Treating a Couple After an Affair By Catherine Ambrose, LCSW on 12/13/12 - 5:04 PM

The couple in my office is connected mostly by the spaces they hold between them. Sitting on the loveseat in my office, they do not touch, although their arms, legs, and elbows and hands shift in an unconscious echo of each other’s movements. They are not so much mirroring each other as performing an elaborate dance of avoidance and retreat, their bodies’ dialogue spoken even through their many silences. On a larger scale, the same thing happens where they live: he comes home, she goes upstairs; she comes downstairs, he goes up; he enters a room, she leaves. They know if one of them tries to bridge the gap, something even worse will happen. There will be a wordless rejection, a sharp reminder of loneliness like a slap, or there will be a spark that will catch, flaring up hot and mean between them.

She can’t imagine how she is going to get over the affair. She is all the things anyone would expect: angry, hurt, shamed, frightened. He is torn between the grief of losing his wife and the grief of losing his lover. He has given up his lover in that he no longer sees her, and hasn’t for months, but he still has this backwards kind of feeling that if he re-engages with his wife—has fun with her, makes love to her, creates pleasant memories with her—that he is somehow being unfaithful to the lover he has renounced and, most importantly, all that she represented to him. To maintain what remains of his honor and fidelity he feels he must remain distant from his lover, his wife, and himself.

Today she is angry, but instead of the usual sullen acceptance on his part, he flares up in anger, and then, just as suddenly, bursts into tears. They are both startled by his emotion.

He gasps out the words, “I can’t believe how much I miss her” and I think, oh boy, she is going to explode.

I take a breath, preparing to intervene, but I hesitate when I see her face. There is anger there, but also something more like confusion or doubt. I wait.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says, “I want to kill him, but my heart goes out to him at the same time. What am I supposed to do?” In other circumstances, the bewilderment in her expression would be comical.

I would have said, if he had given me the opportunity to offer advice, that it would not be helpful for him to share this grief with her, that it would only inflame her anger and hurt and sense of betrayal, but there is no going back now. His grief is intense and visceral. He is holding his head in his hands and almost wailing.

Still looking at me, she holds her palms up and shrugs her shoulders in a mute gesture of helplessness, then turns to look at him. I have no idea what will happen next.

Slowly, she reaches across the couch for his hand and twines her fingers through his. He grasps her hand like a lifeline and clings to her as he sobs.

He chokes out his guilt—“I’m so sorry, so sorry”—but at the same time his relief is palpable. He seems more present than he has at any time since they started coming for sessions. There is no sense of anything secret or held back. He gathers her closer to him and they lean into each other in a tight embrace, both crying.

They leave, and I find I am near tears myself. What I am feeling is mostly the kind of surprised awe I feel sometimes in nature—what I feel in those rare moments, a dawn, or a sunset, when I am completely outside myself, bearing witness to beauty. His unvarnished honesty, her generosity, their mutual capacity to express love in what has been an atmosphere of despair and anger were acts of tremendous courage. Certainly it may have been, like a particular sunset, a fleeting moment, perhaps unrecoverable. But I hope—and I realize that I don’t need to go much further than that one word: hope. I hope, and I believe they will hope, that this moment of meeting holds a promise that other such meetings are possible.


File under: Couples Therapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist