Couples seek therapy for many reasons, but among the thorniest issues are those involving infidelity. Of course, circumstances vary widely, so it’s difficult to isolate on causes that are equally relevant for all. Given that, I’ll focus on themes that emerge with some professional couples that have been married for some time (i.e., 10+ years), with demanding careers, for whom these issues arise after having children.
They may have met in college or graduate school. They became fast friends first, and they never imagined that would change. Both were career-minded and imagined living a life of significance, healthier and happier than that of their parents. They recognized one another as good, bright and hard-working persons. They felt heard, understood, and supported. They shared a vision of life.
Then, as the demands of their careers pulled them into individual tracks of ambition and responsibility, and as they began to have children, their friendship suffered, intimacy too. It wasn’t fully conscious yet, but they had become rutted in role-based “necessities” of duty and obligation. A shift occurred from a vital pursuit of happiness to accountabilities to children, home, and career – life felt burdensome.
The Sources of Disenchantment
The relative ease with which life’s demands were managed in the early, pre-parental years were gone. Back then, there was more time, unpressured and less distracted opportunities to talk. Everything was easier then, even though financial resources were limited. So, what had their success really purchased?
The couple was left feeling that life had somehow gotten away from them. They were overwhelmed and learning that feelings are a complex and nuanced form of meaning, confusing enough to experience let alone to articulate. It was easier when there was more breathing space, when they could get away for a weekend of hiking or big-city stimulation. Sometimes that alone without talk was enough.
Taking on work-related duties, struggling to realize career aspirations, life became more serious. Then, with kids and parenting added to the mix, along with the financial demands of mortgage, child care, and interruption to a second income… It all added up to a loss of the enchanted vision of life they had in the beginning. Exchanges became strained. Soon they decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to argue.
They began wondering “is this all there is?” Exhausted by work strain, stressed by unrelenting demands, and lacking the friendship they once provided one another, they began to foreclose on the possibility of making things better. But settling is not very satisfying is it? Thus, arises the restless yearning.
For these couples there is seldom a desire to abandon one’s partner. Very few had seriously considered divorce even as they began to look elsewhere for affection. Intact bonds remained that coexisted with urgent needs for emotional intimacy. They could not see a way to reconnect within the marriage. It’s a cognitive, emotional, and moral quandary that they’re unable to resolve, it looks impossible.
That’s where the desperation comes in. It may be equally felt by both members of the couple. But neither is able to frame the issues, broach the conversation, and make them “discussable.” They’ve learned (come to believe) that contentious tones, demanding voices and fault-finding quickly follows. So, they conclude, “I can’t meet my needs here; the situation won’t allow it.”
What they believe they cannot achieve in reality, they seek to address through fantasy and delusion. Yes, there’s also the sense that they deserve something more and better given how hard they’re working. So, they seek “justice” through a kind of “let’s pretend.” They want to believe that there’ll be no harm as long as no one finds out. Sometimes drinking helps contain the cognitive dissonance. It’s regression in service of play, to invoke Freud, and a symptom of arrested development in the marriage.
The Bubble Bursts, Work Begins
When the truth comes out a period of crisis ensues. Soon it becomes clear that the act of infidelity only ruptured a relationship that was already suffering from deep, long-standing strains. Upon reflection, both knew things were not going the way they wanted them to. In some cases, partners had even taken separate bedrooms, started vacationing separately, becoming more roommate than spouse.
But the initial disclosure brings jolting pain. Anger, embarrassment, and betrayal are only a few of the emotions that should be expected. It’s not a victimless act. The aggrieved party is deeply hurt. And the unfaithful party frequently suffers a different shame and loss of self-respect that he or she must endure without much sympathy while seeking redemption and forgiveness.
The saving grace for many of these couples is that they usually have reason enough to at least attempt reconciliation and repair. And if they seek help soon enough, before acting out their emotions in ways that make their problem even more difficult to address, their odds improve immensely. Because they are bright and hard-working, they may be able to use that ethic to persevere with the task at hand.
Containment. The couple must have a safe place to process their feelings, and therapy must help them learn how to do even more of this outside the consulting room. Initially, they’ll struggle with managing the intensity of their exchanges outside of therapy.
Learning. The couple must now acquire the interpersonal communications skills to navigate emotionally charged conversation that they had earlier concluded were not possible. They will learn that doing good in their relationship requires knowing how to do good.
Forgiveness. Learning that infidelity is at least partly attributable to arrested development as a couple, a lack of insight, knowledge, skill, and hope concerning what was missing and how to correct it, helps both find a way to forgive.
Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves as much as for our partner. When we lose our capacity for the love, openness, and honesty to discuss the divide that is growing between us, it is not because we willfully intend to do harm to one another. We fail due to our fears and ignorance, our desperation and loss of hope. We lose the ability to focus more on coulds than shoulds. This is what they learn in therapy.