. In the initial therapy, I knew I needed to help raise the temperature of this marriage. It had been cool for too long. “Cool” as in disengaged, polite, superficial. Since Esther seemed reluctant to show her anger, or her passion– positive or negative– I highlighted the damage Bill caused by the betrayal of his wife. I tried to make Bill sound like a real bastard so Esther could feel free to react. Bill signaled he was ready for a lashing. Actually, I think he wanted it. I think he was begging for it, actually. He would have at least felt that Esther cared enough to retaliate or, at the very least, hold him accountable.
But Esther didn’t oblige. Hmmm. This was a first for me in the therapy setting. As I got to know Esther over the next several sessions, I wondered aloud about her containment. Her responses to my questions about her upbringing yielded some clues. She was the eldest child who grew up in a turbulent home: Her parents bickered constantly and unhappiness permeated the atmosphere. Esther became the parents’ emotional caretaker, navigating their arguments, tending to their wounds. Now elderly, her parents still kept her in that role. Dutiful Daughter. Good Girl. I think she felt unable to escape, though I offered help: I implored Esther to bring her folks in for a session, but she continually declined. I think she was afraid of rocking the boat. As if it hadn’t been rocked!
I guessed that Esther, long-time family peacekeeper, never had the opportunity to have her own temper tantrums; she always had to be the grown-up. I was not-so-secretly rooting for her to lose her cool. I mean really lose her cool. I knew it would be good for the marriage. And definitely good for her.
It never happened. We met for nearly six months. I came to see this couple as very duty-bound; their relationship reeked of obligation, but little fun was had. They refused to bring their kids in, since Esther wanted to “protect” them from any family turmoil. I assured her they knew all about these marital tensions, even without being privy to the details. And I continued to challenge Bill for abandoning his wife for a cheap version of excitement, but to no avail.
I think if Esther could have given in to a long-overdue temper tantrum, this heat may have helped re-charge the relationship battery. The jolt of the affair wasn’t sufficient. The betrayal almost rolled off the collective marital back. I think Esther feared losing control more than losing her husband. I realized, with sadness, that this was what a dead marriage looked like.
I wondered, of course, if part of Esther’s reluctance to confront her husband was part of the Unconscious Marital Contract. Was their unspoken agreement that Esther would always remain the calm one while Bill got to indulge his wild side? Did Esther worry that Bill couldn’t handle a more emotional, demanding wife? Did she think he was too fragile or too rigid? Was this a chance to re-set the marriage, to expand their roles to include more complexity and dynamism?
The therapy revealed that, indeed, Bill got more of a chance to show his temper in the marriage; Esther talked about how Bill was often grouchy, but she attributed this to his work stress. They clearly never, ever, talked about their relationship and their lack of intimacy–sexual and otherwise. Mostly, their marriage was a contained, controlled duet. Bill played the role of dutiful husband and father, but was dying inside. The affair was by far the biggest explosion of their relationship, and, despite Bill’s crazy, hurtful, desperate effort to generate some heat in the marriage, nothing changed.
I wondered, during the course of the therapy, if Bill’s longing for the other woman remained. I believe it did, though the denied it. While he didn’t maintain contact with this woman, I think something in him had been turned on, and he couldn’t turn it off, didn’t want to turn it off. In the therapy he–and I, in different ways–tried to turn it on with his wife, but she remained closed. I think, really, he was longing for passion, sexual and emotional, to feel wanted and needed.
The marriage ended with a whimper, not a bang. Bill decided to separate. The marriage had clearly been dead for a while, probably years before the affair. As the therapist, I wondered what I could have done differently. Perhaps I should have insisted that Bill and Esther bring in their kids. Or that Esther bring in her parents. Usually, expanding the number of people in the therapy setting helps get a “stuck” therapy moving. But I think I came to feel like Bill: I couldn’t get through to Esther, whose closed, predictable world traded aliveness for safety.
I haven’t heard from them since they separated. I have since wondered if Bill reunited with his girlfriend, and, if so, how things worked out. Or if Esther remained single, comfortable in her primary identity as a mother and daughter. In any case, I hope these good people have found a way to secure some morsels of happiness.