Since publishing my first two books, Trailing: A Memoir and Five Flights Up, in which I discuss (among other things) dealing with infidelity in my marriage and building my practice as a psychotherapist who works with “trailing” spouses, I have received a consistent trickle of emails from other women who have found themselves struggling with either, or both, situations.
The editors at INSPIRELLE liked the idea of creating a forum for readers to (anonymously) submit their relationship conundrums and get some preliminary feedback about how a Marriage and Family Therapist sees the problem.
Our column kicks off with a letter from “Jane”:
I am from the United States and am 43 years old. My French husband, Thierry, is 45. Six years ago, he had an affair with one of his colleagues. It was almost like he had another life with her, as they travelled together for work, and even went on a company retreat to an exotic destination. I don’t know if I would ever have found out – or if he would have ultimately left me for her – but the whole awful truth came out because she died! She developed a glioblastoma that killed her within a year of discovery, and my husband’s grief was not at all commensurate with the sadness of losing a colleague. That is when I realized what had been going on, and he admitted the story in full. Of course, we were torn apart for months, and I really thought about leaving him for good, but we also have two children, who at the time were 7 and 5 years old.”
In my former life (in the USA) I had a good job in advertising, but I have not worked since relocating to France, and I feel very stuck. What makes this even more complicated is that my husband comes from a very Catholic family and the idea of divorce is basically unthinkable (to him and his ever-present family, who have also insinuated that I should not have been so reactive about his affair).
We have managed to stay together, but our “togetherness” has depended heavily on my swallowing my feelings for the sake of keeping on. I do not feel that Thierry has ever given me the empathy about what he did to me and our couple for me to be able to move forward in truly healthy and happy way. In spite of my pain at the time, I attended to his grief as it seemed the only human way to be in the face of a terrifying death, yet what about my grief? It’s like the death of this woman, and his grief about that, became bigger than my grief about my shattered world. As a result, I find myself, all these years later, acting out in ways that I am not proud of, trying to pull him into current “dramas,” just to get sympathy from him.
He refuses to talk about the affair anymore, yet I don’t feel like he ever really told me what I needed to know (and am still curious about). It’s like her death became bigger than any other aspect of the story, and because she did die – the ultimate terrible thing – I don’t feel entitled to push my “agenda” to find out what I want to know about… EVERYTHING!
So instead I complain a lot about France, the kids’ school, the fact that I gave up my career, the fact that I don’t really want to live here for the rest of my life, etc. We have been stumbling along for years like this, and I know that he is fed up and truthfully, so am I.
“I feel cheated out of my marriage, cheated out of a proper ‘let me make it up to you’ process and, larger still, cheated out of the stable life I may have had If I never agreed to leave my career for him. I don’t know how to move forward.”
(Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)
View from the Therapy Chair
According to the experts at the Couple’s Institute in Menlo Park, California, infidelity will generally lead to three possible outcomes:
- The disintegration/dismantling of the marriage
- An amazing (albeit painful and challenging) opportunity for growth and deepening of the couple’s relationship
- Chronic “survival” mode in which all the unresolved pain becomes entrenched and the “new normal” of the dynamic
Chronic survival mode is the one that Thierry and Jane have settled into, and they are clearly both suffering. If I could work with them in the therapy setting, the first question would be whether they are still motivated to work on their marriage. This may seem obvious if they have found their way to the consulting room, but sometimes a couple needs to be given “permission” to consider separation/divorce as an option and a healthy objective. If that is the case, the therapy will be crafted around providing the support needed for them to split up as humanely as possible, especially since children are involved.
If both Thierry and Jane say that saving the marriage is still the top priority, the next question is whether it’s possible for a couple with this much unresolved baggage to “upgrade” from chronic survival mode to a mutually satisfying, loving intimacy?
I would say yes, although it will take a lot of effort and commitment from both to retire the coping mechanisms they have been relying on to “get through” on a day-to-day basis – namely, conflict avoidance and displacement of issues/themes (for example complaining about France instead of complaining about the undiscussed affair; treating grief about death as the “ultimate” grief that cancels out all others).
The discussion would also need to simultaneously include an action plan for Jane to find her feet in France, especially professionally speaking, as one is not really “choosing” to stay if one feels unable to leave.
How to go forward?
A couple like Jane and Thierry would really benefit from the guidance of an experienced marriage counselor. If that is not possible, something they could try on their own would be using a book as a guide to examine their relational dynamics. Two excellent titles are After the Affair by Janis A. Spring and Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendricks. I would recommend that each member of the couple get their own copy and that they agree to completing chunks of reading within a certain time, followed by discussion “dates.” The obvious challenge to this self-help approach is that no matter how excellent a book may be, it cannot serve as a guide in real-time when entrenched patterns emerge.