"My Husband Barely Talks to Me Anymore -- So I Cheated on Him"
The Counselor's Turn
When Matt and Carly first came to my office, Matt insisted the marriage was over. I disagreed. I believe most couples can find a way to restore intimacy. That said, there are no quick fixes, especially when infidelity is involved.
Like many couples who've been together for a while, Carly and Matt assumed they'd move easily from being partners to being parents. They'd never had trouble communicating before, probably because they'd never been confronted with such high-stakes decisions. Both of them were stunned at how quick they were to argue about childcare, where they should live, and who should do what around the house. Though Carly's affair with Gene was the crisis that brought them to my office, the underlying cause of their relationship problems was an inability to talk about difficult topics.
Instead of communicating constructively, this couple retreated into their respective corners and acted out their emotions in destructive ways. Matt buried himself in work and criticized his wife and Carly looked for attention and affection elsewhere. Until they understood why they acted and reacted to each other in these ways, they couldn't break the cycle. The fact that Carly decided not to return to work without consulting him triggered a deep resentment in Matt, which caused him to shut down. Growing up in an abusive home, Matt had no model for how couples work through differences in a healthy way. When disagreements arose, he'd learned to keep silent and guard his feelings. That may have protected him as a child but it stifled intimacy in his marriage. It's impossible to get rid of anger by stuffing it inside.
I told Matt that his rage about Carly's unilateral decision making and about the affair was normal -- up to a point -- but that he needed to start talking to her more openly and directly, instead of lashing out and retreating. "If you continue to act this way, you sabotage any chance for reconciliation," I told him bluntly. "Do you want to be married or do you want to be right?"
Carly was used to receiving positive attention both from her parents and her husband. The more Matt pulled away, the more she sought approval and support elsewhere. Though Carly obviously knew her affair with Gene was wrong, her emotional neediness trumped her conscience.
Carly sobbed for most of the first session as she tried to rationalize her behavior. She'd always thought of herself as an honorable woman, so having to discuss her affair with Matt was deeply painful. I was blunt with Carly, too: "As hard as it is for you to go over what happened again and again, you need to listen and respond to your husband's questions. He deserves answers as he comes to terms with what's happened."
Matt agreed to return the following week, even though he had come in to our session saying he wanted out of the relationship. Meanwhile, Carly worked hard to earn back his trust. She took responsibility for her behavior, cut off all contact with Gene, and started to pay more attention to Matt. After a month, Matt said he felt more optimistic about their relationship.
We also worked on communication, since Carly and Matt both needed to be more direct and to ask for clarification when something was bothering them. They found it to be awkward at first, but it's helped them clear up misunderstandings.
Recently Carly arranged for a college student to babysit -- a big leap for her -- and made dinner reservations. Matt was pleased. "Everyone told us to make time for ourselves as a couple, but we figured we could just power through anything," Carly said. "Now we both know how important it is."
As the hostility between them eased, Carly and Matt became more playful, affectionate, and loving -- and felt ready to make some big decisions. They looked for an affordable house in the suburbs and found one about 30 minutes from Carly's parents' house. Within two months, they'd moved and enrolled Ben in preschool. Carly met many other new moms and she and Matt have made friends with several couples. Matt does have a longer commute but he doesn't mind -- he uses the time to decompress.
I still feel that Matt needs to communicate better, without sarcasm. His childhood issues will continue to be a problem for him if he fails to address them. I've recommended that he continue to see me, but so far he's been unwilling to do that. Still, he and Carly have both made great strides and the marriage is stronger in many ways.
Carly now makes sure to consult Matt on parenting and household decisions. And if they haven't had sex in a while and feel out of touch with each other, they squeeze it in after Ben is asleep, no matter how tired they are. "I think we're more realistic about what marriage and parenthood are like," says Carly. "We're still going to disagree and argue but now we know how to address a problem before it pulls us apart."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2012.