"He's Having Phone Sex with Women He Meets Online"

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The Counselor's Turn

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.

 

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