The couple sitting in front of me in my counseling office looks nervous and concerned, almost frightened. It’s as if their marriage has been threatened by a kind of cancer and they already know that the outcome is going to be disaster or a very painful process of recovery unlike anything they ever imagined. I know and they know this won’t be easy. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to get going. The sooner the better.
I have been doing this kind of work for over 30 years. The couples who have experienced infidelity surprise me. The ones I think will be able to heal and rebuild trust often fail. The ones who succeed defy my expectations. Those ones are often the “worst case” scenarios — multiple affairs over many years with secrets on top of secrets, and betrayal on top of betrayal. Yet, these couples are the ones that have taught me the most about what it takes to heal from the damage caused by infidelity.
The question I hold, privately at first, is this: “What was the soul of the one who had the affair looking for?” And “What was it in the soul of the marriage itself that was missing?”
So often in our culture, marriages begin with lots of soulfulness, magic, mystery, inspiration, and of course romance. But the demands of jobs and careers, raising children, maintaining homes and loyalties to extended family and friends take precedence over the deeper needs of one’s soul. What began with spontaneity and lots of heartfelt desire devolves into a relationship that is functional and conventional — mystery, novelty, and romance have left the scene.
Looking for and finding answers takes time. In therapy, hurt and anger are center stage initially. Truth-telling, too. The whole truth. Though, there’s only so much truth a wounded partner can take, and it has to be administered in doses, like chemotherapy, so as to not kill whatever slim rays of hope there may be of rebuilding trust and desire. The one who betrayed may promise that it won’t happen again. But of course, it will, unless the soul somehow gets a voice.
What couples have taught me is that an affair is, almost always, an unconscious agreement on the part of two people to bring a third party into the marriage in order to address a problem or problems they have been unable to resolve on their own. The marriage has become centered around the children, with no time to nurture the relationship that brought those children into the world. Or work at the office and at home has consumed all hours in a day except what’s left for sleep. There’s no time for nurturing the self. The couple has forgotten that playfulness and freedom fed the soul of the relationship in the beginning, and the marriage has gotten lost in a life of obedience to multiple commitments, paying the bills, and keeping a constantly busy schedule. You get the idea. It’s a familiar story. Often, it’s the price of success — success narrowly defined, that is.
And yet, most textbooks treat infidelity as if it was a cancer to be removed or destroyed; and then, all will be restored to the way things were before the betrayal ever happened. The story of how the couple unconsciously created the affair can get lost and forgotten. The symptom has been cured, but the seedbed for the next potential betrayal simply lies dormant, undiscovered, and unhealed. I tell a couple in the first session the most important sign of healing is someday, if they’ve done their work well, a total stranger could ask each of them separately, “what happened,” and the story each of them told would sound basically the same: stories of what their souls had lost and what their souls had found.
I receive postcards and notes occasionally from the couples who have been willing to go deeper together. They are smiling and happy, usually in some scene on a lake or in the mountains, or at the beach. I know the courage it took to reinvent themselves and recreate a marriage with legs for the long run. They didn’t just get rid of the problem. They used the problem to discover paths of soulfulness and hope. Marriage 1.0 was exchanged for a completely revamped Marriage 2.0: marriages with plenty of responsibilities, but also marriages filled with heartfelt honesty, emotional vulnerability, playfulness, and dreaming together about lives of meaning, honesty, and renewed desire. Every marriage has it’s set of problems, even the happiest ones. What makes the problems worthwhile is a couple’s willingness to stay conscious of their authentic needs and working towards their dreams together.