“My life is over. I’ll never feel the way I felt when I was with…” Fill in the blank. A relationship with a man or a woman who fulfilled you for a time — briefly or extended, has come to it’s end. To heal a marriage from the destruction of secrets and betrayal, doors must be closed — for good.

These endings happen, more often, it seems than is publicly acknowledged.

I once attended a play at a community theatre in a small town that is the county seat of one of the most conservative sections of North Carolina. The title of the play has vacated my memory, but I well recall the two people who occupied the stage — a man sitting at a small desk on one side and a woman at her own desk on the other. They had met for one glorious date when they were young adults. But they never met again, for whatever reason — life. And yet, they maintained a correspondence through love letters for the rest of their lives into old age. That one date was the experience of their young lifetimes, an experience never forgotten, unrepeatable, and transformative. Despite marriages to others, they kept their secrets of fulfillment to themselves. The audience stood in rapturous applause at the curtain call, and I wondered: “What deep, enduring chord did this love story touch in such a conservative audience?”

Of course, the answer is obvious. Unrequited love is more the norm than the exception. The one who got away, the woman or man about whom we wonder, “What if?”

A photo of the one who escaped from me sat in the bottom of a metal file box I used to keep, along with other mementos, ribbons, and rewards from my past. Her 7th grade school picture displaying her pretty face and blonde hair and blue eyes, and a smile that filled a universe. Her image, slightly tattered through the years, traveled with me from place to place each time I moved, well into my 40’s. Then one day, I decided that I was being silly and immature — it was time to say goodbye. So, into the trash can she went.

But she never left me.

A phone call from time to time, whenever I visited the city where she lived, would reawaken the longing and the wondering. Once, we even met for a glorious afternoon walk at a nearby park, deciding afterwards that it might be best to forego such meetings that could result in the disruption of our lives and relationships. But still, once or twice a year, she visits me in my dreams, and I can’t wait to talk to my therapist. “WTF? Why can’t I get her out of my head?”

It’s not me, I’ve learned, that won’t forget. It’s my heart. It’s my soul.

At the end of the movie, “Shakespeare in Love,” there is scene where a broken-hearted Shakespeare says to his beloved Rosalind that his life is now over. Sadly, Rosalind is betrothed to royalty and will leave England the next morning for a new life in colonial America. That Shakespeare is bereft is an understatement — their mutual loss is deep and palpable. Yet Rosalind is prophetic. She tells Shakespeare that his life is far from over, delivering to him the plot for his next play and the next chapter of his incredibly creative and artistically prolific life — a legacy and labor of love for the world and for the ages. A woman who he would have preferred to marry, became his Muse.

When my lost love visits me in my dreams, I feel alive and excited. My heart is full to overflowing and I don’t want the dream to end. But like Rosalind, my lost love sends me back to the daytime universe to search for that aliveness and exuberance in my relationships, my work, my creative outlets, and in the world. Sometimes, successfully….Sometimes, not so much. Not necessarily a destination, but a journey worth pursuing.

Affairs: Cancer or Cure

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.


affairsMarried partners who have, at some point, participated in an affair is a phenomenon that is now a common part of our cultural landscape. Some estimate that only as low as 26% of Americans have had affairs while being married. Others estimate — when all kinds of “strayings” are included, from online relationships to the use of escorts and the regular use of pornography — that as many as 75% of married women and men have participated in extramarital sexual activity at some point along the way. So how come?

Something that happens with a great deal of frequency across the cultural spectrum of committed relationships must be important, in any number of ways. From a depth psychological perspective, the question needs to be asked: “What is the soul looking for in a marriage where one or both partners go astray?” This question avoids the too-easy kind of moralizing heard from pulpits or from a variety of cultural or sociological perspectives. A sociological analysis might, for instance, look at the pressures modern day marriages face: two-career income families that are stretched beyond thin, the demands of balancing devotion to the company versus devotion to one’s family, or the ways in which many families today are now child-centered rather than being centered on the ongoing development and maintenance of the health of a marriage. And this is only a very partial analysis.

But the soul-question lingers, partly because sociological pressures and other pressures will not simply go away or change. The momentum of history and the values of the larger culture are firmly in place. We can rely, however, on what people report in their closely held stories about their secret relationships. In my own listening to these stories during the 30 years of my practice of psychotherapy, I hear one particular, recurring theme, from both women and men in affairs.

That recurring theme is the theme of “aliveness.” People in affairs universally, it seems, feel incredibly alive. And they don’t primarily mean that they feel alive to sex. In fact, most often — and this is true as much or more in stories I hear from men — the aliveness to which they are referring is the kind of aliveness that they feel when they have someone who listens to and understands them and accepts them. It is this kind of aliveness that seems to create a kind of glue in affairs that is difficult to resist or to leave when that time comes. They picture returning to a dead marriage or a functional life devoid of feeling and meaning or returning to simply pushing the same rock up the same hill every day as in the Greek myth of Sysiphus. I can hear the protests of those who might judge such a simplification of the soul of affairs: “Oh yeah! Easy for someone to feel acceptance from someone they rendezvous with on occasion without any responsibilities or expectations of accountability?” And those protestors are right! The problem, though, is that the needs of the soul will not simply go away or return to the repressed land of psyche — without meaningful connections with others, we are all vulnerable to the allure of an affair.

Quite often, I get to be an honored witness to those courageous and determined couples who decide to transcend the violation of fidelity in order to make a new life for themselves — one that includes the needs of the soul. When they decide to do so, they are in for a lot of work as they heal what has been torn asunder. I am in awe of this process and the sorrow and suffering that has to be worked through inevitably. But for all of those who act on their fantasies of having an affair, I still worry as much or more about those who never act but only fantasize, maybe feeling guilty or ashamed or maybe even just incredibly frustrated by a life wrapped in the trappings of duty and conventionality. Where do they find solace for the yearning of soul? Where do they find support for the call to “be alive?” Life is short, as they say, and it’s certainly not a dress rehearsal. So where are the priests, shamans, and cultural commentators who will show us the way to transform marriage into the amazing mystery of a lifetime that it can and should ultimately be?