Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

How Your Home is Your Sandcastle When Healing any Betrayal: Ten Tips for Exercising Care

20793588 - sand castle on the beachAny time I am helping a couple rebuild after a betrayal, I’m reminded of how alike couples are in the healing process, with predictable hiccups along the way. Here’s a typical example:

“Why can’t you just forgive me and move on?!” The husband sitting in front of me gesticulating with his hands and shouting his frustration at his wife clearly felt helpless about successfully repairing his relationship. Saying nothing, she folded her arms and just stared, and based on my history with this couple, I could tell he was microseconds from an angrier outburst, protesting her withdrawal and demanding that she heal from his betrayal.

I immediately moved closer to him and put my hand out, “Hold on. Let me help you. Can you look at me?” I asked quietly. He turned his head and I held eye contact with him. “I know you’re hurting and in pain, right?” He nodded. I continued, “It looks like you’re becoming desperate and afraid you will never be able to repair this relationship with her, yeah?” He signaled a “yes.”

“Can we track what just happened?” I asked. “She started talking about how some days she thinks she can move on and trust you, but on days like today, she starts getting worried that if she does lean into you and trust you, she will fall and get hurt again, metaphorically speaking.” “Yeah,” he immediately flared, raising his voice, “So what’s the point? If she’ll never trust me again, even after all I’ve done to be trustworthy, why are we even here?”

Before I could speak, she fired back, arms folded tighter, “I never said I’ll never trust you again,” and he quickly cut her off, louder, “That’s exactly what you’ve been saying ever since this whole thing happened.” In a split second, he had gone from 0 to 100 again. I quickly reached out again, “Hold on. This feels really important, but did you see how fast that same cycle took over? Let’s slow it down and help you get unstuck.” At this point, they both looked at me like I’m nuts, because they’re uncertain about what I just psychobabbled and where I’m going. It’s ok. I’m used to it.

“I think your wife has been saying that because she cares so much about you, she has been trying to find ways to trust you, did you hear that?” “No,” he smoldered, turning slightly away from her, “All I heard is that she doesn’t trust me and will never trust me.” “I know,” I supported, “That’s part of how you get disconnected so quickly.”

I turned to his wife, “Did I get that right?” I asked. She nodded, “That’s right. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t trying to fix our relationship. I just don’t know how to control the triggers.” “Right,” I validated, “So you start feeling safer, and a trigger happens and you get scared again and uncertain about how to reach out to him, so it’s easier to withdraw. Sometimes, I’ll bet that when you start trusting him, you get even more afraid that you can’t really trust him, so you have to be really careful, right?” She confirmed, “That’s exactly what happens.”

At this point I turned back to him, “You see, the paradox is that as she starts to trust you more, there is a part of her that gets afraid that she’s wrong, that she really can’t trust you, and she hasn’t had enough safe experiences with you yet to know for sure that your change is durable, so there might be moments when she seems to shut you out more. On your end, you start feeling hopeful that she is trusting you, and you want to connect more, and when she pulls back because she gets scared, it’s as if she’s shutting a door in your face, or something like that, right?” “That’s absolutely what it’s like,” he confirmed, “Slamming the door in my face, actually.”

“Right. Slamming the door in your face,” I repeated, “Of course it feels like that. That’s why it gets so painful and desperate for you so fast, and that’s when you start protesting by yelling and threatening to leave…you’re trying to reach her through the slammed door. Unfortunately, all this time, all she can see is your rage, which makes her retreat further, and the sad part is that she never gets to see all the tender feelings you really have for her, because they are so hard to see through the anger. She has no idea how very sorry you are that you hurt her and can’t seem to fix it, and how afraid you get that you won’t be able to heal the relationship that matters the most to you. Am I right?”

He’s starting to tear up and nods. I go on, “This is hard for you. You’re a very accomplished and competent person. You’re respected in your profession and you feel confident there, right?” He nodded again and I continued, “It must be so difficult for you to be so highly competent in so many areas of your life and feel so helpless in this important relationship. You love her so much and you’re so desperate for her to see that, that it makes you want to try harder, right?” He indicated agreement, wiping his eyes.

I asked, “I can see that you have learned that if something isn’t working, you keep trying harder to figure it out, and eventually it works, right?” He agreed, so I continued, “A lot of times, working harder means applying more pressure, working faster and stronger, right?” He’s still signaling that I’m getting it, so I go on, “Except sometimes that approach might ruin what you are trying to accomplish, like for instance building a sandcastle. If you were going to build a sandcastle, you would have to be very careful to not bring in too much pressure too quickly or you would destroy it. Can you see how this relationship is kind of like that?”

“Yeah,” he fretted, “I can, but I still don’t know what to do.” “It’s ok,” I comforted, “I’ll help you. I just want to make sure I’m getting this right. Is anything I said off a little bit?” “No,” he replied, “That sounds about right.”

I looked at her, “Would you change anything about what I said?” She jumped in, “No. I do have a hard time seeing that he loves me and doesn’t just want to control me when he gets mad. I really am trying to feel safe with him.” “Does that sandcastle analogy fit for you?” I questioned. “Yes,” she confirmed, “Because when he is really gentle with me and acts like he wants to comfort me and apologizes, that’s how I know he really means it…that he really is sorry, and will let me heal at my pace. That’s when I feel closer to him…so the sandcastle part fits, because it’s his carefulness and gentleness that I can trust.”

I turned back to him, “What’s happening for you while you listen to her.” He was considerably calmer, “I can see what she means, and it is like building a sandcastle, because you have to be really careful to do that. There are times when I’m more careful and I can be comforting, but sometimes, I’ve done that and if she’s still sad or withdrawing, I don’t know what else to do.” “Exactly,” I confirmed, “Because that’s when you go in and demolish the sandcastle, right?” “Yeah,” he recognized.

I added, “So another way you can manage that and be careful at the same time is let her know that you are at one of those sandcastle moments when you are starting to feel a little helpless because you don’t know what the next step is. Attuning to her and asking for guidance is another way to treat the relationship like a sandcastle.”

I know this was a long exchange, but I use the sandcastle analogy a lot because people relate to it so well. Everyone understands that sandcastle success is dependent upon an element of care. The foundation in this instance is curiosity about your partner’s betrayal experience and repetition of safe, reassuring interactions. Here are some ways to rebuild and treat a relationship more like a sandcastle instead of a brick house:

  1. Move in close enough to attune to your partner—make eye contact, reach your hand out to offer safe touch if it is allowed by your partner and slow the heck down.
  2. Ask what has been the hardest part about healing so far.
  3. Ask when your partner has felt safer with you.
  4. Ask what your partner is afraid you might not understand.
  5. Remind your partner about how sorry you really are, but only if you really mean it. By the way, you are going to have to do this many times.
  6. Ask your partner if he/she would like you to explain how you feel differently about the relationship now.
  7. Ask your partner what he/she still fears in general about the relationship.
  8. Ask your partner what can help and if he/she says nothing, then just reassure your partner you are there for when he/she does know.
  9. Reassure your partner that you are there because you are wanting to help make it better in any way you can.
  10. Do NOT impatiently demand that your partner get over it.

I have had several clients report that thinking of the relationship like a sandcastle has helped them slow down, breathe and approach their spouses differently.

In the end, a man’s (or woman’s) home really is his/her sandcastle.

Photo credit: Copyright: subbotina / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Mending Broken Hearts: Marital All-Stars

broken heart pictureI struggled in writing this, hoping to get the tone just right.  My intention is to provide hope and support to someone.  I sincerely hope that comes across.  If it helps one couple, it will have been worth my time writing it.

As a marriage therapist, I often see many similarities across cases, and I have mentioned in previous posts that it is very easy for me to have hope for difficult cases; I see enough couples change that I know it is possible, even if I can’t accurately predict outcome.  A few weeks ago, I met with a couple I had not seen for a few months for a check-up type of appointment.  They had already completed several sessions of marital therapy and reported improvement, but were showing up occasionally just to make sure they didn’t drift back into old patterns.

In cases like this, it’s not uncommon to see some level of reversal back into previous habits.  When this couple reported that they were still doing well after 8 months, and described specifically what they were doing differently, I asked permission to describe their story with the intent of providing hope to other couples facing similar difficulties, with the understanding that identifying characteristics would be changed to protect their privacy.  I am certain that many other couples will be able to see themselves in this marriage and will know that there is a way to repair.

I will call the couple Justin and Amber.

Justin scheduled himself to come in alone because he had been depressed for a while.  In our first session, he described his depressive symptoms and told me about his marriage and family.  He said his marriage was “terrible,” and that he couldn’t remember the last time he had been physically intimate with his wife.  He spent most of his time avoiding her and said he was pretty sure she didn’t like him either.  He described their relationship as almost non-existent, except to minimally communicate about practical household management and childrearing.

Like many husbands, Justin traveled frequently, so it became easy to avoid his wife, but his loneliness and depression persisted.  Over time, his coping mechanisms for dealing with his emotional pain were viewing pornography in his various hotel rooms and visiting hotel bars occasionally to drink so he could “feel something.”  Amber had no knowledge that he had ever engaged in either of these behaviors over their 20+ year marriage.  While he was at home, he played the part of the conservative husband who didn’t ever drink or look at porn.

Justin had been to a medical doctor who prescribed an anti-depressant, but he said it only made him feel “numb,” and that he was still miserable.  I questioned him about his medical, psychological, educational, occupational, social and family backgrounds in order to understand his depression better.  Most of what he said looped back to his marital relationship.

This is what I ended up saying to Justin: “I am going to tell you what I think, and you are probably not going to like it.  You are more than welcome to pursue therapy with another therapist who may have a different opinion.  Almost everything you are telling me is related to the fact that you have to hide your coping behaviors from your spouse.”  I further explained that people who have something to hide generally create distance from their spouses and continue to stay disconnected.  I explained that even if we examined his thought patterns and emotional regulation skills, I was afraid that the fact that he was pretending to be a different person when he was with his wife would keep him stuck in his depression.  “You are living incongruently, and that almost always generates discomfort,” I continued, “As long as you continue to lie to your wife, I believe you will continue to be miserable.  I would like to help you disclose your behaviors to your wife in a way that you can be authentic and start a more genuine marriage relationship.  It’s risky.  You need to think about it and decide if it’s worth the risk, but I need you to know that I believe that until you are honest, you will continue to be depressed.”

He immediately agreed and said he knew that’s what he had to do, even though he was terrified.  I said, “I understand.  It is terrifying.  I will help you.”  Over a period of several months, his attendance at therapy was hit-and-miss.  I suspected that he was avoiding our sessions to delay the potential disruption to his marriage.  I was very patient about it, realizing that it is never effective to push people into something, but to gently guide them along at their pace.

Several months after our first session, I asked him to help me understand his spotty attendance at therapy better.  I knew he was probably afraid.  That’s exactly what he told me.  “I’m scared,” he said.  “I know,” I replied, “Tell me what you are the most afraid of.”  He answered, “That I will explode my entire marriage.”  “That could happen,” I responded, “It makes sense that you are afraid because you really have no idea how your wife will handle this.  Do you realize that in many ways you are already living as if your marriage has exploded?”  He agreed.  After that, he wrote down everything he wanted to say to his wife and we spent a few weeks preparing for a joint session with Amber.  We processed possible reactions, and I told him not to be surprised if his wife responded with LOTS of emotion.

I had Amber come in alone first to explain her side of the marriage, and she corroborated his story that the marriage was entirely disconnected, and she wasn’t sure she even cared.  It didn’t surprise me at all that she said she knew he was hiding something but she didn’t know what.  I explained that I wanted to have a joint session in which he could be more honest about what was feeding his depression, and I explained that it might be hard to hear.  She agreed to come in with him, even though she wasn’t sure herself that she really wanted to be married to him anymore.

When the day arrived a few weeks later for them to show up together, I scheduled an extra-long session and was still uncertain that they would show up.  They did.  Justin was very thorough in confessing his hidden behaviors for the previous decade.  His disclosure was very genuine and heartfelt.  I was watching Amber very carefully to see how she was receiving the information.  Predictably, she was teary, sad and angry.  Anger is a very normal response in this scenario.  Anger in some ways can help people feel more powerful and/or protected, and it can even offer temporary analgesic effects from emotional pain.

Despite the anger, Amber stayed with the grief she felt over becoming so disconnected from Justin.  Instead of raging at him, storming out of the room, or any number of angry reactions she could have had (and which I honestly expected), she gave a marriage therapist’s dream response.  I asked her what was happening for her and she said, “I’m angry, of course, but I’m mostly really sad that he feels like he has had to hide so much from me.  I’m sad that he thought I would be harsh and judgmental when I really want to help him.  I really wanted to have a better marriage.”  I had her talk to him about that, and for the first time in almost a decade, Justin could allow himself to believe that maybe Amber cared about him.

Over the next several months, the couple came in regularly.  Their improvement was non-linear (as usual), but they consistently worked at their marriage.  Amber did have episodes of being angry and just wanting to be far away from him.  I didn’t blame her.  He had been very dangerous to her by hiding his behaviors.  However, she continued to stay focused on the fact that she wanted to understand the situation as well as she could so they could repair their marriage and create a higher quality relationship for themselves and their children.  Justin continued to disclose his feelings of fear, anxiety and shame when they occurred, instead of going to his old behaviors.  He disclosed to her when he was being triggered.  She listened to him and instead of blaming and criticizing him, she tried to understand what was going on for him and asked how she could help him with his insecurities.

Over time, she also started going to him with her own vulnerabilities.  Their physical intimacy went from non-existent to mutually satisfying and regular.  Within 6 months the couple was displaying a completely different marriage than the one they had 14 months previously.  I was surprised and yet delighted when they came back several months later and said things weren’t always easy, but they were still doing things differently and staying connected.  In the words of the husband, “We can still talk about hard things.”  Wow.

I learn so much from couples like this.  This marriage worked because BOTH of the partners stuck with it and took risks and kept trying.  Sometimes I will see couples who have been greatly disappointed in their marriages, and they sometimes think they are the only ones in an imperfect marriage.  When they feel this alone, they lose hope for healing.  Some of them divorce, but possibly many more continue to stay miserable and disconnected.

This post is not an indictment of people who don’t want to trust partners who are untrustworthy.  EVERY situation is different.  In this instance, Justin felt safe enough that his wife was able to take risks with him, and there were times that she distanced herself.  There were also times when he wanted to retreat just like before.  I am sharing this post to demonstrate that there are indeed couples who face very big challenges and betrayals and end up building something better from the wreckage.

I would never recommend a betrayal as a strategy to bring marriages closer.  I can confidently state, however, that couples can sometimes use the tragedy to become more connected after the terrible incident.

I’m not naïve enough to expect that this couple could not disconnect later.  However, if they stay focused on their marriage and continue to do what they are doing, they are likely to make it easier for their children to believe in their own marriages, perpetuating a cycle of intergenerational security.

They are marital all-stars.