"I Caught Him, Red-Handed, Cheating on Me!"
The Counselor's TurnTime Heals All
"When she first came to see me two weeks after her shocking discovery, Cheryl was still reeling," said the counselor. "Infidelity is a devastating shock to the heart and mind. She didn't think she could forgive him. I told her, 'Give yourself time. You can't accurately judge the viability of your marriage when you're so hurt and vulnerable.' Infidelity doesn't always doom a marriage, I added, but it takes time and hard work on both sides to get past it.
"Gary had already taken important steps: He'd immediately stopped seeing Shannon, took full responsibility for his actions, and told Cheryl repeatedly that he was determined to win back her trust. Slowly, Cheryl went through stages typical of a betrayed partner: sadness and weepiness interspersed with periods of intense anger. As she lashed out in those first few weeks, Gary felt helpless. 'I don't know what else to say or how to comfort her,' he said. I told him the only thing he could do was to be there and listen to her.
"These two had been unable to communicate effectively for a long time, and important reasons could be traced to their upbringings. Gary's suspicion that his father had been unfaithful was key: Infidelity often yields an emotional inheritance. As a child, Gary internalized the idea that cheating and withholding secrets was acceptable. He had no examples from his own family to show how a husband should or could respond to a wife's needs in a healthy way. So whenever Cheryl expressed her anxieties and fears, Gary felt anxious and built an emotional wall. He didn't realize that his ignoring Cheryl's feelings was so hurtful to her. I told him, 'When you say nothing, she thinks you don't care.'
"And while Gary was successful professionally, on a personal level he never felt truly appreciated or loved. Cheryl's preoccupation with their children made him feel disregarded as he did as a child, and her angry put-downs further wore him down. But Gary was too out of touch with his feelings to express them. Instead, he acted out -- first in a passive-aggressive manner, by yessing Cheryl to death, then by having an affair. Illicit sex with someone who looked up to him was exciting because it made him feel powerful.
"Like her mother, Cheryl had become comfortable in the role of victim and was negative and unforgiving. This distanced her from Gary and made her overfocus her attention on the children. It also allowed her to avoid resolving their problems. I told her, 'While Gary's affair was unquestionably wrong, you must understand that the way you treated him was also hurtful. By speaking to him in an angry, demeaning tone, you pushed him away.'
"After about six months of counseling, as Cheryl edged toward acknowledging the part she had played in the marital drama, her anger began to subside. As Gary became more genuinely responsive to her needs and concerns -- taking a greater role in disciplining the children, for example -- she worried less about his commitment to change.