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Diane: 37, X-ray technician
Scott: 40, software developer
Married: 9 years
Stephen J. Betchen
Cherry Hill, New Jersey
Diane hurt her back in a car accident three years ago and hasn't wanted sex since. Scott has coped by using Internet porn and having phone sex with women he meets in chat rooms. Diane found out and freaked. They're barely speaking.
Diane: This marriage is over. Porn's bad enough. But phone sex? That crosses the line. Scott's always had a strong sex drive, but he's not into kinky stuff, so I'm shocked he'd do something like this. My first thought was that he must be having an affair. When I confronted him, he insisted he'd never met the women he'd talked to. He said he went to the Internet so he wouldn't have to bother me for sex. Does he really think he did me a favor? I feel totally betrayed and I don't know if I'll ever be able to trust him again.
Scott: I love Diane, and I never meant to hurt her. I thought cybersex was the easiest and most convenient way to take care of my needs and deal with my frustration. We used to have sex three times a week, but after Diane's accident, it dropped off to once a month -- and that's not enough for me. She'd say that she wasn't in the mood or that she was too tired or that she was in pain from her injuries. I knew she was suffering, both physically and emotionally, so I didn't want to add to her stress. We'd only end up fighting.
About a year after the accident, I stopped asking for sex and went online, thinking it was the best solution. I knew sex chats and phone chats were wrong. But I figured what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. I never dreamed she'd find out. I guess I didn't cover my tracks as well as I thought.
Diane: Look, I get that Scott's frustrated. But he should have talked to me about it instead of sneaking around on the Internet. I know I haven't been easy to live with lately, but that's no excuse, either. The accident nearly ruined my life. I had numbness in my leg and couldn't walk for the first six months. Surgery got me walking again, but I'm still not that mobile. I've gained 30 pounds because I can't work out. It's been hell. I'm mad at the world, and my emotions are all over the place: I can go from angry and bitter to anxious and depressed in the course of a day. I couldn't function without pain and anti-anxiety medication. But the meds kill my sex drive and make me sleepy.
I want more sex, but my back hurts so much that I can't enjoy it like I used to. Once a month has been enough for me at this point, so I was relieved when Scott stopped making moves all the time -- at least I didn't have to reject him. What bothered me was that he started avoiding me. We'd eat dinner and watch TV together, but then he'd disappear into our home office. He'd work late into the night and come to bed hours after I was asleep. I feel like we've been living more as friends than as a married couple these past three years. That makes me even more sad and depressed. Scott shut me down every time I tried to have a serious conversation about our relationship. He'd tell me he was happy, but he certainly wasn't acting like it. We wouldn't be in this mess if he'd been honest.
Scott: I didn't want to tell Diane how I was really feeling or why I was avoiding her because confrontations aren't my thing. Besides, Diane's called the shots since day one -- on everything from where we go on vacation to where we live. It doesn't matter what I think or want. We always end up doing things her way. So I've learned not to cross her. But in this case I didn't feel justified complaining about our sex life or her moodiness. It seemed insensitive and wrong, given all that she was going through. And I feel like it wouldn't have made a difference.
Diane: That's not fair! Since when is not talking about a problem ever the answer? Yes, I'm more bold and opinionated than Scott, but I've gotten that way because I can't get a straight answer out of him on anything. It's not like I want to be so bossy! I wish he would speak his mind. But he checked out of our marriage without giving me a chance to make things better. Scott keeps apologizing, but I'm so pissed that I don't want to be in the same room together, let alone talk to him. And I can't stop thinking about what sexual things he may have said to those women. I don't know if I can forgive him. When I told Scott I wanted a divorce, he suggested counseling. I'm skeptical -- I doubt he'll be able to open up, but it's worth a shot.
Scott: I made a stupid mistake. What I did was wrong, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make it up to Diane. But she's got to forgive me and give me another chance. I hope she does, because I don't want to lose her.
Diane and Scott came to therapy because of his cybersex habit, but it was clear that this issue magnified a major long-term communication problem. My goal was to help each of them understand the unspoken conflicts in their marriage, acknowledge their own behavior, and accept responsibility for their contributions to the crisis, rather than play the blame game. The longer couples stay in finger-pointing mode, the tougher it becomes for them to repair the damage and reconnect.
Diane and Scott showed up in my office a week after she'd used his laptop and discovered a bunch of porn sites in his browsing history. Even though he'd agreed to stop using porn, the wounds were still fresh, which made it difficult for them to discuss the problem. In the first few sessions, Diane alternated between crying and yelling. Scott alternated between apologizing and staring at his shoes. During therapy couples tend to repeat the behavior patterns that have caused problems in their marriage. As I watched Diane's controlling streak and Scott's passivity, I got a better understanding of the dynamic that ultimately brought them in to see me. So the big question was, What made Diane so controlling and Scott so passive?
Both behaviors were rooted in their pasts. Diane is an only child whose parents divorced when she was a toddler. Her father simply took off, never to be seen again. Her mother moved in with her parents and deferred to them on everything. Diane felt contempt for her mother's weakness and didn't want to be like her -- she was determined to be strong. Her eyes filled with tears as she described what it felt like to be deserted by her father. It was clear that she suffered from lingering anxiety about abandonment, and uncovering Scott's cybersex habit stirred up those painful emotions. "Beyond feeling betrayed that Scott had sexual conversations with other women, you felt threatened by his interest in them and you worried that he'd leave you," I explained.
Meanwhile, Scott grew up in a quiet family where no one shared feelings or opinions -- let alone openly disagreed. He never learned to express himself effectively. At 11 Scott was shocked when his parents separated. Then, during the divorce battle, Scott's father complained that his wife was a nag, and Scott's mother countered that her husband was irresponsible. Scott was very upset by their courtroom statements and vowed he'd never become a complainer. His go-along-to-get-along attitude carried over into his relationship with Diane, whether it was deferring to her ideas about where to go on vacation or deciding not to confront her about their waning sex life.
I viewed Scott's behavior as more than passive, however. It was an expression of his repressed anger. "You're not just sexually frustrated," I explained. "You're angry that Diane hasn't gotten better and that she won't have sex anymore. What you did wasn't only about getting your needs met. It was about punishing your wife."
I thought Scott could become more communicative if he worked at it. I encouraged him to speak directly to Diane about everything that bothered him, and with her I was blunt: "If you want Scott to be more assertive, you must let him assert himself. Stop interrupting him. Stop putting him down." Scott discovered that he was holding a grudge not only about their sex life but also about Diane's moodiness since the accident. Then he shared what he'd been most reluctant to say:
"You haven't tried hard enough to get better."
We took a careful look at that. Diane's car accident had a life-altering impact, for sure. Three years had passed and she still hadn't worked through her anxiety and anger. I assured her that those feelings were normal, and that the combination of pain and anxiety medications can wreak havoc on libido and energy. But had she done all that she could to regain control of her life? Had she made an effort to exercise, even a little? Had she watched her diet? Had she asked her doctor to adjust her medication or dosage to blunt some of the side effects? When I asked Diane those questions, she made excuses before admitting that she'd given up on life: "I'm afraid I'll never get better, so why bother?" She blamed her moodiness and lack of sex drive on her bad back, but I helped her understand that her anger about Scott's passivity had driven her to distance herself from him, both emotionally and sexually. Doing so gave her a sense of power at a time when she felt out of control.
The couple needed to renew their commitment to each other and make their marriage a priority. For Diane, that meant getting closer to her "old self," so that she could participate fully in the relationship, whether it was having sex or spending more time together in the evenings. The marital crisis turned out to be the wake-up call she needed to start taking better care of herself. I also advised her to let Scott call more of the shots. Meanwhile, he needed to get in the habit of speaking freely about his feelings, and he had to start paying more attention to Diane.
During six months in counseling, the couple made great strides. Diane's energy has improved, thanks to a new medication and correct dosage. She's lost 10 pounds by exercising and dieting and she feels better about herself as a result. Meanwhile, Scott is speaking up more. Recently, he offered to treat Diane to dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant after they had run errands, but she felt underdressed and wanted to eat at home instead. "The 'old me' would have said, 'Okay. We'll just go home,'" Scott said. "The 'new me' told her she looked fine -- which was true -- and didn't take no for an answer. We had a delicious meal and a great time." Diane has noticed his new assertiveness. "I didn't think he'd ever hold his ground, but he does -- and now I feel like we're partners," she said.
Scott has apparently kept his promise to stop visiting chat rooms, and Diane is beginning to forgive him. They have sex a few times a month. Still, she doesn't trust him completely. "You don't rebuild trust overnight," I assured her. "It's okay to have doubts and concerns." Diane installed parental controls on their laptops and put Scott's cell phone account in her name so that she can check the bills for strange numbers. "I'm trusting Scott as much as I can for now," Diane said, "and I'm doing my best to be more attentive to him. We're a work in progress. But at least we're moving in a positive direction."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2012.