"He Cheats on Me During Business Trips"
The Counselor's Turn
"It's easy to see why business travelers may be tempted to cheat," said the counselor. "They're often lonely and stressed, far from the scrutiny of anyone they know. It's an artificial world free of family responsibilities and similar to a dating situation, with all that wining, dining, and staying in nice hotels. This provides an illusion of invulnerability.
"But infidelity doesn't just happen. There is usually a cluster of circumstances that trigger it. I sensed that something unspoken in this couple's past was at the heart of their problems. I asked them to construct a marital-satisfaction time line. 'Get out your old photo albums and examine every year of your marriage, noting what happened and how you felt about it,' I said.
"They both seemed reluctant but dutifully did their homework. At the next session, as we looked at what they'd written, they revealed a heartbreaking story they'd repressed for years. Taking a deep breath, Pam said, 'Two years after we married, our son James was born.' Jack and James, she said, were 'two peas in a pod.' Jack would come home from work, put on a Batman cape, and play nonstop with James and Zoe until bedtime. Their home was full of joy.
"Then the unthinkable happened. On a Thanksgiving weekend with Jack's parents, James, 22 months old, and one of his aunts took a walk with her dog. He chased the dog across a field and into the street and was hit by a car driven by a 16-year-old. He never regained consciousness.
"They were so devastated, according to Pam, that they couldn't even speak about their son. They never sought counseling and in time, grieving separately, they began to drift apart. After their twins were born, Pam focused all her energy on motherhood and Jack lost himself in work. Outwardly, they had put the tragedy behind them, but the emotional intimacy that had characterized their relationship had been buried along with their child.
"Pam made the connection first. Turning to Jack she said, 'We both changed after our little guy died. I think the fun went out of us.'
"Jack's eyes flooded with tears. 'It's true. I'd play with Zoe and the boys, but never with the enthusiasm I had when James was alive.'
"This was a huge breakthrough, but I also wanted them to see that their childhoods put them at risk for betrayal. Both had absent fathers and alcoholic mothers who were so checked out that they essentially let their oldest children raise themselves and their younger siblings. Like many adult children of alcoholics, Jack looked for validation in inappropriate places -- in his case, through one-night stands. For her part, Pam dealt with the pain of losing both her son and the deep bond she'd shared with her husband by turning herself into Supermom.
"At this point I assigned them some exercises that required them to talk at home for 20 minutes about an assigned biographical topic, everything from family pets to favorite teachers. In my experience, there is a 'talker' in every relationship. That person often talks to elicit a response from his or her partner but usually creates the opposite effect. Pam took on this role in her marriage. In an effort to make Jack more engaged, she hounded him, issuing 'orders,' something that was bound to rankle the child of a Navy man. The tight give-and-take structure of this talking exercise kept her from doing that. It also provided security for Jack, so that instead of denying his feelings he began to share them.
"As her anger dissipated, Pam moved toward forgiveness and restoring their physical intimacy. Determined to spend more time with his family, Jack left his job and accepted an offer to be CEO of an educational publishing company, a position that requires little travel. He's always conscious of the need to rebuild trust. 'If Pam wants me to phone five times a day,' he said, 'I phone.'
"'When we started therapy, I was furious with Jack for messing up our marriage,' Pam admitted in our final counseling session. 'Now I see that we messed it up. And together we're cleaning up the mess.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2009.