"I Can't Forget What He Did"

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The Therapist Says

Moschetta: Steve's one-night stand is not the problem, but a symptom of long-brewing issues in this relationship. One of my goals in counseling was to help them recognize, and then take responsibility for, the ways in which they had both contributed to the problems they faced over the years.

However, marriage is a mutually created reality. Steve may have made a mistake, but Claudia is continuing to exacerbate problems and make the distance between them greater. While she has every right to feel deeply betrayed, the fact that she has nursed her anger for so long not only adds fuel to the fire but creates new flames.

I don't mean to minimize Claudia's pain. What Steve did was wrong; infidelity, even one time, and even if itsupposedly had no emotional strings attached to it, shatters the trust that is fundamental to a healthy marriage. Proving that he's worthy of that trust is going to take time and hard work on both their parts. But if Claudia wants to save her marriage, she has to stop collecting and nurturing her grievances. Holding a grudge benefits no one, least of all the grudge-holder.

What's more, I told her that revealing Steve's betrayal to their sons was also a betrayal, one that was potentially harmful to the children's sense of security and served no purpose other than further alienating Steve. This is an issue that needs to be kept between the two of them. Although rare is the person who does not fantasize about getting back at the one who wronged him or her, revenge is not always sweet--and there are far more effective, healthier ways to deal with broken trust.

One of my first steps was to make sure Claudia realized she was holding onto her grievances out of self-protection. Once she was clear on this, I worked to help her learn to speak up and say what's on her mind the moment she feels upset, ignored, unworthy or unloved. "He can't read your mind," I reminded her. "You have to tell him how you feel." I explained that the tone of voice she used with her husband was important to the message she wanted to deliver. Instead of snapping, she could say, in a firm but nonconfrontational, non-blaming way: "This isn't sitting right with me. Can we talk about it?"

Claudia also had to hone her empathy skills so Steve wouldn't feel that the things that were important to him were always being brushed aside or forgotten entirely. I told them that empathizing doesn't mean you have to make another person feel better by fixing their problems. Nor does it mean you both have to agree all the time. But it does mean that you need to take the time to really hear why a spouse is upset. Once she was able to do this, it put a whole new cast on their conversations. As Steve felt less and less like a victim, he began to participate more in the give-and-take of family discussions. Claudia started to view him as an ally rather than an adversary.

While learning to speak up and not be afraid of Claudia's reaction was important for Steve's self-confidence and self-worth, at the same time, he needed to learn how to constructively channel angry feelings. He handled anger the same way his father did: by yelling and screaming, rather than by working to resolve issues. Although Claudia has since made an effort to keep the house neater, and has insisted that Thomas and John do the same, Steve had to learn to cool down before his temper reached the critical stage. The time-honored tricks of counting to ten or leaving the room to regain his composure helped, as did making some small adjustments in his routine. For example, instead of coming directly into the house when he gets home, Steve takes fifteen minutes to either sit in the car and just think, or to walk around the block. Giving himself some transition time between his workday and his evening at home allows him to calm down.

This couple also learned to reconnect by sharing happy times instead of going their separate ways. Many couples in crisis allow the bad times to overshadow the good, and they often must make a concerted effort to shift gears. Steve was the one to do that this time: At one of our last sessions, he described what had happened the previous weekend. On Saturday morning, he had asked Claudia what she wanted to do that day. She shrugged and said she had a lot of errands to do. Steve persisted: "I didn't want it to be another wasted day. I suggested we do errands in the morning, but by 1 p.m., get together for a movie or just go for a walk. I don't give up so easily anymore." Not surprisingly, they had a wonderful day together. "I needed an extra nudge," Claudia admitted, "and I'm grateful Steve cared enough to give it to me."

By the time they ended counseling, Claudia finally had forgiven her husband. "I don't need to fight that battle anymore," she told me. "I love him, and I know he loves me."


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