"He's Sleeping with a Colleague"

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The Therapist Says

Eaker Weil: Adultery doesn't have to end in divorce. But it is a wake-up call -- a very loud one -- that something is seriously wrong with the relationship. Still, if a couple can learn to recognize the real motivations for the infidelity, as well as the skills to deal with the underlying problems, they will be able to survive the trauma.

In my experience, however, an affair that's been going on for years is much harder to reconcile than a one-night stand, since a person who has a history of deception is likely to continue to lie over and over again. Nevertheless, Rob insists he wants to stay with Valerie and, though unsure of success, he seems ready to at least give counseling a try.

Before we can begin, however, he must first take responsibility for his actions and end the affair with Claire. That means breaking off all contact -- phone calls, letters, messages. You cannot fix what is wrong with a marriage by adding another complication to it. And all the counseling in the world can't help if there are three people in a relationship. I knew it wouldn't be easy, since Rob and Claire's professional responsibilities put them in the same banking and legal circles, but New York is a large enough city that Rob could, with effort, manage it.

Once he did, we began discussions aimed at uncovering, with clarity and without blame, the reasons for the affair in the first place. As we discussed the wounds and lessons from their respective childhoods, Valerie and Rob began to feel closer to each other. Confiding their personal histories and fears, and empathizing with each other as they spoke, didn't make the affair less upsetting but it did allow them to understand why they both felt inadequate and unsafe in their marriage. Hearing the depth and intensity of each other's feelings also helped them see that they had been reacting more to past experiences than to each other. Over the following weeks, they began to feel more like allies than enemies.

At this point, they were ready to make specific changes to manage their differences and make sure the temptation for Rob to stray didn't arise again. The most difficult changes focused on restoring trust. To do this, I pointed out that they may at first have to act as if they feel more loving, more secure and more forgiving than they really do. For Rob, this meant not just apologizing with words but by showing Valerie in concrete ways how important she was to him. For Valerie, it meant acknowledging Rob's efforts with love and support. This was particularly hard for her since she rarely took her own needs into account and was still struggling with so much pain and anger. However, I told her that if she waited until she felt no ambivalence at all toward Rob, she might wait forever

I asked them both to list behavior changes they want their partner to make. Valerie said she wants Rob to let her know every time he saw or spoke with Claire. She also expected to be kept informed of his business meetings and travels so she knows where he was as well as when he's working late and with whom; that he talk to her about his intimate feelings about life and work; and that he share with her his hopes for their future together. She also needed Rob to hold her and be more affectionate outside of the bedroom so she felt cared for.

On his list, Rob wrote that he wanted Valerie to stop criticizing and lecturing him about having an occasional drink. And he hoped she'd spend more time with him, no matter what else was on her calendar.

These attempts at repair went slowly. One problem was that Valerie was so hurt and felt that she had been making so many accommodations for so long that Rob needed to demonstrate his loyalty first. `Your indignation is understandable,' I told her, `but it stands in the way of your ability to heal your wounds and heal the trust that has been broken. Try instead to adopt the attitude that if you change your behavior and become more open to him, he'll be more likely to respond in kind. Don't waste time arguing with yourself about whether your anger is justifiable. That only makes you feel like a victim. Putting your anger and pride aside will help you create a new life together.'

Over the next few months, Valerie was gradually able to do this. They began to spend more pleasurable time together, playing tennis, taking golf lessons together, and making new friends at the club. Several times, they left the girls with friends while they went skiing alone for the weekend.

In one of my private sessions with Rob, he confessed that he was disappointed in his lovemaking with Valerie since it lacked the lust and excitement of their early years. I explained that the passion one feels during the honeymoon stage of marriage couldn't be expected to last for twenty years. But just because something is different, doesn't mean it can't be better. I also suggested that they re-romanticize their relationship by thinking back to what turned them on sexually when they first met. What clothes did you wear? What perfume or aftershave lotion? 'Get dressed up when you go out for dinner,' I suggested. 'Make it feel special.'

Rebuilding trust after an affair can take at least a year, and every couple must find their own way. Rob and Valerie stopped counseling after two years, though I continue to see them from time to time. Most importantly, they've continued to show each other, every day, how much they care. By not retreating into silence, by listening with love to each other's concerns, and by making their marriage a priority, they are strengthening the intimacy that brought them together in the first place and keeping distance and alienation at bay.


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