She entered my therapy office like a dead woman walking. Her face was sullen, blank – empty and her body physically frail. His eyes looked lost – full of guilt, remorse, and bloodshot from lack of sleep. There was a rage humming just beneath the surface, but she was clearly too emotionally exhausted to express it. This couple was presenting much like other couples do when they enter a therapy room for the first time after suffering an affair. I felt honored and privileged they had chosen to come here to allow me the opportunity to help, hear their story, and assist them in hearing one another at this pivotal crisis point in their young lives. There is always hope, and the fact that they showed up provides evidence of it. I felt a weight on my shoulders heavier than usual – aside from the days I worked as a suicide hotline counselor – because I knew I had a huge responsibility to serve them as a partner in saving their marriage and the life they had built together. I knew there was a long-term marriage and a family at stake… childhoods hung in the balance, lives stood to be forever changed... and this made me even more motivated to help them in any way I could.
They sat looking to me, waiting for my cues, while I allowed them to decide who would speak first. His hand moved from his lap reaching for her hand and I watched her tuck hers away between her knees, rebuffing him. Both of their eyes filling with tears, looking away from one another, my mind summoning my neurological files, downloading my years of training and then returning back to the heavy emotional presence in the room. Therapeutically, an affair is so much more than meets the eye. I see it like a ball of yarn that we slowly unravel together throughout the therapy process until we get to the core. At the core there is usually a reason for both individuals why it happens. It’s not the immediate act, the sex, the lies – it's not that there is something better outside of the relationship – or any of the things that maybe some people think an affair is. It’s complex, deep, and unique for each couple. There are often layers of issues that bring a couple here into my therapy office, as they are at this moment, fighting for their life together and for the love that joined them together in the first place.
So, I know I am not supposed to say this – I am supposed to be positive, hopeful, and full of happy thoughts about relationships. Well, I am all of these things… but I need to be real, too. Marriage is hard work at times. Life can be challenging and often full of very difficult situations. People join together in marriage and in relationships carrying along with them emotional baggage. Everyone, no matter who they are, carries baggage – wounds from the past that color how we see the world and relate to others. When an affair occurs, this baggage is always involved in one way or another. In therapy, as couples tell their story, it’s my job to identify that baggage and see how it's affecting the marriage or relationship. I am like a detective in many ways… asking my clients to take me back to the scene of the crime, a wound created in youth, perhaps, so I can understand how it is being rehashed in their relationship. It’s my task to help the couple to understand one another’s wounds, how it’s quite possible that they can “re-injure” one another in their relationship, and how they have dealt with those injuries that have led them to this place. Also, if things come full circle, I help them learn how their love can serve one another in healing those very wounds.
Back to my therapy office – she begins to recount what has been happening in their life over the last few years – a series of massive stressors in multiple areas of their life. The level of stress is sky high for both of them – financial issues, family discord amongst others – and they are both reacting and coping in ways that aren’t very healthy and, more importantly, very damaging to their marriage. The events that were occurring were not solely the problem... it was what it was triggering in them from their pasts as well. I begin to see each of their wounds and pain more clearly throughout therapy and realize the roles those wounds were/are playing in their marital problems and as a foundation that set the stage for the affair. This is the process. So often the couple deeply cares for and loves the partner still, but has chosen to Band-Aid their pain and reach outside of the marriage/relationship instead of dealing with it head on.
How then can you protect your marriage or relationship? There are many things you can do to decrease the chances that your marriage will become yet another statistic. To start, you have to know your wounds and your partner’s wounds. By this, you need to understand each other’s past and the things that were hurtful and damaging to your partner. If one or both of you needs individual therapy at any point – seek it. If there is a particularly difficult time and you notice your partner struggling or if you are struggling – don’t hesitate to get support or demand that they get support. When couples allow the struggle to go on and don’t seek help… that’s when the situation can turn to an affair or some other negative outcome. High stress periods are when these wounds from our past put couples at an even greater risk for an affair.
Secondly, be close to one another emotionally. Be aware of feelings – be open and ask your partner to be open. Oftentimes, when the stress goes up, couples go “parallel”. By going parallel, I mean they disconnect and go about taking care of life in survival mode. A woman may turn to taking care of her children and managing the house while the man may be engulfed in his work. Worse yet, a dual earning family with all the responsibilities of running a family, and with both partners working with an additional stressor on top (for instance an ill family member or aging parent) can cause a couple to be so overwhelmed that they stop nurturing one another and their relationship. They stop having sex, being intimate, being present. They blame, they hurt one another, they fight – and they become one another’s pain instead of one another’s soother.
Be aware of feelings lurking beneath the surface. Resentment, anger, sadness, fears are all top culprits. Talk about your stressors with one another and what they bring up emotionally for each of you. Make time away from it all – kids, family, jobs, responsibilities – to just be with one another. Seek out alone time to re-connect, talk about things, listen without judgment, and listen to gain insight and understanding. Be open and receptive to whatever your partner brings to you as a concern or feeling and make a conscious effort to not shut them down by reacting with your own feelings. Be there for them, be a place they want to come home to. If you stop being that to one another, there can be a desire to get that need met outside. Always be asking your partner these types of questions: What do you need from me? What do you need now in this difficult time? What would make you feel better? How can we do this together? What can I do better? Also, make your needs known – let them know what you need from them and why – and better yet, how they can give it to you. When people stop talking or listening – this is when they get in trouble. Two people are responsible in a relationship to keep things healthy and happy. It takes effort from each person.
An affair does not always mean there isn’t love anymore… every scenario is different. Mostly, people are still deeply in love with one another – even during an affair. It’s just that their needs were not met within the relationship, and one or the other (or both) has made the terrible and damaging decision to seek it outside. For some couples an affair will strengthen their relationship – but a lot of pain and work is entailed in reparation. Some make it, some don’t. An affair is never the answer and leaves permanent, lifelong scars. It takes a lot of love and commitment to move forward in a relationship after an affair, and it is a certain testament to true love to survive it, and thrive after it. It never ceases to amaze me the power and strength of real love – the kind that will suffer, heal and forgive. I have been lucky enough to witness this in my therapy office… it is amazing. For every couple that makes it, many do not. Again, love can still exist, but sometimes couples or individuals within the relationship cannot or are unwilling to do the work necessary to repair the damage. Oftentimes, people cannot forgive as well. The ones that make it learn from it – and make changes. Sometimes a partner leaves their partner for the person they had the affair with – and that rarely works either. Eventually, the same issues crop up as relationships are only as healthy as the individuals.
I feel compelled to say one more thing about love in light of the subject matter, because I feel we often miss the mark in defining it… love is knowing what someone will say before they say it, it’s knowing their walk in a sea of others, it’s knowing the child, their past, their faults, their struggles, it’s an admiration of their mind and body and a deep appreciation for their character and their soul. Lifelong love is nothing short of amazing. All of this takes time to build, and an affair is a crushing and unfortunate insult to such a sacred thing. Love is what we live for – not surface, not fleeting, not meaningless sex, not temporary gratification – we live for real, deep, accepting, connected love. An affair is none of these things.
Let me share a story from my own marriage. My husband and I enjoy sailing – and one night we anchored the sailboat and took our tiny dingy from the sailboat to shore in the pitch dark to a small island bar called “Foxy’s Taboo”. It was one of those experiences that is seared into my memory bank… the rum, the reggae band playing, the tropical breeze, the dancing, the romance. It was pure magic. My husband disappeared from the table and returned with the manager. He had asked if we could shop in the boutique (which was actually closed) for a souvenir for our kids and myself, and the employee obliged. As I looked around for something cool for the kids, my husband asked for a necklace from the case. It was a geode. A really pretty, one of a kind, natural pendant, and it was a vibrant turquoise, the color of the Caribbean that we had swum in all week. It hung on a silver chain. He came up from behind me, looped it around me and kissed my neck. I stared at it, thinking what a beautiful memento this will be of this night. Forward months later, one morning while dressing, I accidentally dropped it on my tile floor in my bathroom – and cringed as I went to pick it up fearing I had cracked it and knowing it wasn’t replaceable. I slowly opened my fist to reveal a hairline crack and sighed with disappointment…
The next morning, my husband spied it laying on my vanity. “Oh, yeah, " I said, "So sad… I dropped it on the tile yesterday – cracked it.” I asked him if he thought it could be fixed. He picked it up, scrutinizing it, “Nope – not possible," he quipped. He went behind me and looped it over my neck and kissed the nape of my neck, just like he did that memorable night, and said something profound that I will always remember. “Heath, broken things – they are sometimes more beautiful.”
Actually, I thought, he’s right. In all of our twenty-five years together, we have been broken many times. Our love tested by many difficult life circumstances – more than I could count. And I can honestly say we are stronger than ever having grown from these times and we’ve become closer on all levels. Broken things… they have character, they are stronger, they hold wisdom, history, and they have stood the test of time and have a unique patina to show for it. Love that grows and lasts is beautiful. Yes indeed, sometimes, broken things are more beautiful.