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July/August 2011

One Helpful Resource for Recovering From Marital Infidelity
by  Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.

    Carl and Lori were married about twenty years, seemingly in a satisfying relationship for most of that time, until Lori discovered evidence that Carl was having an affair with someone he had met through his work.  The evidence included some emails that Lori discovered one afternoon when Carl absent-mindedly left his email account open on his laptop. Prompted to begin looking elsewhere, Lori discovered a few text messages not erased on his cell phone, as well as a call log in the phone that included numerous calls with this affair partner.
     Not surprisingly, she was devastated by this discovery – shocked, hurt, dismayed, angry, to simply state some of her initial emotions.  Lori had been aware of some greater distance between herself and Carl in recent years, which she had interpreted as due to intense work stresses for Carl, which included significant travel for business, her own substantial professional pressures, some serious health issues for her which impacted her energy level, ability to travel with him and assist him on some business trips and her sexuality too. She also thought their own aging was a factor:  he was in his mid-60’s, she was about 10 years younger.  A younger relative of Lori’s had been living with them the last few years, as she pursued a college degree in a local university, which was a pleasant experience, but also some distraction from their own marriage.
  Lori first sought counseling for herself, available through her employer’s insurance benefits, which provided her with a safe place to sort out some of her initial reactions, and to help her begin efforts at a dialogue with Carl.  This dialogue soon brought them to my office for joint sessions, to attempt to resolve their difficulties.  While Carl admitted the affair, with anger expressed at himself for having hurt Lori this way, as well as having placed his affair partner in a no-win position, he was struggling with cutting off all contact with her even though he wanted to preserve his marriage with Lori.
     In addition to relationship therapy, there is an excellent resource to help people with this kind of challenge:  Not “Just Friends”:  Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, by Shirley Glass, Ph.D.  In a systematic, readable, thoughtful way, Dr. Glass outlines many of the issues involved in infidelity, how the internet and dual career life styles make it even easier for affairs to occur, and a clear approach to the “healing journey” required to recover.  A few of her key concepts follow to shed some light on this age-old issue and encourage our website readers to pursue more education about it.
    Starting with the “slippery slope”, Dr. Glass acknowledges that liking someone of the opposite sex outside the marriage relationship, even feeling some attraction and chemistry perhaps, is not inherently a problem.  It simply means that you are alive, vibrant, with your own functioning biology that responds to others.  There is little or no problem when a platonic friendship with someone outside the marriage develops when the spouse is living within a secure marriage.  A problem develops when emotional intimacies are shared with the friend, that are not shared with the marriage partner, when secrecy develops such that some aspects of the friendship are not revealed to the marriage partner, and when the friend is really not a “friend of the marriage”.  This last term means that this friend does not protect the marriage, direct the other person back to their marriage partner with emotional intimacies, or deflect away from more intimate sharing that belongs in the marriage. Sexual intimacy of course is a violation of fidelity, but so can be emotional intimacy, which makes online relationships also potentially damaging to a marriage.
     “Walls” and “windows” is one powerful concept employed by Dr. Glass to help illuminate this process.  In a close, caring marriage, there are large windows between the two spouses, such that there is much sharing, a free flow of information, and much visibility.  While there may be some areas of privacy between spouses of course, these are few in number, not crucial to the trust and intimacy in the relationship, and are open to disclosure if needed by one partner or another.  At bottom, there are no substantial secrets, and if needed, no secrets at all.  Between spouses and others outside the marriage there are walls for the most part, such that much of the more personal, private aspects of one’s life and one’s marriage are not revealed, with the windows being substantially smaller than the ones between spouses.
     In an affair, even an emotional affair without sexual intimacy, the walls and windows are re-arranged.  Larger windows are established between spouse and affair partner, and more walls are placed between marriage partners.  The flow of information, sharing, knowing and being known by the other is re-directed to the affair partner and away from the spouse.  This non-marital flow increases over time as the affair partners become more involved with each other, and the marriage suffers from distance, detachment, and emotional deprivation.  The betrayed partner is being starved of nurturing and intimacy, often slowly but pervasively.
    When an affair is uncovered, the spouse who has been betrayed is traumatized.  Similar to other traumas, including physical threats to someone’s well-being/survival, there is often an “emotional roller coaster”.  Reactions range from numbness, to anger/rage, to fear and anxiety, to hurt, to severe confusion, to obsessive worry and preoccupation, and most any other kind of imaginable response.  The individual’s most basic assumptions about their life – not only their married life – are “shattered”. What they knew to be true in their lives is torn asunder.
     Somewhat distinct from many other therapists, Dr. Glass counsels that recovery for the betrayed partner may need to be an extended process of seeking information repeatedly from their unfaithful partner as well as sorting  out their own mixed feelings about continuing the marriage, or not.  The unfaithful partner’s ability to be empathic, understanding of their hurt spouse, and patient about the work needed may be sorely tested.
    In a most basic way, walls and windows have to be re-arranged to that the primary, large windows are re-established between the spouses and walls put back in place with others outside the marriage.  Contact with the affair partner will best be stopped entirely, or if essential, kept only at a very superficial and infrequent level, preferably for a limited period of time.  Any inadvertent contact between the unfaithful spouse and the affair partner must be revealed, by the previously unfaithful partner on his/her own initiative.  These are the only ways that trust can be re-built.  With this re-building, the betrayed partner will hopefully come to forgiveness – not forgetting – that involves remembering the lessons learned and actually having some empathy for the unfaithful partner as well.  This releases the betrayed partner from his/her own hurt and trauma, so he/she can move forward in life more freely and fully involved in the rebuilt marriage.
    Much to the surprise of many couples, when this kind of fuller recovery is completed, the marriage can actually become  more satisfying, closer, and comforting than ever before.  All of the very hard work involved will seem well worth it.

Dr. Solomon is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in Torrance.  He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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