Recently I received an email from a distraught wife. Her husband had an affair six months ago and she found out only when the other woman texted her. He wants to stay in the marriage, but she says she can no longer trust him. The husband complains to her that he has apologised numerous times and answered her questions, but she refuses to draw a line under it. Tom.
It’s not that she refuses to draw a line under it Tom. She cannot. Trust that has been undermined needs root and branch analysis in order to be re-built. That can be acutely painful and many couples avoid it. Often the relationship founders on this factor alone.
It reminds me of a similar case I had some years ago. Maria * (35) was distraught about her husband’s brief affair, especially as it was with her best friend. Mark* told Maria he loved her but was afraid to discuss any details – he just wanted things to get back to normal. Yet Maria would obsessively check his phone, read his emails, question him about every detail of the affair and ask insistently whether he loved her. Mark tried to placate her by telling her as little as possible and resorting to the odd fabrication or three in the hope that they could ‘work through’ this.
In talking about the marriage Maria briefly mentioned a male friend who she had been attracted to. Nothing apparently happened. I asked what effect this attraction might have had on the relationship with Mark and she acknowledged that it had cooled. Sexually and emotionally, she had no longer been drawn to Mark so much and with a small child and a part time job she was often too tired anyway. That had been five years ago.
After a while Mark simply grew used to it and a new normal began to take root. Yet a dangerous vacuum of unknown and unmet needs was creeping into the relationship. When that happens, it may only be a matter of time before one or the other unconsciously seeks sexual and/ or emotional fulfilment. By then it may be too late.
The main source of Maria’s mistrust was that Mark had tried to avoid the problem by attempting to placate her rather than by giving her direct answers. Women like to talk; men tend to avoid. Trust cannot be built on shifting sands however and Maria needed honest, if painful answers. I asked if she was prepared for it to really hurt and for her response to be raw anger. She said she was.
When I spoke with Mark, he very bravely suggested that to rebuild the trust he would type out all her unanswered questions and then the truthful answers. Then I would discuss it with Maria, then all together. Unfortunately, Mark was so keen to establish trust that handed the typewritten pages to Maria and took off (avoided again). To say that Maria was upset would be a huge understatement. She was so hurt and furious that she rang me in – understandable – rage and told me that I wasn’t fit to be a therapist let loose on the public; I was unethical and she would complain about me in the strongest possible terms. Ouch.
When she cooled off, we clarified not only Mark’s responses, but why he had written them and what that courage and honesty said about him as a person – and about his feelings about her. We further discussed the factors that had led to this situation in the first place. Without meaning to do so Maria had withdrawn; a vacuum had been created, of which neither was aware and eventually it had resulted in an affair. Both had contributed and both needed to mend it – slowly. Thankfully they both really wanted to do that.
This is where we come to basic personalities. Maria was the driving force and more assertive. Mark was content enough to go along with what she said. That undermined the respect, however. Both discussed how Maria would practice being less assertive and Mark more assertive. They did well.
Within a few months they were growing closer and able to talk more openly about previously avoided areas. Had they been different people the outcome may have been less encouraging. It’s important to assess what clients can and cannot withstand prior to undertaking this work.
I was lucky with Mark and Maria. They were brave, honest and they had a willingness to delve into previously avoided areas and really talk. I believe communication is not discussion about mundane things. It is to really talk about things we’d rather avoid, so that they don’t fester, but in a non-accusatory way. It is also very much about listening. So many of us slowly avoid, fester then blow and surprisingly few people really communicate.
The last time I saw Mark and Maria they were smiling. A second baby was on the way, and they were planning for the future.
I never saw them again (and thankfully the complaint never arrived).
Anne Kelly is a psychologist and CB Psychotherapist. She has trained several hundred CBT therapists to professionally accredited level. If you have a psychological concern. you are welcome to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org