"He Cheated on Me While I Was at Work"

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The Counselor's Turn

"It's increasingly common to find one, if not both, spouses traveling for part of the workweek," said the counselor. "But the issues that wreaked havoc in this marriage do so even in marriages involving no travel. Like Hallie, many women are emotionally and physically depleted by the family-work balancing act. Unable to cut back without jeopardizing their jobs, worried about sacrificing emotional closeness with their children, these women often put their marriages on the back burner. And like Ted, many husbands are none too happy about it. Without quality together time, it's hard to sustain a relationship on an emotional, sexual or spiritual level.

"Yet Hallie and Ted had had a good relationship before they had children. My goal was to help them rediscover the joy they used to share. 'Try to remember the way you loved each other, the activities you enjoyed, the plans you had for the future,' I urged. 'If you can hold on to even a few positive memories, it will be easier to move forward.' I also assured them that the ambivalence they each felt about their marriage was normal at this point. 'But you can't wait until you are 100 percent sure,' I said. 'Commit to working on this relationship -- and acting as if you will succeed.'

"Needless to say, this was tremendously difficult for Hallie. She ricocheted between feeling numb, tearful, confused and enraged. Meanwhile, Ted was a mixture of remorse and defiance. Caring for his daughters had proved far more difficult than he'd imagined. But instead of being forthright about his feelings, he pouted. His resentment was further fueled when Hallie ignored him at home and peppered him with questions while she was away. He didn't understand that her questions were a way of staying connected; instead, he felt criticized and infantilized by them and used those feelings to rationalize his affair.

"Indeed, Ted often mentioned feeling ignored by Hallie. His sense of abandonment was no doubt heightened by the fact that his parents had been too wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to him. His anger was also a defense mechanism, shielding him from guilt. Ted thought that ending the relationship with Erin and apologizing to his wife meant they could 'put all this behind us.' I told him it was only the beginning. 'You've committed a serious breach of trust and it's not going to disappear just because you want it to,' I said. A betrayed partner is tormented by questions. One of our ground rules was that Ted had to respond to every one -- but only for a three-month period, after which the inquisition had to stop. 'Your need to know is understandable,' I told Hallie, 'but unearthing every excruciating detail won't be helpful.' In fact, Hallie concluded well in advance of the three month deadline that digging for information about the affair only kept her stuck in the past. It also helped enormously that, by a happy coincidence, Erin's husband was transferred to Phoenix for his job and the family moved away.

"To move forward, Ted and Hallie had to learn to communicate clearly and often about their feelings. I taught them a structured, two-part exercise I call the Feel Better Letter. First, I instructed them to write down four or five feelings, positive or negative, that they needed to share. Simply writing down one's thoughts can help defuse hot emotions and allow the person to more clearly see a partner's viewpoint. Hallie's list included: I'm angry because you humiliated me in front of our friends. I'm sad our marriage meant so little to you. I regret that I made you feel like an incompetent parent.

Continued on page 4:  The Counselor's Turn, Continued


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