NOGA (RUBINSTEIN) NABARRO Ph.D. & SARA IVANIR Ph.D.**
מאמר זה מופיע כפרק בספר "זוגות במשבר" בעריכת מאוריציו אנדולפי:*
Terapia delle coppie di mezza eta in crisi per una relazione extraconiugale (1999) (p. 177 – 225) La crisi della coppia – una prospettiva sistemico-relazione Maurizio Andolfi (ed) Milano: Raffaello Cortina Editore
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**המחברות: ממייסדות ומנהלות "מכון שינוי" – הכשרה וטיפול מערכתי במשפחה, בפרט ובארגון – הרצליה
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THE THERAPY OF EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR CRISIS IN LONG-TERM, MIDLIFE MARRIAGES ©
NOGA (RUBINSTEIN) NABARRO Ph.D. & SARA IVANIR Ph.D.
There probably isn't a Family or Marital Therapist who has not encountered in the course of his or her work the devastating emotional and relational jolt that follows the discovery or disclosure of an extramarital affair. Finding out that a spouse is having an affair often completely throws off the emotional center of gravity of the people involved and hurls them into a maelstrom of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The blow may be so overwhelming as to drown those involved under its weight.
There is no "typical" case of a couple in extramarital affair crises. Affairs assume a wide variety of forms and are conducted in many creative ways. The meanings attached to them and the motivations for having them are many and varied, as are the circumstances of discovery and the resulting effects. The spouses' values and attitudes toward the affair are often idiosyncratic. Their fluctuating behaviors are strongly colored by factors such as the stage they are in, in their life cycle and in their marriage, their individual and couple-systemic dynamics, their value system and the social-cultural context in which the affair takes place.
Crises following the discovery of extramarital affairs are commonly described by the people involved as "crazy times", with the partners perceiving themselves or the other as behaving insanely or irrationally and being "out of their minds". The individuals involved in the crisis may be seen as "foreign", "a stranger" or "not him/herself", with the spouse who is having the affair (from here-on the "involved spouse") often perceived as having come under the influence of his or her lover to behave in a previously unimaginable (and usually negative) manner.
The abrupt, chaotic, sometimes extreme changes in the behaviors, feelings and circumstances of the couple may confuse and perplex the novice therapist Examples of these include: expressions – often puzzling to the onlooker – of intense jealousy and a sense of betrayal among couples who have long despised one another and deplored any physical or other intimate contact. Similarly, sudden stormy expressions of love may surprise those involved and change previous plans to leave the home. Conversely, a loss of perspective and responsibility may lead to desire or action to harm the other party in ways, which would previously have seemed unfathomable. Some show extreme rage when they find that their spouse conducts an extramarital affair, despite of the fact that they themselves are having or have had one or more affairs, or have been waiting for their spouse to do so in order to escape a long unwanted but binding marriage. In some instances, spouses who have sworn that they will dissolve the marriage if their partner has an affair turn out to be unwilling to do so once confronted with the fact. Spouses, who assert that their marriages are more important than any affair, discover that they are willing to leave their home and family because of one. Some become involved in a "one-night-stand" that ends up lasting for years, finding themselves torn between two partners, and occasionally two families. Others are certain that they have finally discovered "the perfect relationship", for which they are willing to abandon their marriage, only to become severely disillusioned, flooded with anxiety and filled with longings to return home.
Amidst all this chaos it is nevertheless possible, when there are basic feelings of affection and the marital relationship is sufficiently satisfying and stable in its main aspects, for the crisis to be utilized as a lever for an improved and deeper intimacy and the development of supporting relationship patterns.
The present chapter focuses on our therapeutic work, with long-term midlife marriage partners experiencing acute crisis precipitated by the discovery of an extramarital romantic-sexual affair. The discussion is confined to the therapeutic work during the crisis phase only and to those couples whose initially expressed motivation in the rehabilitation of their marriages. Readers interested in cases beginning in divorce initiation as well, are referred to the work of Iwanir & Ayal (1991), Brown (1992), and Moultrap (1990).
Several authors have successfully addressed the widespread phenomenon of extramarital affairs (Moultrup, 1990, Brown, 1991, Pittman, 1995). These works provide comprehensive coverage of the theoretical and therapeutic issues, both individual and systemic, related to affairs and their precursors.). A thorough review and discussion of the extensive research that has been conducted regarding the extramarital affairs and related issues is unfortunately beyond the scope of the present chapter.
For the purposes of this discussion, we define the crisis period as beginning with the discovery or disclosure of the affair, although major stress symptoms may already appear during the pre-discovery period. The crisis period in therapy ends when the major stress symptoms subside, the system has stabilized and a definite choice has been made about the direction of marriage and the therapy. At this point, therapeutic sessions progress from concern with issues directly related to the extramarital affair to a more in-depth treatment of general relationship and familial issues (which are beyond the scope of the present chapter). The length of this period is idiosyncratic to the people involved and the general nature of the couple's relationship. In our experience, however, if therapy takes place immediately following the break of the crisis, this period usually lasts between four to six months.
A crisis during the midlife period of long-term marriages is often more severe and, if not treated correctly, may pose greater danger to the survival of the marriage than crises during other periods of the marriage. First, spouses who may have been prepared to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children become less willing to do so once the children have grown up, and they are more inclined to value personal fulfillment. Secondly, extra marital affair during the midlife period poses a severe threat to the emotional state of the individual, particularly the "betrayed" spouse, due to the sensitive issues that surface during this time, such as sexual self esteem, self worth and existential fears of the future. These include the threat that in the event of separation it will be impossible to find another partner (particular concern of midlife women) and fear of losing the family. This is even more so in cases of childless marriages where the strong bond between the spouses, rather than children, is what held them together.
We find this group of clients to be particularly motivated to enter into a thorough therapeutic process. There is a heightened demand for honesty, integrity and depth in the relationship. Many couples refuse to continue to settle for "white lies" or a "double life" in order to preserve the stability of the marriage and to allow life to continue peacefully and with less conflicts. The couple is more open to and interested in an improvement in the quality of their life and their relationship (McGoldrich & Carter, 1988), rather than focusing on career development and child rearing,
In the ensuing discussion, we begin with the ingredients that constitute a fertile ground for the blossoming of extramarital involvement in these marriages. We then continue to describe the course of the crisis phase and the five stages of therapy along this course. In the description of each stage, we focus on the major themes and interventions, which we conceive as characteristic in our therapy. We have chosen to use the term "involved spouse" for the spouse who is directly involved in the extramarital affair and the "betrayed" spouse for the other. We have added the quotation marks to connote that this is the most common feeling of the other spouse and emphasize the understanding that at times the affair is a result of a conscious or unconscious collusion of both spouses.
THE FERTILE GROUND OF EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR
What could make a long-term marriage a particularly fertile ground for the blossoming of extramarital affairs? What makes marital partners particularly likely to either initiate or consent to an extramarital affair during this stage?
The mid-life stage is a lengthy and complicated period in the life cycle of the couple. The spouses reach this stage after a lengthy socialization into the belief that it is primarily marriage and family that make life meaningful (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1987). However, it is during this stage that the need to refocus, review and often re-establish the marital arrangement becomes highlighted (McCullough & Rutenberg 1988, p. 289). Spouses usually begin to strive to or acquire more freedom to explore their personal needs and they begin to examine their "marital contract" from a new vantagepoint. Issues such as dependence/independence, autonomy within the relationship, and opportunities for self-fulfillment need to be opened for re-negotiation. The spouses, each of whom is dealing with personal transitions, re-evaluations, dilemmas and fears typical of this period, while looking ahead to older age, become increasingly aware of their need for intimacy, affection, love and support for their self-esteem.
Midlife long-term marriage partners having an extramarital affair crisis often surprise their cohorts since their marriages seem solid and satisfying in many ways. However, upon closer inspection, they often prove to be handicapped with regard to the satisfaction of an important emotional need, which may have been well-compensated for in the past but has become more acute due to the mid-life factors described previously.
The following are the more prevalent marital patterns contributing to the fertile ground of extramarital affairs. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to articulate the details of the individual's patterns and dynamics. The reader is referred to Moultrup (1990), Brown (1991) and Pittman (1995). Since the following patterns are often related, a couple may show several of them at the time of crisis.
Intimacy avoidance resulting in emotional detachment:
The following description is illustrative:
"Each of us lived in his own world and our paths didn't cross much. We could have continued living this way for many more years, just meeting for half an hour a day, talking only when necessary, and spending a few hours together at the weekend, usually with family or friends. We never shared much about what we were doing, our thoughts or our feelings. We seldom went to bed at the same time. She always took her papers to bed and worked on them at night, and I prepared work schedules for the company."
The avoidance of intimacy may be a "shared project" of both partners from the beginning of the relationship, or it may develop over the years as a way of avoiding frustrations about the inability to share intimate personal feelings and dilemmas.
At some point in the relationship, these marital partners unconsciously or consciously decide not to be intimately involved in one another's emotional life inside or outside of the home. One or both may cease to be curious or really interested in the world of the other. Over time, a certain kind of emotional detachment and "relational blindness" may develop, combined with the former feeling of comfort and trust, that is not really tested and may no longer be appropriate. This detachment creates a situation where facts are heard and known at some cognitive level, without them penetrating to the emotional-perceptual level or being placed in the proper relational-emotional context. The cessation of being excitement or curious about one another, results in an absence of opportunities for new sexual and other emotional revelations and experiences and creates a craving for new adventures.
Conflict avoidance leading to the creation secrets:
These couples maintain the stability of the relationship primarily by "not seeing and not knowing". The apparent "peace" and stability of the relationship allows for a sense of comfort and a kind of friendship and trust, which has no solid base in reality. Neither of them can be truly aware of "hidden extensions that one might have behind his back" (Rubinstein-Nabarro, 1996).
Some of these spouses view their marital partner as an inseparable part of their own identity and existence, making any conflict or discontent that could threaten the relationship intolerable. Conflictual needs are hidden or resolved outside of the marriage. The relationship is kept rigidly stable, becoming an "as if" relationship, often based on pretense rather than on the mutual satisfaction of real needs. In this kind of marriage, taking a lover is one way to challenge or shake up a rigid marital relationship.
Years of open, unresolved conflicts:
The pressure to resolve issues within the relationship leaves many personal and relational needs unsatisfied, leading to cumulative frustration and bitterness and a need to search for solutions outside the relationship.
Years of unsatisfactory or absent sex and /or physical affection:
One or both spouses exhibiting this pattern avoid (or have given up) dealing with the problem in any effective and open way. The problems most often mentioned are lack of passion and/or desire and attraction, sexual dysfunction such as impotence and chronic premature ejaculation, inhibiting or inhibited sexual behavior, lack of sexual sensitivity, chronic use of sex as a power tactic, as well as long-standing difficulty (usually of one of the spouses) with the physical expression of love and affection.
Chronic Dissatisfaction with the Power-Balance in the Relationship:
Rubinstein-Nabarro (1996), maintains that many couples come in a state of a stalemated imbalance of power (in the sense of influence or ability to get needs met) involving one or more important issues. The stalemate is kept because each spouse feels unable to make a move (toward a more harmonious balance), or, they do not know that they can make a move, or which move to make or, how and when. What often stops them is the fear of additional pain, and the fear of losing personal or interpersonal power. They do not see the healing potential of their "moving". Most couples try to reach a state of equilibrium in their relationship by way of perfect symmetry (equivalence or identity of power, roles, values, feelings, thoughts, behaviors, etc.). Using the Seesaw analogy as a multidimensional metaphor. In a state of stalemated imbalance, the partner who is "up in the air" must use an "extension" on his/her side, either by lengthening the pole of the Seesaw or by adding weight, so that he/she can gain more power to be lowered until equilibrium is reached. Taking a lover may serve as such lengthening extension, and threats of separation or divorce as added "weight". Taking a lover, however, may prove to be an extension which is too "long" or too "heavy". For example the wife who takes a lover in an attempt to make her apathetic husband a "little" jealous may find that it totally incapacitated him with jealousy that almost did, or did in fact, cost her the marriage.
On the other hand, the affair, being a hidden extension, cannot possibly achieve its goal unless it becomes visible; i.e. is discovered or revealed.
Preserving the myth of the "ideal marriage and family":
Often, the spouses involved are considered "ideal couples". They do many things together, they "look good" in public, and appear to enjoy very friendly relations; in fact, they have developed sophisticated mechanisms for covering up the "holes" in the relationship. The marriage may be held together by belief in family rather than by strong emotional bonds between the spouses'. "Issues are dealt with by attempting to make the marriage, the partner and the self fit the desired image of Family" (Brown, 1991, p. 143). Neither spouse knows how to build an intimate relationship or even what it could be like. The emphasis is on what should be done and feelings are put aside. It seems more important that the marriage seem "good" than that it be good. However, this kind of life is too stifling for everyone's development. When the conditions are ripe, an extramarital affair helps in breaking the facade.
Personal changes or transitions:
In addition to the above other more immediate factors may play a role, such as: significant personal changes or transitions. In these cases the psychological-emotional make up of one or both of the spouses, or the structure and dynamics of the couple system is seriously challenged or "shaken-up", without the proper capability or tools to withstand the pressures or to accommodate the changes being available. Examples of transitions such as these may be a late birth of a child or grandchild; a sudden major success or failure; the change to a much more demanding or prestigious job or – conversely – to a less valued one; the death of a parent, a child or some other significant other; some other stressful life event, like a serious disease in the family (or of the partner), the contracting of a serious handicap or the discovery of homosexuality in one of the children. During these transitions a much greater need and demand for emotional, physical and/or sexual support is experienced, although some spouses react in the opposite way, requiring – consciously or unconsciously – some emotional distancing from the other spouse or the family as a whole. An extramarital affair may supply both needs (Moultrup, 1990).
Challenges to the Previous Value System:
A 38-year old married woman has advanced professionally, and in her new job finds herself surrounded by handsome, intelligent men who, besides valuing her mind, also find her sexually desirable, something she has never felt in her own marriage. This transition creates a favorable change in her self-perception and esteem as a woman, accompanied by a change in her value system. She begins to feel that "life is short and I deserve to enjoy my sexuality". My faithfulness appears unjust and old-fashioned. Exposure to challenges like these may happen through new social-psychological encounters, such as following immigration or emigration, or through participation in large psycho-educational groups or other intensive encounters providing a sense of intimacy with others over a short and intensive period.
Challenges to the Marital and/or Family Structure:
An example may be a situation where a wife starts to earn considerably more money than her husband, or when her new position demands her increasing absence from home so that she is unable to carry out her former duties, thus altering the division of roles and perhaps creating a hierarchical change and unbalancing the power-relationship. Similarly, when the husband's job requires long period of absences from home, leaving the wife feeling that she has "no partner" to share her life with.
Our approach to extramarital affair crisis therapy in long-term midlife marriages rests on four basic assumptions:
1. An extramarital affair is a multilevel experience and a truly systemic event necessitating a systemic approach. Inherent in the definition and pursuit of the extramarital affair is the ongoing triangular relationship (wife, husband, lover/s), with all the accompanying systemic implications. Directly or indirectly, an extramarital affair strongly affects (and is affected by) the relationship structure, as well as the dynamics and pragmatics of the couple and the immediate family system, the extended and/or intergenerational system, and the more distant social or work systems. Continuous engagement in a secretive relationship inevitably creates distancing patterns between the involved spouse and the rest of the family, while directly affecting the behavioral and communication patterns within the family and the balance of power in the couple's relationship. All this becomes even more complicated in cases where a member of the immediate or extended family or a family friend is an active or passive "partner to the secret", or when colleagues at work who know both spouses are aware of the affair (for example, when the affair takes place at work).
To treat the extramarital affair as an individual or unidimensional event, or even just as a couple's event, would be greatly limiting and even unethical to the point of inviting potential disaster. This will be evident in the examples given later.
2. The therapy of an extramarital affair crisis must be an integrated therapy. The systemic approach must integrate an understanding of the systemic context with a developmental framework that takes into consideration the life cycle of the individual and the family, as well as the individuals' multi-generational issues and dynamics (Moultrup 1990). The structure of therapy may include couple sessions, individual sessions and family sessions, as well as occasionally sessions to which members of the extended system are invited. An exploratory approach is necessary for the different facets of the extramarital affair and its meaning to the individual and the marriage to be exposed and the event to be transformed into an opportunity for mutual development. To allow for improvisation according to the situation at hand, the therapist must have a wide variety of techniques at his or her disposal.
3. Extramarital affair crisis could become a developmental opportunity. We see the extramarital affair crisis as a potentially important opportunity for both spouses to become involved in each others' emotional worlds and to rebuild the marital relationship in a way that will allow them both to develop and have their needs met.
4. Awareness of therapist's position is essential. We believe that a non-judgmental attitude toward the affair itself is crucial for a multilevel understanding of it, as well as for the success of the therapy, particularly in the treatment of the present population. By this we do not mean remaining "neutral" in the face of bluntly destructive or irresponsible behaviors which may accompany the affair or its being kept secret. The therapist must be aware of his/her own values and needs as well as how his/her own life experiences with this issue influence the approach and method taken in therapy. This awareness is particularly important in preventing pre-mature suggestions and /or directions (such as directly or indirectly suggesting separation or the involvement of others).
Issues of Commitment and Choice
Issues of commitment and choice
We think of commitment and choice as major issues in extramarital affair crisis therapy thus meriting their own section before we move on to discuss the course of the therapy.
In our experience, therapeutic treatment of these issues during the crisis phase is crucial to the success of the therapy. If the therapist is not sufficiently cautious or aware of this she may be tempted by one or both of the spouses to bring these issues to a premature closure or, conversely, leave them festering for too long. Such behavior may hinder the effectiveness of the therapy or even obstruct it. This is particularly true when the spouses wish to continue their marriage rather than to separate or divorce.
Issues of choice and commitment in an extramarital affair crisis can be intricate due to the inevitable entanglement of and confusion between the various levels of choice and commitment. In addition, working with these issues may evoke strong reactions in therapists, relating to their own personal values and life experiences.
We distinguish between several levels of choice and commitment which must be differentiated and clarified in therapy during the crisis phase before the couple can effectively move on to the next phase – that of seriously looking into their relationship and making the necessary changes for its continued development. Indeed, we recommend that any promises made during the crisis phase which do not correspond to the spouses' current level of choice and commitment be taken with a grain of salt or even be challenged.
The first commitment the couple must make is that of taking responsibility for their actions and a willingness to be accountable for and acknowledge the effect that these actions have had, have and will have on their spouse or others in the familial or social network. It is imperative this commitment be made as close to the start of therapy as possible. Both partners must be willing and able to clearly draw the line regarding how much harm (emotional or otherwise) they might be willing to inflict on one another. This is crucial during the crisis phase and may require sacrifices on the part of the spouse. For example, if a husband swears, even when faced with concrete evidence, that he no longer meets with his lover and labels his wife's suspicions "paranoid", he should know that he is behaving in a "crazy-making" manner and examine the extent to which he is willing to make a commitment to take responsibility for his actions and be truthful. Such a commitment may require sacrifices, such as stop meeting the lover or, if he chooses to continue the affair, replacing the seeming convenience of lies with a more truthful and responsible form of interaction. The wife may need to "sacrifice" her wish to express her pain by inappropriate and/or destructive forms of revenge, in order to create an atmosphere enabling the confrontation of immediately important issues. Both may have to commit themselves not to unnecessarily involve others or not to triangulate the children. Both must mutually commit themselves to avoid taking unilateral steps such as filing for divorce, or involving the children.
This commitment to responsibility is essential for the creation of some sense of stability and rudimentary trust, and to help reduce the amount of stress involved in the crisis. In this the therapist assists by means of direct and indirect statements and questions, which lead the clients to examine their actions, explore possible meanings and predict future effects.
The transition from the announcement of the decision and/or commitment to discontinue the affair and/or "return home", to the commitment to invest in the marriage and relationship is not an automatic one, although one or both of the spouses often like to pretend (sometimes unconsciously) that it is. The enormous amount of stress, the pain and confusion, their search for comfort and stability and fear of tackling major issues and thus further rocking the boat may cause one or both of the spouses to push for premature closure at this stage. This creates a sense of pseudo-togetherness, which then becomes a source of ambivalence in the therapy, resulting in confusing and incongruent messages, such as "We are together, but I can't promise that it will never happen again". A common mistake is to confuse the expressions of intense positive emotions by the "betrayed" spouse for true choice and a higher level commitment (see Euphoria-Dysphoria section below). In fact, if the therapist participates in the push toward premature closure, the result may be intensely ambivalent behavior that might lead to a separation crisis or another affair.
Four levels of choice, with four corresponding levels of commitment
In our therapy we distinguish between four levels of choice, with four corresponding levels of commitment. When appropriate, this distinction is made clear to the couple. It is important to stress that the following applies to both spouses, even though during the crisis phase it is more common for the involved spouse to be considered the main focus. The commitment of the uninvolved spouse should by no means be taken for granted. The four levels of choice-commitment are:
1. Choosing the intact family versus going with the lover: This is often the case at the start of the crisis. The involved partner agrees to "stay home" or "return home". However, this does not necessarily mean that he or she is giving up his or her lover, i.e. chooses unequivocally to discontinue the affair, both practically and emotionally. The involved partner may choose to come back for any number of reasons. As one wife admitted:
"I realized that I don't want to break up the family at this stage…I don't want to hurt the kids. I want to keep the family together. Besides I am very scared to be alone."
In other words, she opted for her family, rather than for the marriage or the marital partner. This is a very rudimentary level of choice and commitment. If the spouse/s remain at this level, and major issues of the relationship remain unresolved, it is extremely likely that the affair will be renewed or followed by another once the crisis stage has passed.
2. Choosing the marriage as opposed to choosing the lover: At this level, the involved partner has made a decision or commitment in favor of the marriage and acknowledges being willing to give up his or her lover. This, however, is not yet a commitment to the marital relationship. An example of this level is a partner who says: "When I look around I realize that this is the best option for me and I shouldn't give it up. I am willing to give up this affair if it is necessary to keep the marriage, and make the best of it. Perhaps love isn't so important."
At this level, too, the likelihood that the extramarital affair will continue or restart increases as soon as the level of frustration and/or disappointment in the relationship rises.
3. Choosing the marital relationship. At this level, each partner recognizes that their basic marital relationship has many good qualities and that neither wants to lose what it has to offer them. These qualities may include friendship, episodes of closeness, successful parenthood, common interests, episodes of fun and basic affection or love. At this level, spouses are usually willing to commit themselves to couple therapy in the hope that it will help them acquire what they feel is missing (for instance, intimacy, passion and self worth). Often, at this level, although there is no active affair, the involved partner still needs to keep in touch with his or her ex-lover, at least in his mind, to leave the door open in the event that the goals of therapy are not achieved. There is a still higher level of commitment to be reached.
4. Choosing the spouse in his or her own right. It is at this level that a true and complete commitment to the relationship, the marital partner and the therapy is made. The partners are now ready to do what it takes in therapy and achieve true intimacy at home. The involved partner recognizes that it is essential, rather than merely desirable, that he or she completely excises the extramarital relationship. Realizing the emotional harm this might cause, he or she becomes truly willing to sacrifice the secretive relationship and keep the promise not again to engage in one. This is accompanied by a commitment to utilize therapy to discover more effective weights and extensions in the relationship (Rubinstein-Nabarro, 1996).
This fourth level of commitment is rarely reached in the crisis phase, although the first building blocks for its construction may be fashioned there.
Throughout the therapy we take the position that commitment is a relational dynamic, motivated by a will to reciprocity, to give and take, and that it can be grasped only through testing, rather than through a monologic belief or stance (Krasner, 1995, p.26). We like Krasner's (1995) definition of a committed relationship as one that "exists between the poles of truth and trust" (p. 25).
THE COURSE OF THE THERAPY
There are three main tasks that we set to accomplish during the crisis phase:
- To reduce the acute stress symptoms and stabilize the system;
- To utilize the crisis as a lever to further personal and couple development (through dealing with issues immediately relevant to the affair and the "fertile ground issues"
- To help the couple reaches clarity about their level of choice and commitment to the marriage and to each other based on realistic expectations.
Once these goals are reached and relevant relationship and family issues take more importance than issues directly related to the affair, the crisis phase is over.
The course of therapy follows the natural course of events as presented by the experiences and needs of the couple as well as the therapeutic plan or strategy we employ. The five stages of therapy are continuous and may overlap.
As with any personal or relationship crisis and/or trauma there are numerous elements with which the therapy must deal. Attending to each one will require a much more detailed work. We have chosen to focus only on the major themes that we consider uniquely relevant to the extramarital affair crisis.
Throughout the crisis phase the therapist carefully monitors and regulates the emotional and interactional processes in order to prevent the development of a post-traumatic reaction. She sees to it that the channels of communication remain open, collaborates on developing alternative ways of relating and ensures motivation to stay with the process beyond the initial reduction of stress.
During the crisis phase itself we often opt to work in co-therapy. This ensures that we do not fall into the traps that this phase often sets for the therapist as well as that we are able to be more responsive to all the needs of the individuals involved. We also allow two hours for the first few sessions and at least one and half-hours for the subsequent sessions.
THE FIRST STAGE: THE ACUTE CRISIS AND SETTING THE STAGE FOR THERAPY.
The first few sessions deal with the initial acute crisis with the aim of reducing the turmoil and stress reactions, and to establish some sense of control and create a safe place for the necessary exploration prior to further therapeutic work. The major themes in this phase revolve around the circumstances of the discovery, the patterns of behavior following the discovery, handling symptoms of stress, and an analysis of the pre-discovery period. The following monologue by a client clearly expresses most of the issues that will come up during the first stage:
"How does one re-establish confidence and security once they are destroyed? Until this happened, trust and security were the anchors of our mutual life…. The best thing that existed in both our lives. I never had doubts, even though we were very liberal. It happened 'right under my nose' without me having the slightest idea that their long-standing friendship would end up in bed. When she told me I thought I'd go out of my mind. When we married I said that if she ever had an affair I would leave home. When it happened I told our 15-year old daughter, and she said 'our home was so good, so pleasant and so quiet that I was always afraid something would happen".
"I feel terribly hurt by the one-sided solution she has found for herself. She found a solution that will solve only her part of the problem, whatever it is. I feel enraged when we talk about what caused her be unfaithful. She only remembers one discussion we had some five years ago, when she told me that I didn't satisfy her in bed and that I wasn't affectionate enough with her. But she admitted I was a good husband. Her solution, by finding herself an answer outside, was destructive and it could have led to a divorce. She should have taken that into account! Is sex and affection sufficient reason to endanger everything good you having? Why didn't she suggest that we go to counseling before she took such a drastic step?
The pain, the humiliation are so great, I sometimes feel like breaking things, like going out of my mind with anger. I can now see how she gradually distanced herself from me. I thought, well, she is at that age – hormones and all that – so she isn't so interested. I didn't want to ask too much and I stopped trying. I can't stop thinking about 'them' and 'how they did it'. It is always there. What was the nature of their friendship during all that time? She said she could talk to him for hours. That he was prepared to listen to her stories. I now understand why her behavior during this period was so strange and nasty. Even now that she has said it's over. Was the separation from him so difficult? I cannot shake it off. I can't tell anybody, I am too ashamed. So I have nobody to talk to, so it erupts in frequent bouts of anger. Sometimes I cry…I can't really function. I do my utmost to control myself but I have to know all the details. It hurts me when she tells me and it hurt when she doesn't. Who promises that she won't do it again, once she has broken the barriers of morality and faithfulness? I am not sure I want to live with it! I don't want to be the second best and I don't want to go to bed with her thinking that she has been with another man!"
The Circumstances of Discovery
Ample space should be allowed in therapy for the exploration of the circumstances of the discovery or disclosure of the affair, and the behaviors that followed. Not only have these contributed to the intensity of the crisis, but also they may have important implications for the therapeutic intervention.
There are many ways in which an extramarital may become explicit. The involved partner may himself disclose the affair, or it may come to light accidentally or after a period of suspicion and investigation.
Certain particularly traumatic circumstances may further complicate the therapy in this first stage, for instance when a wife unexpectedly returned home to find her husband with his lover in her own bed. The experience of betrayal, invasion and humiliation was catastrophic for her. She felt emotionally rapped, and for a considerable time she was unable to sleep in her bed (where the emotional rape has taken place) or even enter her bedroom. Switching bedrooms and furniture would not only have raised suspicions with their children, from whom the affair was kept secret, but also created financial difficulties. Much therapeutic effort was needed for her to be able to reclaim her room, so as not to disrupt the entire family's life.
Another particularly difficult situation is one where one of the children (usually an adolescent or grown-up) is directly or indirectly involved in the discovery or disclosure, as in the case of the man who, entirely unknown to his family, for 12 years carried on a love affair with his secretary. As the years passed he felt increasingly stuck between his marriage and the other woman, yet unable to resolve his conflict and take a decision. He unconscious brought the situation to a head by offering his newly- married 24-yr. old daughter a job at his office – something he had never done before. She soon discovered the affair and, feeling "betrayed" by her father, responded with rage and disappointment. She revealed the matter to her mother, whose immediate reaction was to inform her friends and family and threaten a divorce. The daughter, who by now felt extremely guilty over the exposure of the affair and the threat of divorce, became so completely preoccupied with her parent's crisis as to fall into a depression and lose interest in her own husband, causing her own marriage to become threatened. Her reactions and involvement further intensified her parent's marital crisis, obstructing the spouse's ability to effectively deal with the issues at hand. Thus the extramarital relationship turned into a complex and traumatic family affair with a greatly prolonged crisis stage, which necessitated intensive family therapy in various formats.
In some cases the "betrayed" spouse discovers that friends and/or colleagues and/or extended family members knew about the affair and, either directly or indirectly, cooperated in hiding it. In such cases the feelings of betrayal and humiliation are greatly intensified and also come to include the observers. The resulting feelings may be so unbearable that the "betrayed" spouse disengages or even cuts him/herself off from most or all social and /or familial relationship, thus losing potential sources of support. "I don't want to see anyone because I don't know who collaborated and how, and what they have been told or what they think." In this case it may be useful to include a close friend in an individual session with the spouse.
It is of considerable importance to inquire whether another therapy is taking place. This is crucial when the decision to disclose is linked with the announcement of a wish for divorce. Often this decision (as we shall see in the case of Hanna and David) has ripened in the strictly individual therapy of the involved spouse. A not uncommon situation is represented by the following example: A 53-yr. old man, who has enjoyed a stable marriage for 30 years, has a passionate affair with a younger woman. He goes to a psychiatrist who after a few sessions tells him that his marriage is obviously over and advises him to start a new and authentic life. He encourages the man not to drag-it-out, but to confront his wife and avoid unnecessary discussions and explanations. In general, as soon as a good alliance is established we insist that the therapy be centered in one place for it to be effective.
Next is the introduction of the case of Hanna and David. We will use the course of their therapy to illustrate and discuss the handling of major issues during the therapeutic stages.
The Case of Hanna and David
Hanna and David are both 52 years old. David is managing director of a large company and Hanna is a lawyer. Both have had extremely successful careers. Although married for 28 years, they have been "together" since high school. They have three children, only the youngest of which is still at home. Hanna called in an acute state of distress, asking for couple therapy, saying that she and her husband, David, are in a crisis due to her discovery of his long-standing and recently more impetuous extramarital affair. David has told her he wants a divorce, but he is willing to come to therapy. However, before the first session took place, David had already changed his mind, telling Hanna that he wanted to come back home. At the start of the first session the couple relate the circumstances of the disclosure of the affair.
The whole family went for a weekend in a resort to celebrate the couple's wedding anniversary. The atmosphere was good and they all enjoyed themselves and had fun. Back at home, Hanna asked David about some land they planned on buying. David answered " I decided to leave home". Hanna relayed: "I was stunned but I held myself together. I took a deep breath and asked him if he has somebody…an affair…he said: " yes, I have had someone and I want us to get divorced, I feel I need to revive and refresh my life and build a new family". I said I need to understand more deeply what happened to David. The children don't know a thing."
As they talked some more at home David disclosed that he knew his lover for about a year but only during the last few months their relationship developed into a "full sexual affair". The "other" woman is younger than Hanna and unknown to her, but refused to say more in order not to hurt Hanna. Hanna reacted with tremendous anxiety, stopped eating and lost weight, was unable to sleep and unable to stop thinking about it. A few days later David said that he has thought about it and that he takes back his decision. He wants to stay home. He shared that it was the psychiatrist he was seeing in the last few weeks that "pushed me to the conclusion that the right thing for me to do is to separate and I deserve to begin a new life".
Both describe their early marital relationship as excellent. They met at a young age and their friendship turned into passionate love affair: "Hanna was the love of my life; I would have pursued her till the ends of the earth", says David and Hanna said the same. Hanna tells that their friends considered them an ideal couple. They liked traveling together; they loved going to the movies and to social functions. They seldom fight. In later years both of them became very preoccupied with their careers.
Hanna reports that recently David had seemed extremely tense and confused. Since she attributed the tension to pressures at work she recommended that he see a psychiatrist to relax. Summing up her feelings: "
I have been mourning about the loss of my naivete and blind trust. I never in my life thought something like that could happen to me. Our relationship was so wonderful and trustful".
This statement was to become a major theme to work with in the therapy.
The Pre-Discovery Period
Soon after exploring the circumstances in which the affair was discovered or disclosed there usually ensues a conversation relating to the conscious and unconscious behaviors of both spouses while the affair was secretive, and the signs that have been ignored move into view.
Three patterns of pre-discovery behavior exert most influence on the intensity of the crisis:
- The first pattern is one of denial and/or "not seeing". This pattern is most likely to take place in couples who avoid intimacy and/or conflict while having what they consider "a good friendship". The uninvolved spouse seems to develop a specific mechanism of denial, i.e. the facts and hints are there, but they fail to register. It is as if they pass through a semi-unconscious sieve, so that their meaning is not fully acknowledged. There is the myth of "I know everything about her and I trust her, and a certain taking for granted".
Nevertheless, as we shall see in the case of Hanna and David, the spouse does respond on an unconscious, emotional level in a seemingly inappropriate or incomprehensible and confusing way. She/he may become mildly depressed, or uptight and anxious, overly demanding and/or uncertain, etc. These reactions are incorrect interpreted by both spouses. Not uncommon is to attribute the woman's reactions to menopausal stress and the male's to pressures at work.
- A second pattern is the one where the uninvolved spouse has a strong suspicion but chooses to believe the involved spouse's denial, assurances and "good behavior" rather than his/her own feelings.
- The third pattern is one where a strong – intuitive or factually based – suspicion is expressed in the face of the behavior and/or lies of the involved spouse. Emotional reactions are not acknowledged and the involved spouse vehemently denies any involvement. Often the involved spouse shifts the guilt onto the non-involved spouse. In extreme cases a "crazy making" process take place in which the involved spouse, using denial in the face of some solid evidence, labels the other as "paranoid" and otherwise problematic, causing severe stress reactions in the uninvolved spouse. The greater the intensity and elaboration of the denial and /or of the "crazy making" process, the stronger the traumatic reaction will be once the full extent of the affair is revealed, even though this may be accompanied by a great sense of relief of not being "crazy". In our experience it is extremely difficult to restore a sense of trust in this pattern. The reactions to the trauma may continue to reverberate for many years. Many of these couples eventually divorce.
Looking into the behavioral patterns during the pre-discovery period may provide the betrayed spouse with a better perspective and allow some repairing of the self-esteem:
"I was not crazy or paranoid. Now I understand why all of a sudden he didn't want me anymore. I was beginning to feel unsexy and I was blaming myself. "
Here is how Hanna described her and David's pre-discovery period:
H: He was the love of my life…we had complete faith in each other. I was certain that in the morning he went to work and that he would come back home to his family in the evening, and that this was everything in his life.
Th: You took it for granted.
H: Last year, and in particular during the past few months, David was nervous and absent-minded, but I though that this was because of tensions at work. We talked a lot about it, but he didn't tell me that there was someone else in his life. He complained that I didn't look after myself and that I was putting on weight [Hanna is quite thin]. I had the feeling that I was unable to come up to his standards. As part of his complaints against me before the "explosion" he said that I always went to bed at seven or eight o'clock at night, so that we could never go anywhere. Everyone who knows me, realizes that the facts are the exact opposite, and that it is me who always wants to go out, and David who wants to stay at home. Still it is true that I haven't been very cooperative with David recently. I think that I tried to avoid him and this suited both of us…. He didn't want to see me and I didn't want to see him, and so we didn't meet. But what you could see externally was that I went to bed early. That was against my true nature, and for some reason I didn't stop to ask myself what was happening. And all this time I was blaming myself that I didn't give him enough and that it was my fault.
Th: And what do you understand now?
H: On hindsight, and when I think of it now, I realize that it was simply a depressive reaction…I felt many things but I didn't pay much attention to it and I didn't ask myself why.
Th: What else did you notice that is clearer to you now?
H: Whenever there was an important event or a party at work he always told me at the last moment, and then if as a result I couldn't go, he would complain. Maybe there is some connection between that and the affair… It was very convenient for him when I didn't come, and maybe that was why he told me at the last moment. Afterwards he would come up with all kinds of stories, but I never questioned them.
D: (admiringly) Could be.
H: (with irony) And I still believe him when he tells me something.
Issues related to the pre-discovery period will come up repeatedly as memories return and greater perspective is reached, as well as while working on what we call the "fertile ground" issues in therapy.
Exploring Post-Discovery Behavior
A careful exploration of what was done by both partners immediately following the discovery further helps to recognize the contributing factors to the intensity of the crisis, as well as predicting and preempting ineffective or damaging behaviors and possible difficulties in therapy. Jealousy, obsessive thoughts and suspiciousness, depression, crying, inability to sleep, temporary eating disorders, and even impulsive acts of either self-destruction or other-destruction in extreme cases may be seen in the "betrayed" spouse. These inevitably lead to systemic viscous cycles of actions and reactions that need to be dealt with (Moultrup, 1990; Brown, 1991).
Some "betrayed" spouses, in search of support or obtaining loyalty or revenge, immediately involve members of the extended family or friends. Although sometimes very helpful, such "well meaning" advice often only exacerbates the situation, frequently leading to hasty or impulsive actions. In some sad cases the family and friends may boycott all interaction with the involved partner. Some may feel so torn between the spouses as to decide to disconnect from both, while others get over-involved as go-between. Whichever the case, this too may play a considerable role in the course of the therapy.
Commonly, the "betrayed" spouses expects – and needs – a great deal of support from the involved spouse, who often is unable or unwilling to give it because she/he is too preoccupied with their own stress. The next excerpt is typical:
H: I asked him "How long exactly has this been going on", and he answered: "Why is this important? I told you I finished with it. I am not seeing her anymore and that ought to be enough for you". When I insisted he said to me: "It is none of your business for how long or with whom. It was just a short story and its over. You're being paranoid about it". I stay home after work and she doesn't even call me Every time I call I hear about how bad he feels and I don't know what to do anymore.
"To Know or not to know"
At this stage the dilemma of both spouses whether to know-or-not to know, to divulge or not to divulge information about the affair, is so pervasive that it deserves special consideration. Our goal is always to move from strictly receiving information about the details of the affair, to utilizing the momentum and expanding the need to know to the relationship and to each other, rather than to remain on the cathartic level. Effective work with this issue will quickly reduce the stress symptoms and lead to fruitful therapeutic collaboration.
Upon the discovery of the extramarital affair, the spouse who feels "betrayed" – as if 'the rug was pulled from underneath him/her' – must as an act of survival do things to regain his sense of balance and control. The immediate expression of this need is an obsessive, yet normative, desire to know exactly what happened – who is the "other" and what is he/she like, how long, where and when have things been happening, and whether the affair is in effect continuing, physically and/or "in the mind", etc.
Coupled with the intense need to know there may be a great ambivalence about knowing. Knowing also means confronting oneself, his/her own limitations and the spouse's "potentialities" that failed to receive full expression in the relationship. The covers come off and "a spotlight" is turned on many of the relationship aspects. In some cases the insistence on knowing also shatters old "privacy" patterns that were previously used to avoid intimacy. Often the involved spouses are very reluctant to divulge the desired information. They are ashamed, or fear the reactions of the other, they want to protect the privacy of the affair, or refuse to have it derided by the uninvolved spouse. At times issues of power and control are involved as well.
We persistently explain that what seems to be an obsessive need for details is typical and normative, because it is needed for healing the injured feelings and confidence, and for regaining a sense of clarity and control in both partners. It is also needed because it expresses the need of the non-involved spouse to really get to know the "real" partner, born out of a curiosity – perhaps for the first time – about his inner world, his subjective feelings, needs and wishes, and what really happened in his life. Information merely for the sake of knowing is valueless, and may even be harmful, unless it enables us to stop and think about the quality and style of the relationship and takes us further into fertile ground issues. Finally, we suggest that there is a sense of relief accompanying the end of the need to hide or lie.
The therapist must assure the involved partner that he/she will be protected from abuse once the appropriate information is shared, and that both spouses will listen carefully to the reality of each other. A common mistake is to underestimate the stress of the involved spouse, particularly if the extra-marital relationship was an "sweeping" love affair, and he/she is seriously distressed about the loss.
Since couples initiate therapy with a view to rehabilitation it is important to frame the affair for the couple as an "attempted solution" (Watzlawick et. al., 1994, Brown, 1991) – though inefficient in the long run – to some important problem of the individual and the couple, perhaps as a way of impelling some important development for the individual or the marriage. We emphasize that we do not find many cases where an affair was initiated out of malice, unless the marriage was already characterized by a great deal hostility and vengeance. However, we do agree that the behaviors of the involved spouse often looks malicious and selfish or insensitive. We assure the couple that these aspects, as well as the motivations for keeping the affair a secret, will be dealt with in therapy.
Often we encounter an attitude where the marital partner is taken for granted: "I know him/her so well….". A spouse assumes that ideas and knowledge about the other subsumed many years ago, are still the truths today. This belief must change to include an ongoing interactive "knowing":
H: I always know what he feels and what is going on inside him. This is not his normal self.
Th: I don't think so… you don't always know. You didn't know him during the last two years. I wonder how David feels when you oversimplify knowing him so much.
The following is a part of a transcript of the last part of the first session with Hanna and David about Hanna's incessant need to know, and her ambivalence about knowing:
Th: (to Hanna) It is not simple to make a conscious choice between the wish to know and the wish not to know. What is your decision?
H: I don't want to know. Its' hurtful and insulting. I always trusted him.
Th: This is your opportunity to find out whether you are interested in blind faith or in critical faith. Blind faith is based on idealism, whereas critical faith is based on an evaluation of reality.
H: Well, I do want to know. Knowledge enable me to be more in control.
Th: Is your wish to know based on desire for control, or on a sense of curiosity about your husband?
H: Actually both play a role.
The clarification of the two types of "wanting to know" is important. Both are valid and legitimate. The spouses have to be aware and identify the source of the questions and to be straightforward. The therapist supports both spouses and encourages them to take an interest in each other by asking questions that will deepen their knowledge about each other.
Th: (to Hanna) I understand your dilemma. On the one hand, your need to have a clear knowledge has a special meaning for you now. On the other hand, when David gives you unclear answers or hides things from you, you become worried. But, you don't want to speak about it, because you don't want to play the role of the nagging wife.
H: I am afraid that it will have the opposite effect.
Th: Would you like David to be sensitive to your worries?
H: No, he does not have to think about it all the time. He has enough.
Th: (smiling) So you want him to be sensitive to something you are busy telling him not to be too sensitive about!
(To David): What do you think, David?
D: It will take time until she calms herself.
Th: You don't have to be "politically correct". Can you share with us what it does mean for you, with your specific "make-up" and need for privacy, to be questioned? How difficult is it going to be for you to deal with it? Please give it some serious thought.
D: It is a great transition for me, I am not used speaking about myself. I do not even remember the sequences of events.
Th: What would help?
D: It will help if Hanna won't approach me like a "police investigator" or a "detective", but like a friend. I think she knows how to do that.
Setting the Stage for 'Fertile Ground' Issues
The dilemma of knowing or not knowing commonly serves as a convenient entrance to a clarification of certain "fertile ground" issues. As the session progressed, Hanna and David related how around the age of 35 they gradually began to grow apart. Both started to be more and more involved with their respective areas of work, and their sexual relations became less and less satisfactory. However, neither was prepared to confront these experiences. David felt that his wife failed to appreciate him and neglected him, whereas Hanna realized that he no longer involved her in his decisions. Their reaction was one of increasing avoidance: avoidance of conflicts and avoidance of each other, as well as avoidance of mutual closeness and intimacy.
Following is an excerpt from this part of the discussion:
D: The truth is that already fourteen years ago I felt that if things continued this way, where each of us continued to be busy with his own affairs, things might go wrong. I wanted another child, and then Orion was born; I called him "the glue". (He is thirteen and terribly dependent.)
Th: Did you already then have the feeling that your marriage needed gluing?
D: I was afraid that as the years went by we would grow apart and we would lose contact.
Th: a defense mechanism against temptation?
H: That's indeed possible.
Th: (to David) So what happened?
D: I had no choice but to find other outlets here and there, but I always liked to go back home. But my last contact was different – also because of my age. The relationship continued for a year, and the final three months it was very intensive.
Th: We will take a closer look at your sexual relationship in the next sessions.
In clarifying the initial goals of therapy it is important to go beyond dealing with the initial stress. This broadens the perspective and gives hope.
Th: (to David) What would you expect to happen here with us?
D: To try together to arrive at an understanding and find a solution. Hanna is more open now to talking and experimenting. I like that very much, and I would like it to continue.
Th: (summarizing) Your long-standing relationship is both your strength and your weakness. Your strength because you rely on each other and you are good friends; your weakness, because it has stagnated for a long time. You have managed to create separateness and individuality, but you need to learn to establish intimacy within your separateness.
D: You're right. We have prevented each other from maturing.
Th: Well, the fact that you left no room for conflict and avoided differences of opinion prevented either of you from changing.
SECOND STAGE: EUPHORIA-DYSPHORIA
This stage is characterized by vacillation between a state of euphoria and Dysphoria. During the initial weeks following the discovery many couples experience a brief period of euphoria in their relationship and their state of mind. We may see a great deal of excitement and renewed sexual attraction, resulting in sudden stormy and even adventurous love-making and a wish to be together, much like falling in love again. Couples going through this stage take pleasure in exchanging intimate and previously unknown experiences from their past. This creates a liberating feeling and produces a sense of closeness.
We understand this phase to be a result of a keen desire to reduce the anxiety inherent in the crisis and to balance the danger of a potential loss. The "betrayed" spouse engages in direct or indirect courting behavior in order to return the love and attraction of the other. The potential loss also brings into focus many of the positive qualities of the other and the good and/or romantic memories of the past. These are resources that a therapist would want to capitalize on.
Our couple, Hanna and David, clearly demonstrated this phenomenon in their second session. They entered laughing continuously, their panic of the previous session being replaced by an exaggerated and nervous gaiety, as shown by the following excerpt:
D: We are talking right through the night. Our sexual relationship is intense, like it has never been
H: We don't sleep at night, and we just let our emotions go. I can't remember ever to have been so impulsive. (David smilingly agrees)
H: It's wonderful, because everything is now open.
The couple continues relating how they are mutually revealing secrets from the past. David has confided to Hanna that he has had several flings with other women in the course of the years, although all of these – as opposed to this recent affair – were purely sexual in nature rather than emotional. Hanna has revealed that she, too, had a very short affair some 20 years ago. It is as if they suddenly can "disclose it all".
Couples in this state of euphoria are as yet unaware of the emotional impact of their mutual revelations. Rather, their newfound openness and turbulent sexual feelings intoxicate them. This kind of closeness is really a pseudo-intimacy, since neither partner has as yet reached the emotional readiness and sense of true mutual trust needed to assimilate the revealed information and to transform it into the more nourishing elements of intimacy. What we witness is a process of self-exposure, involving the mutual discharge of awkward truths and confessions about inappropriate behavior, rather than a process of self-disclosure, which has to do with the process of understanding how each, became secretive in the relationship, or the revelation of the real motives for their suppressed feelings (Waring 1990). Self-exposure often produces distance, while self-disclosure produces closeness.
The therapist should take care not to fall into the trap of pseudo-intimacy and avoid encouraging more self-exposure. At the same time he/she should not underestimate the feelings of euphoria, as this would raise the couple's res. Instead, we utilize this stage to empower the relationship. Together we explore the discoveries, harnessing the new experiences in order to challenge old modes of interaction, including the sexual interaction, and enriching the couple's repertory.
The following is the continuation of the previous transcript:
Th: What happens to you that is different from the past; what do you feel has been opened up?
H: I am discovering my passion for him. I am discovering that I can do things that I refused before because I thought they would disgust me, and I find that I can enjoy it.
D: For the first time I can just lie there and accept what Hanna gives.
Th: (to David) What allowed you to be like that?
D: I felt her attraction, and more important, I felt that for the first time she was really concentrating on me rather than thinking about other things.
H: He is right. I was really there.
If only the euphoric period could continue forever! However, it does not last very long. Soon feelings of dysphoria impose themselves. Certain details of the recent self-exposures sink in and create emotional havoc. Both spouses also realize that the seeds of discontent in the marriage did not start with the affair, but much before. It is as if "morning has broken", putting all things in a clearer and sharper light. The partners begin to be more acutely aware of the insidious effects of the process of denial, distancing and fear, and the cumulative frustrations and increasing hidden or apparent tensions that have developed between them through the years. They also begin to understand how they blocked, or failed to develop, effective ways of resolving problems or developing intimacy. This process of realization is mutually dotted with issues of imparting blame, avoidance of personal responsibility, and guilt.
Parallel to this, issues of ambivalence and commitment begin to emerge. The "betrayed" partner notices that the involved spouse feels a longing for the ex-lover and what she/he symbolized, which makes tackling the issue of commitment even more urgent. The rudimentary level of commitment during the first stage ("I came back home") is no longer enough.
Hanna and David started the fourth session in a somewhat depressed mood. Hanna had started to digest David's self-exposure and his activities during the preceding years. She was getting angry!
H: It has created a very high degree of intimacy…but apparently David felt such a sense of closeness, that once the floodgates were opened he allowed himself to tell everything. He told me that during a holiday a few months ago when he traveled to Spain for a sports competition, he took his girlfriend with him. I became terribly angry – he was so surprised!
David, too, had become preoccupied with Hanna's long-past brief affair. He was giving out highly ambivalent and confusing signals, symptomatic of his feelings of loss on the one hand, and a sense of safety of his marriage on the other. Hanna reacted with increasing anxiety.
The following transcript covers our attempt to assist the couple in making sense of David's contradictory and seemingly irrational messages. We helped to validate and legitimatize his temporary state of ambivalence, while at the same time challenging him and insisting on clarity:
H: (tense) This week I 'phoned his direct line in the office and the telephone was busy. Afterwards I asked him to whom he was talking. He answered: "To her." So I told him: "Put down that telephone!" and he answered in the rudest possible way: "Don't you tell me what I should do!" Later that night the telephone was again busy. I felt that I was coming unstuck and I said to him: "You promised me you wouldn't talk to her anymore." And he answered: "She 'phoned me." Then I really fell apart. Afterwards I went out with a few friends to calm down. I was so confused that I ran through a red light. Later that night I told David that I had no more strength to fight him. He embraced me and said: "All she wanted to tell me was that she had found a new boyfriend." Afterwards he couldn't sleep the whole night. Because of her, not because of me.
Th: (to David) Is Hanna right when she says that you are still in two minds about your girlfriend?
D: I don't like to break my contacts with people in such an abrupt manner. I prefer to remain on friendly terms with people.
H: (to David) You refuse to talk about it with me and it makes me feel insecure.
D: (to Hanna) I don't think it is important for you to know everything about me in too much intimate detail.
Th: What is it that scares you?
D: Because I don't like revealing my emotions.
Th: Emotions about what?
D: Maybe if we started talking about it, I might come to the conclusion that I really belonged with her (the girlfriend).
Th: (to David) That means that you still haven't really finished with her.
H: I know that. I'm lie next to him at night being sorry for him and his suffering.
D: I don't think that it is necessary to involve Hanna in my dilemmas.
Th: It surely is important for every person to have his or her own privacy. But privacy doesn't mean that it is forbidden to look into things. Not to examine things as a matter of principle is like going around with your eyes closed or planting flowers with your hands tied behind your back. You are at present in a re-evaluation phase. You have decided to examine whether it would be worth your while not to be here. But deciding whether it is worth your while to let everything go this is only the first phase. Immediately afterwards follows phase two: to decide whether you want to be together. …if you want to live together – and if so, how. This choice is by no means automatic. You would like to choose both: have your cake and eat it, but then as you see, you keep on running into conflicts.
D: I didn't come here to examine whether I want to be here or not. I stayed because I wanted to be here!
Th: Would you be prepared to consider whether this an unequivocal kind of answer could be a sign of fear, in case you might once again go "out"?
D: (angrily) I already weighed the pros and cons. Even if I agree with what you say, my decision is made. I read in the newspaper about some expert who said that every decision must come from the head, and that you first carry it out before you allow your emotions to enter the picture. That's exactly what happened. My decision came from my head – do you understand it now?
Th: Thank you for being so clear. This will help us to keep things in the proper perspective. So now it is clear that you have chosen to stay at home – but this is not the same as choosing between the relationship and Hanna. This is something the two of you will have to discover. How do you think Hanna feels about the same dilemma?
During the following week, as is often the case during the confusion characteristic of this stage, Hanna and David began to debate the question of who was "really responsible for the affair?" Neither of the partners was prepared to accept full responsibility for the serious crisis that had developed.
It is our system to guide the discussion towards a more systemic understanding. We stress that although adult persons must take responsibility for their actions, their case is served better by understanding that in such a closed and dynamic relationship as a marriage actions cannot be divorced from their context, so that we must explore what it was in the relationship that provided such a fertile ground for the affair. We emphasize that this does not absolve anyone from accepting personal responsibility for the consequences, but that it helps to put things in a broader perspective for the sake of future prevention.
Disconnecting the affair from questions such as innocence or guilt encourages the spouses towards closer introspection, a more genuine expression of their feelings and improved attention the other's fears and motivations.
In many cases the "betrayed" spouse feels the need to become a "detective" who follows the moves of the involved spouse. This need is reframed as a healthy and natural need to develop an awareness about the partner rather than taking the "not knowing" position again. At the same time o, better means, should be developed.
THIRD PHASE: AMBIVALENCE ABOUT COMMITMENT TO THE RELATIONSHIP
Throughout this stage, which may last several weeks, a recurrent issue is the ambivalence about the final choice for the relationship – although not yet the mate (3rd level commitment). Even if the therapy proceeds as expected, it often happens that several weeks after the start of the crisis both spouses – particularly the involved spouse – start to feel exhausted and wish to resume a normal life. However, this stage is not devoid of anxiety, since the commitment issue is as yet far from truly settled. The intense desire for stability and balance at all cost, as well as the wish to treasure and keep celebrating each other's newly-discovered allure, stimulate both spouses (bouts of dysphoria notwithstanding) to attempt premature closure of the contentious issues (see David's reaction in the previous section). This simultaneously produces even greater feelings of ambivalence, as well as more incongruent signals and confusion.
Being 'Taken for Granted'
The following transcript is representative of many long-term marriages in which, prior to the crisis, both mates viewed their relationship as permanent, without giving much consideration to how to keep it "ticking". Even though the crisis shatters that story, the involved spouse frequently continues behaving as if the partner's willingness to wait and "take him/her back" can be taken for granted – almost as if the ultimate rejection is a one-sided decision. At times the therapist must heighten the anxiety of the involved spouse around this issue in order to rebalance the distribution of power between the mates.
H: David decided on his own (to stay home) and he suddenly confronts me with it.
D: (angrily) So what? Should I come to you every time I am unsure about something? I decided to remain at home because I came to the conclusion that my indecisiveness was bad for me. I spent too much time thinking about it at the expense of my work and our relationship. I can't run my life when I am being torn into two. I can't concentrate on what is most important. So I said to myself: Enough! We must give it a chance: With all our soul and with all our might.
Th: (to David) That's a decision you have taken unilaterally, and you have put it to Hanna as a fait accompli. That reminds me of what we discussed earlier, [namely] that you present your ideas or decisions only after you yourself have tidily "gift-wrapped" them – "take it or leave it". In fact, the same way you suddenly confronted Hanna with your decision that you were going to divorce her, that you were going to start a new life.
(To Hanna) But you know, Hanna, you are entitled to say that you want to think about it, or even that you don't want to – that it takes two people to decide on such a thing? Don't you agree?
H: Yes, I definitely think so.
D: Wow, right on.
Th: (to David) It could be helpful to say: 'I was thinking about it, and then I came to a conclusion, and I would like to know what you want.'
D: I simply wanted to put an end to the uncertainty.
Th: (to David) I think what Hanna wants is for the two of you to examine whether even when you take a decision about yourself, she still has the right to express doubts, to become clear in her own mind, and to examine her own emotions. Are you ready to listen to them? It is important for both of you to get used to listening when the other "unburdens himself".
D: (has calmed down) Sure.
Th: (to David) what did you understand Hanna to say [at the beginning]?
D: That she didn't believe my decision is genuine and that I'll stick with it.
Th: (to Hanna) Did he understand you correctly?
Th: (to David) What do you think, is she right?
D: (to Hanna) Yes, I'll agree with that – I know I confused you today. I should be glad that your reaction hasn't been worse.
Th: (to Hanna) What else did you want to say?
H: That it's all going too quick for me and I don't get it.
We prompt both the spouses to identify and admit to their feelings and perspectives, in order to begin to shake the rigid pattern of avoidance they have engaged in for years, and to enable them to cope with their differences.
Incongruent about Commitment
As we have seen, incongruent messages about commitment and choice can be extremely stressful, and they need to be rigorously clarified before the relevant relationship issues can be dealt with – particularly those related to the "fertile ground" issues. Conflicting messages may also serve as a means of escaping emotional confrontation; among some couples incongruent messages are a common method to avoid intimacy.
In the fifth session Hanna came in angry and confused at David's contradictory messages.
H: …In the morning David said: "Well, I am finished with it! I am home!" And then in the evening we went to a show, and then he said that he had been thinking about the situation, and that whereas he was an introvert, I was an extroverted person, and that introverted people don't need others. Introverts, he said, draw all their strength from themselves, whereas extroverts draw all their strength from the surrounding world. And then he said: “…they should put up a sign at the Registry Office (Rabanuth) saying: We do not marry introverts to extroverts”. That was really insulting and I was terribly hurt and angry.
Th: (to Hanna) Did you hear him say that the two of you shouldn’t have been married?
H: He said “It should be forbidden” like a Biblical commandment.
D: All I meant to say was that introverts make extroverts unhappy.
Th: In different situation it might have sound different, but in this specific context it has a special meaning.
H: That was a terribly difficult evening for me.
Th: But when he said you are an extrovert, did you think he was criticizing you?
H: Yes, as if I do not have my own private world. As if my whole world is out there, while he doesn't need anyone!
Th: Perhaps he knows very little about your private world, too. Perhaps it's time he knew more. What hurt you most when he said that?
H: I very much appreciate David, I have a very high regard for him. Anything he says I take seriously. He always thinks five steps ahead.
Th: In other words, what you understood from his words was that you do not belong together, and that he and you should get ready for a divorce?
H: Yes, and the earlier the better.
Th: (to David) Were you aware of the effects of your words?
D: I am now more than before.
Th: What were you trying to avoid when you said that? What prompted you?
D: I wanted to get her off my back, but sometimes I really wonder about this. You said we are doing a reevaluation
Emerging Issues of the "betrayed" Spouse.
A common trap is becoming too involved with the conflicts and behavior of the unfaithful spouse, and thus to neglect those of the partner. The "betrayed" spouse tends to focus on her/his hurts, thereby avoiding an exploration of his own ambivalence and his own share in the problems and solutions.
As soon as their situation showed signs of stabilizing, and the threat of abandonment was reduced, Hanna could begin to connect with her own process of choice, rather than make automatic assumptions. She, too, needed to choose (or reject) David as her partner, and decide whether she was willing to make the necessary investment in reconciliation, and in forgiving and loving her husband. Following this she would have to take an active part in reconstructing the relationship and changing the patterns that had constituted such a fertile ground for the extramarital affair.
Feelings of anger and fantasies of revenge are not easily discarded. At this stage the therapist should redirect their expression, so that they cannot be exploited as yet another mechanism for avoiding difficult individual and relationship issues. Fantasies of revenge frequently serve to compensate for the helplessness experienced since the outbreak of the crisis, and useful work can be done around them. One technique we use is to request the vengeful client to draw up a detailed list of ideas for revenge, to be explored in therapy. Then, using humor and drama, we work to dissolve or transform them. In our case, Hanna considered the revelation of her own "mini-affair" as her a form of revenge. Dissolving active fantasies of revenge is a necessary step towards ending the crisis phase.
Personal and Interpersonal Exploration
When the messages become more congruent and the anger (although not necessarily the anxiety) is reduced, a window opens for an in-depth exploration of both personal and dyadic patterns. Doing this too early, in our experience, tends to dilute and prolong the crisis work, besides enabling it to be used by either spouse as a weapon for blaming the other.
During the eight sessions David and Hanna talked about their need to avoid conflicts, and the acquisition of techniques for helping them to overcome differences and their problems with differentiation. The following excerpt reveals an interesting paradox: David's need to differentiate produces behaviors, which prevent differentiation.
Th: (to David) It might be interesting for you to understand why you are so terribly sensitive when Hanna has a different opinion from yours?
D: Basically, that's how I am; it's a fixture of our relationship. I didn't really have parents: my father worked from morning till night, and when at the age of 17 I left my parents' home I never came back. I didn't have a happy childhood. Maybe I saw Hanna as my mother…Now that I am grown up, I want to do what I want, to follow my own will.
Th: How is her having a different opinion stop you from following your own will?
D: Then I feel that I can't do what I want, or that I have to change my opinion in order for her to accept me.
Th: In this light it also becomes somewhat easier to understand the meaning of the affair you had, or rather the "I want a new family" part. If Hanna is your mother, then you must leave the family to make your own.
D: Yeah, I did not think of it this way.
Th: You grew up knowing each other from an early age; you were both good for your children and for each other, and the question is whether you can also become intimate lovers. Particularly now that your children will be leaving the house, you are more than ever entitled to that.
Moving On – New challenges
The above phase comes to an end when a more congenial relationship has been re-established, holding a promise of renewed intimacy. The greater the congruency of commitment, the more intense the emotional expression will be, even though the commitment is as yet to the marriage rather than to the spouse.
In David and Hanna's ninth session a change became obvious. David looked affectionately at Hanna; he complimented her, and confided that he felt more comfortable at home and with Hanna. Hanna appeared very pleased with these changes, and both spouses were more open and affectionate with each other – partly due to their adventurous lovemaking:
D: Our loving relationship is moving very quickly in the right direction. Not because we started from a "minus" situation, but objectively…we both enjoy it.
Th: Great! What could block her open heart and lovingness?
D: If I don't cooperate, or if I fail to make myself entirely clear, she feels that I am not really with her. The truth is that I am not yet entirely here in the sense that I'm not yet ready to make a final account. What I am trying to do is let the facts speak for themselves….
Th: It is very important what you'll do.
(To Hanna) What is he doing now that is important?
H: With regard to establishing trust? He tells me that he no longer meets or speaks with "her".
Th: So, I understand that he tries to be honest, but that he doesn't feel fully committed yet. But do you [Hanna] feel that you know more about what is going on in his world?
H: I wouldn't say in his world, but I do know more about him.
D: Here and there I volunteer some information.
H: His world is still too closed. He tells me that it is still difficult for him to talk about what he feels and thinks. He doesn't really let me enter. I asked him: "What is it in me that prevents you from sharing these things with me?" He answered: "Our closeness. I don't want to hurt you. I can do it better in therapy."
The safety of the therapeutic environment remains important until the couple have developed an ability to cope with the anxiety caused by their self-disclosures. At a later stage we encourage them to take more risks in their mutual explorations also at home. This stage comes to an end following the decision and commitment of both partners to get off the roller coaster of ambivalence and jointly work on important relationship issues.
Th: Do you agree that it would now be important to work on your relationship – to develop better ways of sharing things, so that you are no longer an enigma to one another? But also the opposite so that you don't think that you know everything about the other and can take him for granted? This would apply to many issues in your life, not the least being sex and intimacy.
H. and D: Yes, it's about time.
THE FOURTH STAGE: TAKING A PERSONAL AND RELATIONAL INVENTORY
Once the intensity of the ambivalence, the anger and the other symptoms of stress are sufficiently reduced, the couple is ready to move on to a new stage. In the process, the "non-involved" spouse must relinquish his/her status of the victim, and replace it with acceptance of a shared responsibility to all that is happening in the relationship. This is the first time since the start of the crisis that the spouses may be ready to actually perceive each other for what they are, to see the individual behind the persona and to develop realistic expectations.
This is also the moment for taking inventory of the relationship, in-order to prepare for the final commitment, which is to each other. In the process, the spouses will be handed several "keys" enabling them to release themselves from the chains of unrealistic myths, such as that of the ideal family, so that they can begin to lead more authentic lives. Most of the therapeutic work revolves around relationship issues, such as taboo areas, the negotiation of rules and preferences, the acquisition of a deeper knowledge of each other and a renewed focus on the present and future rather than on the past.
During the eighth and ninth sessions Hanna and David proved ready to take the first step in taking an inventory of their relationship. Note that Hanna pushed to talk about the "bad things" first. For being a couple that had been holding on to the “ideal couple” Image, this was an improvement:
Th: …When someone decides to make a commitment, the question is to what? And how to develop the relationship from there on. So, what are the strong qualities and what are the weak points of your relationship?
D: (tries to avoid the challenge and the responsibility for clear statements) We are here, and intuitively we tell each other things from the past that we knew were wrong.
Th: You can start by talking about what is really good in your relationship, as well as about the things that you would like to be changed, but which you usually feel are difficult to talk about.
(To David) Maybe you start first?
H: (worried, to David) Begin with the bad things.
Th: (smiling) Not necessarily the bad, but things that must be dealt with. I see that you [to David] are afraid to say things that may offend her. Well take care of Hanna.
D: First of all I want to improve the way we talk to each other. I don't like to be shouted at or preached at.
Th: The first thing, the tone and the preaching, has that to do with the lack of appreciation that you said you felt? [i.e. in a previous session.]
D: Yes…it's like someone is beating me over the head, despite the fact that at the end things turn out to happen the way I want them. It is possible that because of the way it happens, I'm not aware of that….
H: David always confronts me with unilateral decisions.
Th: (to Hanna)…And what do you do?
H: I feel that he is imposing his decision on me and there is no way for me to express my wishes or perspective even in everyday family issues such as buying furniture. Last week he purchased a couch, and when he brought it home I had to accept it be happy with it.
D: Sure, this is because it takes her ages to decide, and also because she always contradicts me.
Th: So, what both of you are saying is that your negotiation and decision making skills need changing.
The next therapy stage involved the need to explore taboo areas, areas that because of their hidden nature defied effective identification and therefore a solution.
For David and Hanna one of the main taboos was their sexual relationship, an area which for many years had been a major source of dissatisfaction for both. David stated that he had a problem with sexual exclusivity to Hanna as long as their sexual relationship failed to improve. Yet they had never overtly discussed their sexual relationship, let alone that they had gone into details, so that most of his sexual wishes and fantasies were unknown to her. We also discovered that David had experienced sexual difficulties in the distant past. They were unanimous that their sexual relationship had greatly improved during the past two months. They celebrated their newly discovered intimacy by changing their bedroom from a junk-room into a love nest, by installing new furniture and new carpets, and by the use of scents and oils for massaging each other. Even so Hanna claimed that she didn't feel David was completely present:
Th: (to David) What could get in the way of your present passion for Hanna?
D: Feelings of hatred or anger, or if sex became boring.
Th: (to David) Do you think of the possibility that you might become less attractive to her?
D: No, I only thought of the possibility that she might become less attractive to me.
Th: We are much more aware lately of her sexuality and femininity.
D: Yes, you are right. We discovered it only recently.
H: I think that if you don't completely free yourself emotionally from the other relationship in order to be completely with me, the new excitement will disappear.
Th: Who is usually the initiating partner?
D: Up till now I was the one who initiated, and the one who was rejected (He imitates her making a dismissive hand movement; then, sounding hurt and insulted): I will never forget these movements.
Th: (to Hanna) When, during your "love games", do you begin to feel uneasy?
H: (talking about past and present) I haven't been feeling his passion as much recently; his touching is unconvincing; he does not caress me and there is something wrong with the foreplay.
Th: (to Hanna) …And you need him to be more warm and passionate?
(to David) I think that Hanna feels your body, but she doesn't feel you.
D: This problem is connected with the depth of my feelings and love and she is right: it is not always so strong at the present. I am not always one hundred percent present. I am not very concentrated, but it is not true that my head is somewhere else.
Th: Are you worried sometimes that your body will not react sexually as you wish it to react?
D: I had difficulties and worries about erection twenty years ago. I thought I was impotent, so I went to check it out [both he and Hanna smile].
Th: So part of your checking was to test yourself with other women?
D: Yes, to check whether it was big enough, whether I could satisfy women. I didn't come to Hanna with my fantasies and ideas on how to color our sexual relationship.
H: I am shocked, I didn't know about all these ideas, but many times during the past years I agreed to things that I did not like and even resisted, just in order to satisfy him.
Th: So Hanna cooperated in sex, but she felt bad and angry about it.
H: …Yes, and from that point on our sex was like going through the motions, like robots, and I was completely frozen, wishing even more to avoid sex. But it drives me crazy to think that we never discussed it.
D: I did not understand it that way. I just thought that she rejected me. We hardly had sex for the last six years. Yes… this was our life.
H: He never came to me to say: look Hanna, I am dissatisfied with this life, something has gone wrong, let's think it over and do something about it.
Th: (to Hanna): And you did not do it either!
H: It never occurred to me that it could lead to an affair!
D: …Yes, she is right, I found the answers in other places. I thought that it would be impossible to change it.
Th: It is interesting to find out what made each one of you take things for granted. You, Hanna with the it couldn't lead to an affair and you David with taking for granted that things would be impossible to change?
These realizations were painful for Hanna, but at the same time she felt greatly relieved about not having to bear all the responsibility and blame for being insufficiently attractive or rejecting her husband. The discussion about painful and intimate issues was a very significant experience, laying the groundwork for eventual discussions about new patterns in sexual behavior, including nurturing renewed courtship, mutual play and increased romanticism.
Understanding the Meaning of the Affair
We prefer not to deal with this aspect of the work during the early stage of therapy, since the "unfaithful" spouse is still too involved, and usually feels such loyalty to the lover that he/she wants to keep the relationship sacred and their romance shielded from outside criticism. Immediately following the discovery, feelings of happiness and joy are still connected exclusively to the lover, who is perceived as possessing the "magic key" to happiness. Often, even during the later stage, the involved spouse continues to feel loyal to the lover.
Once the couple has begun to abandon old patterns and to create some mutually satisfying intimate experiences, the involved partner is ready to explore the meaning of the affair for him/her. This work is best first done in an individual session, in order to explore things in a non-threatening way, and then shared in the couple sessions. As Brown (1991) suggests, and as we often learn from our clients, the affair itself may generate positive effects that bring to light a part of one's self that is not being used in the marriage. Therefore, the involved spouse must learn to understand and internalize her/his discoveries about the self and about the relationship, as well as to identify her/his new skills, which can then be introduced into the marital and any other relationship. An individual session with the "non-involved" spouse helps dealing with the personal meaning of the affair for her/him as well.
The individual sessions may also be used to have a preliminary look into multigenerational issues. Multigenerational issues may permeate every stage of therapy. Depending on how immediately relevant they are to the extramarital crisis we choose to clarify them or postpone them to a later phase of the therapy, after the crisis is over. In order to obtain a multi-dimensional picture of the factors surrounding the affair and leading to it, the therapist should acquire an understanding of the patterns of coping with truth, secrets, infidelity, conflicts and abandonment in the families of origin, as well as into patterns of differentiation and relatedness, power structures, role definitions, aspects such as closeness and distance etc. (Moultrap 1990 p. 29)
During our individual session with David, more than two month following the discovery of the affair, he was more relaxed and more ready to talk about it than during the previous sessions.
An individual session with David;
David opens the session by telling that his jaw hurts from clenching his teeth to prevent people from noticing his inner tension. He is hesitant about exploring the relationship with his lover, saying: “I stopped it without giving it too much thought If I started thinking about it I couldn’t give it up. So I just stopped”.
Th: The problem is that if you don't take the trouble to explore what it meant for you, you'll always be left with that image of a phantom and that you abandoned a treasure. Do you want to understand what happened?
D: She was young. There were two forces working together: in the background were the clouds hanging over the relationship with my wife. With her [the ] I felt excitement and sensuality, and especially renewal. I felt young again…But I did not go the whole way I didn't exploit the entire potential. I realized that I could not devote myself to one world while the other world [of the marriage] still existed.
Th: What formed the main source of the excitement for you?
D: The whole setup…to do everything together…[the idea of] creating a family with her. I was so swept away that I even thought of another baby. We nurtured each other's cultural aspects, by talking about books…. She had qualities like joy of life, spontaneity, truthfulness and trustworthiness…the things that a person would wish to have in life.
Th: Yes, you're right. How did you nurture her?
D: I can quote Hanna, who says that I am very necessary for her, that it is fun to live with me and that I am a reliable person.
Th: Was there anything in the other relationship that you find difficult to give in your relationship with your wife?
D: No, because since the crisis we have created a new life. …along the lines that I wanted. There is a bond of love and closeness between us that did not exist in the past.
Th: Does it mean that you have started to give Hanna things which you earlier gave within the context of the affair?
D: Yes, I give attention and love…it is not love exactly… I don't know what love is. I know that I have a deep affinity with Hanna.
Th: Can you describe it? Give it a name?
D: She is an integral part of my life…It would be difficult without her. I care for her and it is so important what she thinks and says about me, and how she appreciates me. The sex between us, now, is good, although it lacks a certain passion. Nevertheless when I think about it I realize that this is the decision I made [to remain with my wife], and I feel at ease with it.
Th: Don't rush to close this door… Maybe you haven't yet finished creating your particular brand of passion for each other, and it is still to come. You'd better keep this door open.
Is there anything else that you feel you would have to give up, as you choose Hanna to be your partner?
D: (thinking)…No, the positive side is continually getting stronger.
An individual session with Hanna:
In this session we explored (among other things) the roots of Hanna's lack of vigilance and attention through the years to David's statements of discomfort and distress, and her taking the "not knowing" position about the affair.
The reasons became clear when we explored her family of origin. Hanna's father had died when she was a young woman. Her mother was a Holocaust survival who, as a young woman, had been in the Auschwitz extermination camp, doing hard labor and suffering multiple traumas. Ever since Hanna was a very young girl, her mother had been telling her the terrible stories about the camp. Hanna had begged her mother to stop, but to no avail. Eventually, Hanna had taught herself "not to listen", to pretend that those things had not happened, and to avoid situations of closeness with her mother. She felt that this had helped her to grow better – unlike her sister, who sat listening for hours and had became very attached to the mother. In the session Hanna started to connect this adaptive pattern to her lack of openness for her husband's pain and distress, and the "not knowing" and "not seeing" positions that she had taken in relation to him and the affair. She also began to see that she thought of David somewhat as of her lost father's "rock-like" stability that could be taken for granted.
FIFTH STAGE – THE CLOSURE OF THE CRISIS
This stage closes the crisis period and both spouses, separately and together, have on the basis of their personal awareness and a renewed and more intimate knowledge of each other chose to stay together. There are intimations of reconciliation and even love, even though instances of instability may exist due to the "flashback" effect – sudden glimpses of the past that will cause the occasional angry outburst or depressive reaction. During this stage, also, the (ex) involved spouse may once again become preoccupied with some of his earlier worries, the solution of which the affair enabled him to either avoid or postpone (Pittman, 1987, 1995). These problems could be midlife cycle issues, a personal crisis or some burdensome family problem.
It is a natural phenomenon for the spouses during this stage to show a renewed interest in their family and children. In those families where the children served as yet another tool in the couple's mechanism to avoid close personal contact and to deny marital problems, the therapist must take care not to allow the couple to revert to their old patterns, while at the same time encouraging this renewed involvement.
At this stage the therapist must also examine whether there are as yet any undisclosed aspects of the affair that need to be discussed, and to note behaviors that continue to obstruct intimacy and the further development of the relationship. Inhibiting or blocking reactions on the part of the spouses might in fact intensify, because of the fact that they have broached intimate and complex issues that were never discussed in the past, and which now require considerable emotional tolerance of the listener. Once the realization of the true marital difficulties strikes home, the -involved spouse may in fact try to take refuge in fantasies about his or her past happiness, as shown in the following dialogue with David:
D: I know that my relationship with "her" was not like those of an ordinary couple. I had no obligations towards her, no financial business, no homework with the children…but I must admit that I sometimes think I might have found a way of keeping up the connection with her. I know that I should abandon this idea, for it weakens my resolve and my real objective, which is to remain with Hanna.
Th: Right… the longer you keep on nurturing this fantasy, the more it will complicate and delay your new relationship with Hanna.
[At this point the therapist decides that it is necessary to empower experiences of closeness and intimacy.]
(To both spouses): What incidents of closeness and intimacy did you experience during the past few weeks?
H: …We spent a night at a hotel in the city where we first met.. We were standing next to each other at the window looking out…and at that moment we really felt very close.
D: Yes, and we also went to visit various places where we had lived and fell in love when we were students 25 years ago. We stood underneath the house where we lived during those days and I called her to me by the nickname I used then.
Frequently towards the end of the crisis phase we initiate a process which symbolizes the closure of the crisis phase and their new beginning. Often this ritual develops spontaneously into a process of asking and accepting forgiveness to and from each other for each of their behavior that has contributed to the crisis. This nature of this process develops out of the special relationship the therapist has established with the spouses.
To illustrate this process we reproduced below part of the reconciliation ceremony between Hanna and David that took place in the course of the 16th session. Prior to the session we asked Hanna and David to bring some object that could symbolize the closure, and their new beginning. They brought a ring that they had chosen together, and Hanna also brought a glass (a symbol used in the Jewish wedding ceremony)
Th: (to the spouses) Please look at the ring you brought, and think of the values involved in the direction your relationship is going to take.
H: It makes me think of wholeness… the life cycle… concentration on what is important, warmth…integrity and support – all the qualities I would like to have in my life.
Th: (to David) could you say something in your won way?
D: I look at the ring as a symbol of renewed faith… something that will connect us and look after us. [David gently takes Hanna's hand and places the ring on her finger.]
Th: (to Hanna) What about the glass?
H: I want to break the glass as a sign that all the wrongs are behind us.
Th: (hands Hanna the glass wrapped in a napkin) Do whatever you wish.
H: (takes the glass…and puts it back) I don't really need it any more. The glass was broken a few minutes ago when David took my hand and placed the ring on my finger.
D: (to Hanna): I feel that I should ask your forgiveness. I'm asking you to forgive me about the pain that I caused you, and I hope that the ring will symbolize the future and a new beginning.
H: I am still afraid now and then… but the "infusion" I receive from what is happening at home has a very powerful effect…I, too, would like to ask forgiveness…about my own affair, and that for such a long time I refused to pay attention to what was going on in your heart, inside you….
[There are a few moments of silence as David and Hanna was with each other].
Th: Please close your eyes [all of us close our eyes]. Imagine you are standing under a white bridal canopy surrounded by trees and flowers, under a starry sky… Tell yourself anything you would like to say to yourselves while standing under this bridal canopy…just imagine that you say it aloud, and imagine that in front of you, among the guests, are your children…and the children that will be born from your children…and your parents…and your friends and neighbors…and everybody is listening to what you are saying…[allows time for the process]…Now imagine yourselves emerging slowly from under the canopy to a place where you can be together for a little while all by yourselves.
[Follows a protracted silence. David has tears in his eyes, and Hanna bursts out into a lengthy fit of crying which obviously relieves her. David gently strokes her and they gradually relaxes.]
Th: We think that you have made a good and wise decision, and we are grateful that you allowed us to take part in your change process and in this event.
At the conclusion of this stage, the affair plays a less relevant role in the therapy, and no longer evokes such strong reactions. In fact, a change process has begun laying a good foundation for the remaining couple therapy. Gradually the spouses, now equipped with improved skills and abilities, start to identify, and avoid, the behavioral patterns that provided the "fertile ground" for the affair.
David and Hanna reported that they have discovered themselves and each other anew, and that they are, as it were, creating a new "affair" – this time within their marriage.
David shared with us his feeling of liberation, both at home and outside: "As long as the affair was alive I was afraid to talk to the children, so that they would not ask me with whom I was talking so softly on the telephone. I felt as if I was escaping from them and that my head was somewhere else…. Another of my continuous nightmares was that "she" would 'phone exactly when I was with Hanna. At the office I felt like a hostage to my staff, most of whom were aware of the affair. I felt all the time under a threat that someone might tell my wife, and that would have been terrible. Now I feel a free man; I am once again liked and able to exercise my authority at the office.
Many couples gladly welcome these discoveries about themselves, although they worry about the possibility that their new resolves might not be able to withstand the test of time.
This stage of the therapy is concluded with the definition of the as yet needed changes and the direction the further therapy is going to take. From this point onwards the therapy can be classified as ordinary couple therapy within the context of more fundamental issues relating to the couple's needs and expectations at this stage of their life cycle.
About a year after the end of the affair, David said:
"When I fell in love with her (his lover) my eyes opened. It was as if I had eaten the fruit from the forbidden 'tree of knowledge' of the "Garden of Eden". The world was clearer, I suddenly had physical experiences that I never knew existed, and my feelings were electrically sharp. I could do and feel things I didn't know existed in me. Afterwards, I understood that they are in me even without that woman".
His eating from the “forbidden fruit” and sharing it with Hanna caused her too, to "loose her innocence", as if she had been banished from the Garden of Eden of blind faith and the belief that if she only continued to carry out her duties, everything would be alright." We found the association to the fruit of the 'tree of knowledge of good and evil', forbidden to Adam and Eve in Genesis (2:16-3:19) interesting, and we continue to use it as a metaphor in therapy with other long term marriage partners. Only after they have eaten the forbidden fruit could Adam and Eve see each other as naked and really came to "know each other" and create the first family.
In this chapter we described how we accompany the couple during this sobering, eye-opening period. The act of having an affair, in terms of the marriage, is experienced by most as a betrayal of a pact, a pact that includes sexual fidelity, belief that neither partner will hurt the other and belief that both partners will be open and honest with each other. As long as the affair is going on, the uninvolved spouse and the relationship are suffering. When the affair is revealed, the therapist must help in making the sobering process meaningful for both spouses in the formation of a renewed pact.
Like Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake in the biblical story, so both marital partners want to shake off responsibility and blame someone else. The betrayed spouse may blame the "betraying" partner or the lover, and the involved spouse often blames the" betrayed" spouse for setting up the conditions which led to the affair. The therapist must help each of them to identity and accept responsibility for his or her actions and their consequences. This will be followed by difficult dilemmas, one of which is "to know or not to know". On the one hand, both partners would have liked to return to a time of naivete and lies. On the other hand, they have already eaten from the " tree of knowledge" and the gates to the innocence of Garden of Eden are barred and there is no way back. This understanding leads to the dysphoria of the second stage. .Both discover the hard way that they have no choice but to open their eyes and "see" and "know". They must confront their personal and joint behavior patterns that constituted the" fertile ground" for the crisis. They will become aware that in many respects they are strangers to one another, and have taken each other and their relationship for granted (third stage). They will be anxious bout the difficulties that await them, a life that requires awareness, pain and effort but with the therapist help they can look forward with curiosity to the positive aspects that may develop. They will be guided to sincerely "take personal; and relational inventory", examine their past and present sorrows and disappointments, as well as the old and new strengths and qualities of their relationship, and negotiate a new perspective and new rules. They will learn to create new experiences of honesty and intimacy. (Fourth stage)
If all goes well, the crisis period will come to closure with readiness on both sides for a full and conscious reconciliation. They can begin to experience their relationship as having the potential for restoration, healing, growth and excitement. During this last stage, they may be capable of choosing one another not merely out of habit or fear of leaving or being left, but out of fully conscious determination to make the relationship the right place for each of them, one where they can realistically satisfy their own and each other's needs. It is the re-creation of the "right place" that will be the basis of work in the continuation of the couple therapy.
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