An Affair Without Repair

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In an earlier post, "Affair Repair", I talked about the potential for something good to come out of that most painful of relationship infractions, the affair. And, in fact, most of the couples whom I see in my office post-afffair feel that , with some work, the intimacy with their partner has become deeper, and more genuine. But not always.

I began thinking about that handful of cases where the couple does not "recover" from the affair, or when they split up despite engaging in some therapy. Occasionally, the problem is that the affair has lasted too long. Too much damage done, too much deception over too long a period. Or the guy who cheated balks at severing the connection with his lover. (I'm using "guy", since this is the most common scenario from my experience.) Any rationale he concocts to justify contact-i.e., co-worker, etc.-is a non-starter. No healing can begin while the intruder hangs around.

But, sometimes, even without these factors, the marriage fails to recover. This happened with a couple I saw quite a few years ago: The case still stays with me. Here's a glimpse into their story:

Bill and Esther, a rather proper-looking couple in their early 40's, came to see me after being referred by Bill's family doctor. Bill had recently "confessed" to his wife that he had been having an affair for last several months with a woman he'd met at a local bar. When they came to see me, I noted that a confession like Bill's was unusual. Most cheating guys wait until they are busted, and are cornered into confession. But Bill said he "couldn't live with himself; he said he "cared about" Esther and loved their two kids. He needed to figure out what to do.

Indeed, he looked pretty rattled when I first met them. He, in fact, looked much more distressed than Esther. While she admitted to being "shocked" by this betrayal, her tone and demeanor remained rather cool and controlled. She hadn't yet learned much about the affair, and, strangely, didn't seem especially curious. But I was. I wanted to know what the affair was about for Bill, and what it had to do with their relationship.

Bill acknowledged that he had "fallen" for this young woman he met at a local bar where he stopped after work. She apparently recently emigrated from Albania and worked as a nanny. He described their relationship as "tumultuous", (it sounded like he meant "passionate") and, though he said he ended it in order to work on his marriage, I could hear longing in his voice. He described her as "very demanding"; she didn't take the ending of the affair very well.

I wanted to raise the temperature of this marriage. It had been cool for too long. I highlighted the damage Bill caused by the betrayal of his wife. He signaled he was ready for a lashing. Actually, I think he wanted it. But Esther didn't oblige. Hmmm... As I got to know Esther over the next several sessions, I wondered aloud about her containment. Her responses to my questions about her upbringing yielded some clues. She was the eldest child who grew up in a turbulent home: Her parents bickered constantly and unhappiness permeated the atmosphere. Esther became the parents' emotional caretaker, navigating their arguments, tending to their wounds. Now elderly, her parents still kept her in that role. I think she felt unable to escape, though I offered help. (I wanted her to bring her folks in for a session.) I think Esther never had the opportunity to have her own temper tantrums; she always had to be the grown-up. I was not-so-secretly rooting for her to lose her cool. I mean really lose her cool. I knew it would be good for the marriage. And definitely good for her.

It never happened. We met for nearly six months. I came to see this couple as very duty-bound; their relationship reeked of obligation, but little fun was had. They refused to bring their kids in, since Esther wanted to "protect" them from any family turmoil. I assured her they knew all about these marital tensions, even without being privy to the details. And I continued to challenge Bill for abandoning his wife for a cheap version of excitement, but to no avail.

I think if Esther could have given in to a long-overdue temper tantrum, this heat may have helped re-charge the relationship battery. The jolt of the affair wasn't sufficient. The betrayal almost rolled off the collective marital back. I think Esther feared losing control more than losing her husband. I realized, with sadness, that this was was a dead marriage looked like. I haven't heard from them since they separated; I hope they've found a way to secure some morsels of happiness.