"He Started an Affair on Facebook"
The Counselor's Turn
"Adolescent relationships can leave strong marks," said the counselor. "This is a period of tremendous physical, sexual, and emotional growth. We often idealize young romance, but it forms a core part of our identities. Sometimes it smolders for decades and any spark, even a seemingly innocuous Facebook message, can rekindle the fire. Since reconnecting online is so easy, many people don't consider the implications before clicking 'send.'
"Sue and Carl communicated poorly on the most basic level. Instead of talking they traded accusations and brushed aside big issues, such as the loneliness each felt. 'Couples get stuck in negative patterns because it's easier to ignore a problem than deal with it,' I said. 'You two had an unspoken agreement: We'll focus on our kids, our jobs, and our friends and avoid confronting our unhappiness. It's not healthy, but it is predictable.'
"Raised by a bitter single mom, Sue believed it was up to her alone to get what she wanted. She managed her household the way she ran her department at work -- with firm ideas of how things should be done. Even a small deviation could trigger anxiety, which she often expressed by nagging Carl.
"Carl had little nurturing as a child and no real idea how spouses should communicate. He found it easy to let a woman manage his life. Except for the occasional outburst, he fumed silently and steered clear of Sue. At 40 he was dissatisfied with life. Reuniting with Jill not only made him feel vital again but gave him a 'do-over' -- a chance to fix a failed relationship.
"It's hard to save such marriages, where blame and hostility run deep. Both spouses must acknowledge their part in the deterioration and agree to change dramatically. When I told Carl he had to stop seeing Jill, he was unwilling to promise. But he did agree not to communicate with her for six months. I urged Sue to accept this compromise since it would buy us time.
"I asked Sue and Carl to write down their wants. Topping her list: 'I need Carl to put down the newspaper and pay attention when I have a problem.' Carl wrote, 'She has to stop hounding me and not push if it's a bad time to talk.' Both viewpoints were valid.
"Since Carl's relationship with Jill had flourished via e-mail, I suggested he and Sue use it to stay in touch. This allowed her to air her concerns and him to answer on his own timetable -- as long as it was within 24 hours. The 24-hour rule also applied to face-to-face conversations. If Sue wanted to discuss something, she had to give Carl advance notice. If he wasn't ready, they set a specific time to talk.
"To restore their emotional intimacy, I encouraged Sue and Carl to go out to dinner or take in a movie by themselves. 'We already know you do well in a group. Now it's time to enjoy being alone again.'
"The biggest challenge was rebuilding sexual trust after his affair. They began with nonsexual touching exercises. At first Sue saw any loving touch as a prelude to sex. But Carl was gentle and patient and after several weeks both were eager to make love. 'The sex was amazing,' Sue reported afterward, adding, 'now I'm more afraid of losing him than ever.'
"Fortunately, by then I was confident that that wouldn't happen. After six months of counseling, Carl didn't mention renewing his pledge not to see Jill. When I brought it up, he said, 'There's no need. I told Jill that Sue and I are a team and we're staying that way.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2011.