Tag Archives: betrayal

How Finding out About a Spouse’s Affair is Like a Death

finger wife cryingTears.  Lots of them.  “I am just so tired of hurting.  I want the pain to go away.”  As usual, my heart was breaking for the spouse sitting across from me who had recently discovered that her partner had an extramarital affair.  Like many spouses before, she declared, “Of all the things I thought I knew in the world, I was certain that my spouse would never in a million years be unfaithful and now I don’t know which way is up.  I can’t count on anything anymore.  All my safety is just completely washed away.”  “I am so sorry that this is so painful,” I offered, “I wish I could make that better for you—I really do, but the truth is that it is going to hurt for a long time.  Eventually, it won’t hurt as much, but when I say eventually, I mean that a year is short in affair healing time.”  Even though I’ve been doing therapy for a long time, the emotions still impact me.

I hate seeing people in pain.  I feel things deeply and enduringly, which is what drew me to the therapeutic profession.  I wanted to alleviate emotional suffering for people.  However, there are certain types of pain which need to be healed over the course of time, and sometimes tender emotional scars never go away.  Some of the deepest emotional pain I witness occurs in cases of grief and loss in which relationships with people are ended or intensely damaged.  The loss of human relationships through death, divorce or other means just hurts.  A lot.

Infidelity and Intense Grief

In cases of betrayal, sometimes people don’t understand the principles of grief and loss that are at play which complicate recovery.  Here is a typical presentation I’ll encounter maybe three months after the disclosure of an affair:

Betrayed partner:  “He couldn’t understand why I was still crying about the affair, and I tried to explain that it still hurts and he just got mad and asked why I couldn’t see that he was sorry and just focus on our future.  I don’t know why it’s still hurting so bad.  I’m embarrassed that it is still making me cry.  I don’t want to make him mad, but it hurts.”

Oh dear.

People who have betrayed their spouses don’t like to witness the pain they have caused because it makes them feel shame, which is uncomfortable.  They also commonly feel fear that this might be the emotional episode in which the spouse decides to leave.  Frequently, they get defensive and upset with their spouses for not healing fast enough.  Men in particular, as a general rule, have an aversion to tears and emotional pain resulting from something they have done in relationships.  They want to run from it, regardless of the cause or validity of the emotion.  They feel almost panicky and search for ways to “fix,” the emotion, which means make it stop.  I think it’s because they get so socialized out of feeling vulnerable emotion themselves that they literally have no idea what to do with it when their spouses display strong vulnerable emotion, at least in many instances.

How Infidelity is a Loss Issue

In cases like these, I normalize the intensity of emotional pain for both partners, but also try to help them understand the deep grief.  I have explained to many husbands, “This is a loss issue, and loss is always painful.”  “What do you mean loss?  I’m still here.  Why can’t she see that I’m trying to fix it and I’m sorry,” the husbands fire back.  I’ll explain, “She can see you, but first of all, she has no idea who you really are because you’re not who she thought you were, so she needs time and safe experiences with you to be able to even think about trusting you.  Second of all, she is still grieving the marriage she thought she had but doesn’t have and will never get back—the marriage in which her partner stayed faithful to her.  She married you with that expectation and has lost that dream.  She needs time to be sad over losing that marriage.”

When I explain this, partners can be a little more tolerant of the deep expression of emotions.  However, for some reason when it comes to emotional injuries, we want people to be better faster than is reasonable to expect—mostly because we don’t like feeling our own uncomfortable emotions when seeing emotional pain.

Physical Pain as a Metaphor for Emotional Pain

Sometimes if I compare the wound of infidelity to a physical injury, partners understand a little better.  “What if you had run over her with your car and she ended up in a body cast?  Would you be getting upset that she wasn’t walking in a week?  No, you wouldn’t, because you would know that the injury takes time to heal.  If while she was in a body cast she told you her pain was flaring up, would you say, ‘It’s been 6 weeks since I ran over you.  Why do you insist on focusing on the pain instead of looking ahead to the future?’  No, you wouldn’t, because you would realize that sometimes pain flares up.  Emotional injuries are the same.  You don’t get to argue with her about whether she is in pain.  Your job is to move toward her and say, ‘Show me where it hurts,’ as if it were a physical injury.  You can’t fix this for her, but you can just be with her and ask if there is anything you can to do reassure her or help her feel more comfortable or safe.  If there isn’t, you just sit with it.  If you want, you can talk about how uncomfortable and sad it is for you to see the pain you caused, but you can’t argue about whether the pain is valid or demand that she heals right away.”

Relationship loss is searing, no matter the type, and infidelity is a type of relationship loss.  Partners need time to grieve and be sad.  Most importantly, they need to be validated and comforted in their pain.  As long as it takes.

Again, people always want emotional pain from infidelity to heal faster than it does—both the betrayed partner and the offending partner.  My experience is that in affair time, it’s not uncommon to see people have deep emotional triggers regularly for at least two years.

If your partner betrayed you, know that the disorientation, fear and hurt are normal.  Give yourself time to grieve the loss of the marriage you thought you had, just like you would give yourself time to grieve the death of a loved one or a lost relationship.  Eventually, grief diminishes in intensity, but if grief is criticized and shut down by a partner instead of honored and respected, it will last longer.  Clinically, I tell people to write when they are experiencing episodes of grief.  Articulating pain through writing is a way to manage emotional intensity.  Intentional self-care and deep breathing and meditation can also be helpful.

You’re not crazy if you’re in intense pain months after discovering a spouse’s infidelity—you’re just a human with a big attachment injury.  I don’t know if time heals all wounds, because some wounds can persist for decades, but usually time does decrease emotional intensity.

Photo: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Typical Signs of Infidelity

11530941 - jealous wife, overhearing a phone conversation her husband“Here’s the thing,” I was explaining to one of the spouses that had recently come in for marriage therapy, “Your actions in here are very much like someone who is having an extramarital affair; I’m not just talking about physical or sexual contact—emotional affairs where you actually never see the person can be just as powerful.  I’m only going to ask you one time—are you at all involved with another person who is competing with your spouse for your affection and attention?  You can lie to me, and I’ll have no choice but to play along, but I can promise you that if you are involved in an affair, marriage therapy will not help you and you might as well go burn your money in the parking lot.”

This is a question I have had to ask repeatedly since starting marriage therapy in 1989.  Sometimes the answer is a solid, “No,” and sometimes there is an admission of a hidden dalliance.  However, if I’m asking the question to a spouse alone after meeting with the couple for a few sessions (since it’s an initial screening question), it’s because I’m about 90% certain that the spouse is having an affair and lying about it.  I can usually tell by how they are engaging in therapy.  More often than not, I eventually find out that I was correct and the person was indeed carrying on a hidden romantic relationship with someone else.

Sometimes I have been surprised that the spouse can’t see the signs of an affair.  Most of the time it’s because he/she cannot imagine that the partner could ever choose such duplicitous behavior, which is why the eventual revelation of betrayal is so devastating.

Here are clues that tip me off that a partner might be hiding an affair:

  1. They are very protective of their phones.  If your spouse won’t let you near his/her phone or it is always password protected, it’s quite possible that he/she is hiding communication with someone else.  They will use the excuse that they are entitled to their privacy, but as a general rule, people who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.
  2. They will let you see their phones but…the history and messages are deleted or  you see messages and contacts for people you don’t recognize.  People are very good at disguising names of their affair partners.
  3. They are suddenly taking more care with appearance.  It’s not uncommon for people in affairs to suddenly be more worried about their looks and hygiene.  They obsess over wardrobe choices, work out more to be physically in shape, spend more time at the tanning bed, wear make-up to the gym, and generally spend more time in front of the mirror.  Take note that if these behaviors are normal and ongoing for someone, it’s not a strong affair indicator.  Sometimes people preparing for divorce will do the same things even though they aren’t actively having affairs.
  4. They are suddenly a lot more distant and irritable or a lot more solicitous and loving.  The point here is that a sudden ongoing shift in behavior can be suspect.  Sometimes spouses will be more annoyed with their partners, aloof or distant for no apparent reason, or they will be more attentive, because their mood is lifted by the affair, and/or because they feel guilty and are trying to make up for it.
  5. Their behavior in the bedroom is suddenly different.  This is related to #3, where they can be more or less attentive suddenly.  It’s also the case that they might be learning new behaviors with a different partner and are trying them out.  Please note that just because your spouse wants to try something new doesn’t mean infidelity is occurring, but this is just one of several possible indicators taken as a whole.
  6. There are sudden changes in routine with no reasonable explanation. Longer and unexplained absences can be indicative of an affair.  Sudden and persistent shifts in past routines sometimes parallel a spouse meeting up with someone else.
  7. They are getting up in the middle of the night to use the computer, when this wasn’t a pattern before.  Lots of clandestine connections happen while the spouse is asleep and unaware.
  8. They have more password protection.  Changing passwords or setting up accounts without giving a spouse the password are sometimes clues to extramarital behavior.
  9. There is general weirdness and new, unexplained behavior.  I know this is kind of a catch-all category, but that’s because there is so much variation from case to case.  Spouses often have a sense that something is different, but can’t quite identify what’s happening.  Also, spouses who are having affairs do lie.  A lot.  That’s part of the infidelity—the deception.  When confronted, if they aren’t ready to come clean, they can get very defensive and make their spouses feel crazy for suggesting such a thing.  They gaslight.

You’re probably seeing the common theme that a big indicator of infidelity is a sudden shift in behavior, so the spouse feels different somehow.  This list isn’t predictive, but if you’re seeing a combination of several things on this list and your gut is telling you there is something wrong, you might want to check into it.  Please note that many spouses really have no idea that their partners were having affairs, because the partners were so adept at hiding it.  Sometimes, part of the injury is that the betrayed partners feel so ashamed that they didn’t see the signs.  This actually happens a lot.

Unexpected Affair Partners

Sometimes people experience complex betrayal when their partners had affairs with other people close to them.  They don’t usually expect other people with whom they have a relationship to betray them.  If a spouse had an affair with a co-worker, it’s painful, but it’s also a commonly perceived risk factor.  Meeting people in hotel bars or at work events while traveling is another acknowledged risk factor which doesn’t surprise people, even though the betrayal hurts.  If they don’t know the affair partner, they feel pain, but they can easily villainize the partner who is a stranger.

However, affairs happen from proximity and opportunity.  In other words, people have affairs with people with whom they have ongoing contact.  Over time, familiarity increases and people don’t maintain boundaries and end up in affairs.  Betrayed partners in these cases feel doubly wounded and ashamed for missing the signs, but I think this type of affair might happen more often than not.  Here are common but unexpected types of affair partners:

  1. A best friend of the couple. People are always shocked by a spouse having an affair with their best friend, but it happens fairly regularly.  Sometimes it’s a situation where the couples hang out together all the time and build familiarity as a couple.
  2. A neighbor.  Same process as a best friend–right under the spouse’s nose.
  3. Someone in the same exercise group. I’ve seen it with cycling, running, hiking, cross-fit, and gym routines.
  4. A member of a church congregation.  This seems so ironic, and yet….proximity and opportunity.  I see lots of these grow from texting, particularly when people exchange regular communication related to church projects.
  5. A family member.  You might be surprised how often people have affairs with a spouse’s sister, brother, in-law, mother, father, aunt, uncle—I’ve seen it all (except every time I say that, someone surprises me with something new).

Lastly, please know that ANYONE can have an affair.  Most people who have had affairs are people who had no intentions of betraying their partners.  With easy access to former romantic partners via the internet, it’s more important than ever to maintain solid boundaries.  Preventing affairs is an active process nowadays.  Anyone who wants to have a long-term successful marriage must intentionally protect the marital relationship from ANY possible outside intrusion.

For a thorough explanation of the need for boundaries to prevent infidelity, read Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass.  It’s not the newest publication, but it remains one of the best classic works on infidelity on the market.

Photo credit: Copyright: tatyanagl / 123RF Stock Photo

Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that?  Isn’t it obvious?”  The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women.  As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography.  Too often it is minimized.

Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief.  Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes.  Every situation is a little different.  However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him.  I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.

From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks.  The message is, “Be pretty.”  One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?”  I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer.  “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there?  I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.”  I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough.  The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.

In junior high, the messages about image intensify.  Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance.  Boys comment on body parts continually.  This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look.  Social rejection related to looks is painful.  Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately.  Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve.  When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.”  Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture.  The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.

Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks.  Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message.  It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good.  Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values.  They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.

As women age, the messages don’t get any better.  Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly.  In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing.  The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits.  She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.”  I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?”  It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks.  I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.

Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group.  Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH.  At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White.  I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused.  My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess.  Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.

Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm.  When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating.  In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way.  Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks.  In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”

Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough.  For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability.  I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.  Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability.  I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment.  Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.

In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship.  Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner.  I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.

Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner.  Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity.  Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners.  Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds.  Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.

An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience.  To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages.  Then, really listen and see if you relate.  Be honest.

Reference:

Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

Photo credit: Copyright: kosmos111 / 123RF Stock Photo

One Simple Thing You Can do to Protect Your Marriage

54955635 - woman checking her mobile phone while embracing a man at home

I was on a hike with another couple a few nights ago, and the husband asked me to identify the number one thing I would tell people to keep their marriages strong.  I’m not usually asked to reduce marital tips down to one dimension, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  I thought for a minute and realized I had a definite answer, informed by the cases I have had over the last 5 years.

“I would say,” I replied, “To realize that when you are texting someone, you are in essence entering a private room with that person.”  I’m expanding on the image here.  The room has no windows.  The social response is in real time, so it is as if you are right next to the person having an actual conversation.  If you text daily, you are entering that room daily.  If you text on and off all day long, you are in that room most of the day.  Everyday.

I see a lot of infidelity cases.  One hundred percent of them in the last few years have all developed through texting.  In most cases, a romantic interest did not precede the texting relationship.  Most of them started in a benign way between co-workers, church members working together on projects, neighbors and best friends of the couple.  Here’s the typical developmental course (IMHO):

  1. Begin texting to communicate practical information.
  2. Increase frequency of texting, still to communicate practical information.
  3. Add a joke to your text, making it more conversational in nature.
  4. Get a response to your joke, and continue the playful banter.
  5. Feel a positive chemical boost after a text exchange.
  6. Find yourself checking your phone to see if the person texted.
  7. Realize that you are starting to look forward to getting texts from that person.
  8. Tell yourself that since you aren’t seeing that person face-to-face, you are fine and not being disloyal to your spouse.
  9. Increase casual and playful texting.
  10. Shift from playful banter to deeper emotional disclosures.
  11. Experience an increase in the euphoric chemical boost.
  12. Find yourself hiding your phone from your spouse, because you don’t want the texts to be “misinterpreted.”  (ALERT: Tipping Point)
  13. Continue to tell yourself that nothing is going to happen, because you still aren’t in this person’s physical presence, so you are still in control.
  14. Realize you have an emotional yearning for this individual.
  15. As you increase the need to hide your texts, begin to see your spouse as the enemy.
  16. Find yourself disconnecting from your spouse to find a place to text this person more often and privately.
  17. Hide more.
  18. Declare your deepest feelings and yearnings for this person and plan to meet in a private location.
  19. Engage in physical affection.
  20. Bam!
  21. Feel as if you have “fallen,” in love with this person and want him/her more than your spouse.
  22. Tell yourself this is your true love connection…otherwise you wouldn’t have “fallen,” in love, and you wouldn’t have these feelings.
  23. See your spouse as the one thing standing between you and true love and happiness.
  24. Destabilize your family.
  25. Make an appointment with me.

This may sound harsh to some readers…definitely to those who see themselves somewhere on this continuum.  I’m not changing my story.  If you would not repeatedly enter a private room with someone without a window where someone can see in, frequently enough that you start to share feelings with someone that you wouldn’t share with your spouse, don’t do it on a cell phone.

Here’s one more thing that should not surprise you:  If your texting partner is an old boyfriend or girlfriend, you can expect to immediately resurrect the same emotions you felt when you were dating that person.  You will exaggerate all the good memories you had and minimize the negative memories you had from that relationship.  That’s not unique.  Your texting affair is not unique, and the effect is as if you are on drugs.  I’ve written this before, and I stand by it.

Lastly, realize that no matter how great you think your marriage is, this can happen to you.  It is the failure to be watchful and set boundaries that gets people into trouble.  If you think you could never end up having an affair, you’re kidding yourself—FWIW.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_wavebreakmediamicro’>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

Marital Betrayal: Forgiveness 101

couple turned toward each other

Who is this person I thought I knew and what else are they lying about?

This is one of the most common questions a partner has after finding out they have been betrayed by someone in a committed relationship.  It is a disorienting experience that is regularly described as “having the rug pulled out from under me,” “having my entire world fall apart,” “having the wind knocked out of me,” “having my whole world collapse around me,” “falling into a dark pit,” and other catastrophic scenarios illustrating the subsequent emotional devastation.

One of the biggest challenges couples face is how to attain forgiveness in the relationship when a serious betrayal has occurred.  Finding out your partner has been hiding behavior from you feels dangerous, whether it is an affair, an addiction, or spending all the money in the 401K.  Suddenly, you are living with someone who is supposed to have your back, and you have the sense that you don’t even know who this person is or what else they might be hiding.  It is devastating and dark, and comes with a lot of emotion which is constantly shifting in intensity.  There are no hard and fast rules for how emotion is expressed after a betrayal has been uncovered.  Betrayed partners commonly swing between anxious clinging responses and angry detaching responses.  It is terrifying to be betrayed by someone previously thought to be trustworthy.  Emotional roller-coaster is not an understatement.

Studies show that forgiveness is a critical component to heal major transgressions, and that it is one of the most important things in a marriage contributing to marital stability and quality.  How then, does a spouse go about the work of forgiving with a partner who has betrayed trust and suddenly feels dangerous?

2 Parts of Forgiveness:

There are two facets of forgiveness: intrapsychic and interpersonal.  The intrapsychic part describes the inner peace a person can attain individually; it’s not uncommon to see clients who feel a sense of peace and calm, and an absence of malice towards a partner after exercising individual forgiveness.  However, they can feel forgiving and still not want to get close to the person who caused harm.

The interpersonal part of forgiveness can be more challenging because it requires trusting a partner enough to want to engage with them again.  When a spouse has been dangerous and unpredictable, it is necessary to have new trust-building experiences with the individual who caused the betrayal in order to feel safe enough to move forward again with that person.  The safe experiences also must happen over time.  A year after a betrayal is short in the life of a committed relationship, and many partners need longer than that to really feel like they can trust again.  Some partners take that long just to be able to even begin risking with an offending partner again.

Markers of Forgiveness

There are two main markers of forgiveness, which denote some kind of change: 1) a decrease in negative emotion toward the partner and 2) an increase in positive, conciliatory behavior.  Many people will take a while to decrease negative emotion toward a spouse, because they need time to make sure that the spouse really understands how painful the experience has been so the betrayal isn’t repeated.  Then, it usually takes quite a bit longer to start trusting the person enough to continue moving forward with any connection.

Some Important Things to Remember After a Betrayal has Happened:

  1. Offending partners should expect lots of unpredictable emotion and their partners can be triggered at any time.  Triggers happen unexpectedly and can cause explosive reactions.  It’s impossible to completely control triggering events but you can learn what to do with emotion when it happens.
  2. Transparency, transparency, transparency!
  3. Offending partners must seek to understand their spouse’s pain by asking questions about how hurt they are rather than becoming defensive or withdrawing.
  4. Healing is non-linear, so everything can seem okay one day and terrible the next.
  5. It’s normal for a wounded partner to feel ambivalent about continuing the marriage until they have had time to process emotion and make sense out of the betrayal.
  6. Repetition in discussing details helps wounded partners gain some kind of predictability over time—the couple can set boundaries for times the betrayal isn’t discussed, since it can fatigue the offending partner, but telling the wounded partner to just not ask questions isn’t fair. If they are going to move forward with someone, they need to know what they are dealing with to make sense out of it.  Repetition can actually help because if they get the same answers over time, they can start feeling safer because the person feels reliable in responding.
  7. Even though anger (and rage) are common, expressing the hurt and fear to a partner helps them understand the pain in a way that they can help heal it more effectively. Unfortunately, even though anger protects the person expressing it, it tends to push away the person at whom it is aimed, and that is why even though a person may be entitled to their anger and rage, it ends up impeding healing if the softer feelings aren’t expressed.
  8. Because of the unpredictable nature of healing, patience is more important than ever!

Questions for an offending partner to ask:

A huge problem with betrayal is that the offending partner can get defensive quickly because they don’t like to be reminded of their own treacherous behaviors, and in the face of overwhelming emotion from the hurt partner, they feel helpless about fixing it and want to withdraw.  Sometimes they end up reinjuring their partners in the process because by withdrawing from an emotional partner, that partner often ends up feeling abandoned.  Here are a few ideas for offending partners to ask:

  1. Can you tell me more about how hurt you are? (It seems counter-intuitive because you may not want to “stir the pot,” but if your spouse thinks you really want to know how much you hurt them, they are more likely to trust that you understand enough that they can start trusting again).
  2. What do you think I still might not understand about how you feel?
  3. What can I do in this moment—I wasn’t there for you then—I am here now so what can I do right now?
  4. Even though I don’t know what to do with all the emotion, I want to fix it—does it help for me to be here listening to you now?
  5. Is there anything else you need to know?

I’m not going to lie—this is very rough.  Words just don’t capture the pain.  I have had betraying husbands call me and ask me what to expect for a trajectory of healing after they revealed extra-marital affairs, and this is what I said in essence:

  1. Roller coaster emotion is the norm.
  2. Trying to heal can be disorienting for your spouse because she has to heal this with someone who created the pain—that is a confusing, dark place for a spouse to be, and yet, building trust with the person who caused the betrayal is the only way to move forward.
  3. You are going to be fatigued from talking about the betrayal WAY before she is done talking about the betrayal, and a year is not long in betrayal time.
  4. Asking questions from you and getting predictable responses over time is one of the ways she can start trusting again.
  5. In order to heal, the betrayed partner has to make sense out of how this could have happened and has to feel some kind of shift in the relationship to have reassurance that it won’t happen again—something has to feel better and more secure than it did before the betrayal.
  6. Transparency is one of the only ways she can start trusting again.

These aren’t gender specific.  Both genders betray partners, and both genders are similar in trajectories of healing.  I don’t think one blog post does this justice because it is so hard, so reading a book about healing betrayals may be indicated as well as seeking professional help in therapy.

On the bright side, some of my best cases have involved healing from serious betrayals.  Couples are forced to scrutinize their marriages and rebuild new foundations of trust.  They really can build up closer, better marriage than before.  They figure out where they went wrong and they fix it and appreciate each other more in the process.  It’s important to know that the last sentence usually describes years of rebuilding.

Lastly, if you have been betrayed by your partner, please know that you are not alone, and that marriages do recover from this tragedy.

Reference:

Fincham, F. D., Hall, J. & Beach, S. R. H. (2006).  Forgiveness in marriage: Current status and future directions. Family Relations, 55(4), 415-427.

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 

References:

An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.

Marital Gymnastics

marital gymnastics

Some of my best childhood memories are associated with gymnastics.  I can’t think of anything I enjoyed more than flying through the air to complete some type of handspring, flip or aerial.  I spent hours practicing the maneuvers, and my father installed a set of bars in my backyard so I could practice twirling around and around.  As I learned different tricks, my friends and I would engage in “daredevil follow the leader,” games in which we would challenge each other to increasingly risky conditions for completing our moves.  For example, one of us would complete an aerial on the asphalt or a back handspring on the concrete driveway and see if the other person would or could do it.  In retrospect, it was very foolish at our amateurish levels, but at the time it was one way in which we amused ourselves.

One skill I executed repeatedly with my friends was something called a “death drop,” in which I would sit on a bar and in one motion, fall backwards and continue to propel my body with enough momentum to release my legs and land standing up under the bar.  I started doing them in early elementary school and continued for years, until I could casually and almost effortlessly fall back on just about any bar and land on my feet.  It became second nature.

One day when I was about 11, I was visiting a sister at her apartment complex, and after becoming quickly bored with the adult conversation in the apartment, I excused myself to make a visit to the bars on the playground (bars which have probably since been removed for liability purposes).  I sat myself atop the only bar, which was much lower to the ground than those to which I was accustomed.  However, I remember believing that I was basically invincible, and that no bar was too low for me to propel my body fast enough to complete a death drop.

I was 100% wrong.  I sat on the bar, hands free, and threw myself backward.  Instead of landing on my feet as usual, I felt my face slam into the bark-covered ground below.  Blackness ringed by a halo of stars momentarily enveloped me, laced with a  feeling of more numbness than pain.  Then, after a few seconds, it hurt.  A lot.  My lip was puffy and bleeding, my whole face felt swollen, and I was spitting a mouthful of bark.  I remember that I didn’t want to be embarrassed by crying, and I was using all my energy to not burst into tears.  I had literally fallen flat on my face.

That incident became significant because it altered my attitude toward risk taking.  I still engaged in gymnastics, but I was far more careful about the types of bars from which I attempted the death drop.  The incident also collaterally affected other moves in which I could potentially land on my face.  Forever after that incident, every single time I attempted a front aerial, there was a part of me that was afraid of repeating the painful scenario.  I still performed the move, but with far more trepidation and far less hubris.   I knew that if I didn’t jump high enough or propel my body over fast enough, it would really hurt.  Landing on my face with such force changed me.   I never did recover my former levels of security in executing that move.  My capacity for risk-taking had been permanently compromised.  I definitely stopped performing aerials on asphalt.

It is difficult to improve in gymnastics, an inherently risky sport, without risk-taking.  I never did advance past the level I had achieved when I slammed my face into the ground.  I may never have progressed much anyway, since I wasn’t committed to pursuing gymnastics at a hardcore competition level, but my unwillingness to increase my risk-taking definitely crippled me from continued progression.  Something that had been previously carefree was now scary and potentially immobilizing.

I tell this story because in marital therapy, I observe couples who often quit taking risks with each because of previous painful experiences, and the relationships consequently regress or stagnate.  Sometimes the painful experiences are large and atypical, such as an affair.  Perhaps more frequently they are an accumulation of daily inconsiderate interactions—a raised voice, an impatient response, a dramatic sigh and an eye roll, a criticism, a non-verbal turning away, etc.  These may seem inconsequential in the moment, but ultimately they are small rejections of one’s partner.  Rejection is pain.  When people experience enough rejection, they still interact, but at a protected level.  It is as if they enter every interaction wearing armor in case battle breaks out.  In extreme cases, couples stop interacting (risking) at all.

I’ll try to illustrate how this prevents couples from healing or progressing with a typical exchange, and again, this conversation could happen between a therapist and a wife as easily as between a therapist and the husband:

Husband:  If I actually do try to help around the house, she’ll just tell me how I did it wrong and it won’t make a difference, except that she’ll be mad at me for more stuff.

Therapist:  Do you think she has any idea how painful it is for you to risk trying to make her happy and have your efforts rejected?

Husband:  I don’t know.  Probably not since I just end up giving up and going away and avoiding her.  There would be no point in talking about it.

Therapist:  Can you try to help her understand how painful it is for you?

Husband:  Okay…(turns to wife)…You are always mad at me no matter what I do.  There is no pleasing you.

Wife:  (extremely fast)  You don’t even try!  You don’t care!  (which feels like more bullets to the heart of the husband, instantaneously, decreasing the possibility that he will take any more risk, and increasing the possibility that he will encase himself in more armor)

Therapist:  Okay, hold on…what I’m asking you to help her understand is the type of pain you experience when she rejects you…can you see how that is different from what you just said?

What the above example illustrates in part, since in real life most therapy exchanges are hopefully sliced thinner than this one, is how much easier it was for the husband to talk to his wife about what she was doing wrong rather than about his vulnerable pain.  It’s highly unlikely that in real life a husband in this instance would talk about this to his wife, because it would be too risky.  It’s like giving someone the algorithm to hurt you.  That’s how it feels.  Since he’s not disclosing his pain, but covering it up by looking impassive, his wife believes that he doesn’t care about her and she can have no impact on him.  In essence, she doesn’t think he cares enough about her for her to wound him, so she will continue to injure him without realizing it.  These patterns are difficult to break because they feel necessary to stay safe in a relationship…especially when one’s heart has been really broken.

Sometimes I will have partners who are really trying to improve their marriages, but who really feel stuck because they are afraid of being hurt again, ask me how to take the leap.  I explain that risk-taking is infinitesimally incremental.  In other words, all risks are not equal, and spouses can decide to take intentional risks with each other that feel smaller in comparison to other things, and work their way up.  For example, spiritual and sexual closeness often feel riskier than other forms of interactions, so couples often need to work their way back up by creating less risky interactions.  Over time, safe interactions prime the pump for riskier interactions.

After my accident on the bars, I became paralyzed with the thought of skipping into a front aerial, as I so often had done before the accident.  The possibility that I would never again complete a front aerial was unacceptable to me, but I had to work back into it.  To make it less risky, as I had done when I was first learning the move, I started using a spring board again, which gave me more altitude than I could get from the ground.  I also had to add more yardage in running toward my launch spot instead of taking one high step into the move, as I had also done many times previously.  Very slowly, I worked up to ditching the springboard again and launching myself from the ground.

In marriage, sometimes we have to bring back the springboard, which is preferable to giving up on the relationship (in the absence of ongoing affairs, addiction or abuse), but the goal, metaphorically speaking, should be to launch from the ground again, perfecting the skill.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.   But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  To love is to be vulnerable.”

Being vulnerable is a choice, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once.  Again, bring back the springboard and work your way toward self-sufficient buoyancy.  In the opinion of a marriage therapist, it’s worth it.  Then, you will really fly.

Reference: The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, 1971, Harvest Book.