"He Had an Affair Because I Stopped Initiating Sex"
The Counselor's Turn
As I listened to Tam and Bill, it became clear that they still loved each other, despite Bill's claims to the contrary," said the counselor. "But they'd never fully understood or worked through the issues they faced as a cross-cultural couple. Language barriers, attitudes toward gender, cultural norms, and family of origin can all lead to problems, and not necessarily early in the relationship. Over time Bill grew less, rather than more, tolerant of Tam's cultural differences. And in feeling guilty about his one-night stand, he acted out by finding fault with his wife.
"In cases of infidelity I meet with each partner individually before seeing them jointly. With Tam, I helped her focus not on Bill's fling but on whether her marriage was meeting her needs -- a question she'd never really fully considered before. 'I'm not happy,' she finally admitted. 'I need more attention from my husband.' For his part, Bill was sorry he cheated on his wife and assured me it would never happen again. I pointed out that Tam's devastation disproved his belief that she took him for granted.
"After a month of individual counseling, Bill realized he still loved Tam. He apologized to her for cheating and vowed to make it up to her. She accepted his apology and agreed to change, too. My first goal for joint therapy was improved communication. His aggressiveness and her passivity were products of their upbringings, since Bill grew up in a household of screamers and Tam's parents raised her to be submissive. I helped them view their conflicting styles in a cultural context and not as a personal affront.
"Gradually Tam came to understand that Bill wanted her to be more assertive. 'You were taught to avoid confrontation, but it's an inescapable part of life,' I said. 'You have a right to complain if you're not happy about something. If Bill gets mad, stand your ground and don't be intimidated.' I also advised her to be selective about what she shared with her mother and sister. 'Your husband should be your primary sounding board,' I said. 'The more you two work things out, the less you'll need to confide in relatives.' I also helped Bill see that Tam's candor was not disloyalty but simply a result of cultural tradition.
"Bill also needed to tame his temper. 'It's pushing your family away,' I told him, 'and it's what compels Tam to intervene when you're disciplining Michael and Tina. If you have to, leave the room, calm down and try again. You'll be amazed how much your relationship with all of them will improve.'
"As for the language barrier, Bill acknowledged that he'd chosen to marry someone who never spoke perfect English and that he needed to accept his wife for who she is. 'Focus on Tam's positive qualities -- her loyalty and kindness -- and overlook the little annoyances,' I urged him. 'When she misuses words or verb tenses, let it go. If you're confused, ask her again and help her find the right words.'
"Tam and Bill both felt neglected by each other but neither was able to express those feelings effectively. In our sessions I had them practice making direct requests -- 'I'd like to go out to dinner once a week' or 'I want you to compliment me.' Tam began sitting with Bill as he ate dinner, and afterward they watched TV together. Embracing her new assertiveness, she even started to take the lead romantically. 'The other night Tam told me I looked hot,' Bill reported. 'Then she put the moves on me in bed!' Bill's snide comments about Tam's mispronunciations stopped cold and he quit raising his voice to her and the kids.
"'I'm so proud of what we've accomplished,' Tam said in their last session. 'We're happier than we've ever been.'
"'I never stopped being in love with Tam,' Bill added, 'but it took therapy to help me realize it.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2009.