Sometimes I go through the day with tears behind my eyes. It’s ordinary things that get me. People learning to forgive themselves or learning to love in the shadow of betrayal.
A young man discovered his wife’s affair. He found explicit texts. Many. They had fucked in his bed while he was out of town.
The couple came to therapy.
He thought he couldn’t ever love again, but he also couldn’t leave her. So he stayed and froze her out with vitriol and hatred. She stayed and wanted him to love her, needed him to love her, longed for him to love her—just as she had done before the affair. This desperate and unfulfilled need was the thing that had driven her to find pleasure with someone else in the first place. And here they were, repeating the pattern that had created the problem while paying me to help them fix it.
This is not at all unusual.
I worked with them for several years and did a bunch of helpful stuff. They were one of those typical couples that escalate easily; they went from 1-10 in the blink of an eye, shouting over each other, making sarcastic comments and mimicking each other’s every remark while turning to me to confirm what an idiot the other was. Learning to listen was key for this couple. I helped them discover their own and each other’s needs. I supported her to find ways to feel powerful and in control without his love. I supported him to get to know his inner life, to identify his feelings and express them. To cry.
It was a stereotypical heterosexual gender scene.
They kept coming back. For several years, the only place they could talk was in my office. Although we did a lot of good work and they each grew as individuals, it became more and more clear that he couldn’t forgive her. Nor could she forgive herself. She couldn’t stop herself from being present to receive his punishment.
Then he got a serious medical diagnosis. I felt like I was waiting for a train wreck, and for good reason.
You see, some years earlier, I had worked with another couple, also dealing with betrayal. They were older. The man was a CEO, the target of several sexual harassment suits. The woman was a healer-type. Despite her self-imposed spiritual imperatives and attempts at open-mindedness, she was constantly suspicious of him. He said she was paranoid. She blamed herself. He analyzed and diagnosed her. She talked about her family history, her distant father, her so-called neediness. He called her crazy and hysterical. She tried to stay centered, to make herself trust life, trust him, trust the universe. Not to be so small-minded.
I think you get the picture—they both blamed her.
Over time she learned to fight back—against his judgments and against her female socialization. Her husband didn’t like this.
The last time I saw them together, she expressed her anger clearly and directly—at him. He told his wife that her anger and emotional extremity was killing him. He looked pale and used those exact words. I can’t take it. You are killing me. That’s all he could say. I stood beside him and spoke for his unspoken feelings. Please stop, I am afraid. He looked at me and nodded ever so slightly with the hint of a tear in his eye.
A few days after that session, he had a heart attack and died. Months later she confessed to me that she wasn’t sorry it ended that way. She felt that he had given her an out.
And now there was this young man, and his mysterious symptoms.
I can’t help but think about men, and how hardened they are trained to be. I hold a special place for their tender hidden hearts.