Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Betrayal Survival Guide: How to Find a Good Couples Therapist

Those of you who are regular readers know that I'm a big fan of therapy. No matter who posts what, I generally suggest that individual therapy or marital therapy can go a long way toward helping you heal. 
We're messy people. All of us, not just those of us dealing with infidelity. We're the product of our parents, our culture, our personality, our education, our friends. And inevitably there are some experiences in there that mess with us, whether a bit or a whole lot. Which means that there isn't a soul among us who can't benefit from the occasional tune-up – the chance to examine the thoughts and values we hold and determine how they're contributing to our mental health and our actions. However – and this is a big however – therapy is only as good as the person offering it. A bad therapist – and I've heard some stories of really bad therapists – can do some serious emotional (and sometimes physical) damage. One BWC member suffered a spinal stroke, rendering her paralyzed from the waist down. She and her husband sought therapy to help their marriage survive the incredible changes required of each...and the husband ran off with the therapist. I know, right? And we thought we had it bad.
I often get asked how to know if a therapist is good. Well, in the case above, it's pretty obvious. Another BWC member posted on this site that her therapist had suggested the OW join the therapy to clear the air. This, in case it needs stating, is nuts. 
A good therapist is one who helps each partner in the marriage become better able to hear and respond to the other. My husband and I knew just how good our own therapist was when we realized that he felt completely heard and respected by her...and I felt the same. She had created an environment where there was no good guy or bad guy. Just two people who wanted the same thing but hadn't a clue how to achieve it. Her role was to help us. 
Don't be afraid to walk away from a therapist who's making you uncomfortable. Sometimes it's just too soon. But ask yourself if the discomfort comes from feeling re-victimized or if the therapist is urging us to examine things we'd prefer to leave unexamined. In other words, is the discomfort shouting at us to back away (unsafe) or whispering to us to move closer (scary). I hear from a lot of betrayed wives whose husbands "refuse" therapy, insisting that they can solve their own problems. That's a red flag for me. If one of the partners feels the need to get marital counselling, I'm a firm believer that the other owes them to at least try it. Those who "refuse" therapy, in my experience, are the ones who need it most. They've spent a lifetime avoiding a deeper look at their own pain. 
But I'm no expert. So I took your questions to Valerie, who is. She's an individual and couples therapist who often helps those coping with infidelity. Her advice is straightforward and full of wisdom and compassion. 
Elle: Women often write to me noting that a therapist has insisted they take "responsibility" for the state of the marriage, which feels to them as if they're being blamed for their spouse's affair. What do you think about that?
Valerie: The therapists in question have abandoned a neutral-compassionate stance in favor of a moral perspective.  This is in fact "victim blaming".  In an age of Dr. Phil and the reign of social conservatism, people believe they need to find a therapist who will tell them they did wrong or defend them if they have been wronged. The therapist as judge and jury. That isn't good therapy. 
Elle: What about a betrayed wife's need to see their spouse accept responsibility for the pain they've caused by having an affair?
Valerie: The therapist's role is not to force accountability on either part. Accountability will evolve naturally in the course of therapy that is encouraging of empathy and compassion on both parts. For example, the betrayed partner cannot and will not move past hurt unless he or she feels that her partner demonstrates real empathy for the harm done. Similarly, the affair partner will not come out of the shadows and into the light (so to speak) unless he or she feels their partner can grasp what lies beyond the betrayal. We are not talking causality here – that is the proverbial chicken and egg question – but rather a relational dance that a good therapist will be attuned to and work with.
Elle: Should all couples dealing with infidelity seek therapy?
Valerie: Some couples will not be helped by therapy. It is a gruelling process, and each party must be prepared to go in with a view to self-reflection. If the hurt is still very raw, or too much damage has been done, the participation will only be about deflecting, blaming, punishing, hiding etc. A good therapist will tell a couple they aren't ready and that individual work around stabilizing and returning to self should be undertaken first. A good therapist will always help the couple set limits around damaging behaviours before proceeding, a process which involves both parties agreeing to work toward change.
Elle: So what should people coping with the aftermath of infidelity be looking for?
Valerie: Basically, what I am saying is: find a therapist who is relationally oriented with an understanding of family systems theory. (Virginia Satir is a good example of a therapist who worked beautifully from that perspective.) The therapist should show compassion and understanding for both partners right from the initial session. If an affair partner is saying "I feel judged by my therapist" what they are saying, I think, is "I have not been heard in my hurt." The therapist must help the affair partner to witness the hurt unequivocally and support the betrayed partner in letting the betrayer close enough to touch the hurt with his or her empathy.  Not an easy task.  If the therapist is preaching or wagging a finger in either direction, I would say run away!

Friday, February 14, 2014


Happy Valentine's Day to you incredibly wonderful women. May you love yourselves with abandon today...and every day.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Judgement Day: When betrayed wives attack betrayed wives

Okay, so my title sounds like some sort of B-movie.
But just glance at the covers of tabloid magazines or newspapers for a quick education in how our culture views infidelity. "Cheater!" they scream. Or "It's over!" Or the straightforward "Betrayed!"
The betrayed wives are divided into two categories. Those women who dump the cheater? Brave. Strong. Those who forgive? Delusional. Wimpy.
What's particularly surprising, however, is that much of this scorn heaped on betrayed wives comes from...betrayed wives.
Forgiving a cheater and rebuilding a marriage seems a disappointment to our take-the-gloves-off culture. We want revenge. We want retribution. After all, the adage goes, "once a cheater..."
No matter that evidence doesn't back this cliché up. No matter that the majority (80% says a recent study) of marriages will experience infidelity. No matter that of those who divorce following infidelity, more than three-quarters later regretted it.
Our culture's judgement of infidelity – and those of us navigating it – is why so many of us choose silence even as we're experiencing the worst pain of our lives. It's why we hesitate to trust even our closest friends to support us.
It's why we find comfort in anonymous blogs where we can share our story without fear.
Betrayal creates deep wounds and triggers strong emotions. It's confusing to learn that the one person you trusted most has betrayed you. My immediate reaction upon learning about my husband's infidelity was to wander my house, wringing my hands and asking, out loud to myself, "what am I going to do?"
And it's perhaps that question that's central to this issue of judgement. What was I going to do? Sure I'd always said that cheating was a deal-breaker. But that was when it was a hypothetical. Things are always clear when they're hypothetical.
But now I had to figure out what, among my various options, I was going to do. And of course, I – like all of you – was making that choice with absolutely no understanding of infidelity and without a crystal ball.
It's into that uncertainty about our future, our deep pain at the betrayal and our recognition that other people are impacted by our choice (something our husbands neglected to note) that others cast their judgement.
"Well, I could never do what you're doing," one friend told me, just weeks after my D-Day. Within that comment was her deeper point that, really, I was a bit of an idiot. She'd left own marriage a few years earlier because of her then-husband's infidelity and she had no room for any alternative but to leave. I was stung by her dismissal of my choice. I struck her off my confidantes list, which was already pretty short.
And yet, a few years later, after this friend had been in a happy long-term relationship with another man, she wistfully told me that she thinks she and her ex could have actually made it work. But...who knows? My friend is now happily remarried. She made her choice.
And that's my point: We each get to make our choice. It's an excruciating one. Some of us will regret our choice to stay at which point we're allowed to change our minds. Some will regret our choice to leave at which point we're generally stuck with the consequences. Life isn't an exact science.
What we can do, however, is support each other in whatever choice we make. We can encourage each other to get as much information as we can and then make the best choice you can under the circumstances at the time. And we can then acknowledge that your choice doesn't make mine any less valid.
To those of us who've experienced that judgement, especially from other betrayed wives? Recognize that another's inability to tolerate your different choice speaks to her deep fear that she's making a mistake. We are frightened by those whose actions call into mind that there is another possibility. Seeing the world in black and white makes moralistic judgement so much easier...but it makes the world much less beautiful.
See her judgement as evidence of her own deep pain. And offer her compassion.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What the *@#% was he thinking?

It was 6 a.m. after a long night of me interrogating my husband. But why? I would ask, over and over in many different ways. What were you thinking?
"I wasn't," my husband finally said. "I wasn't thinking about you at all!"
Bam. There it was.
Though he'd said variations on that same sentiment – that his cheating had nothing to do with me – plenty of times, there was something about his candid admission that, as he left our house in the morning to drive to her house for a pre-work quickie, he simply wasn't thinking of me that hit me like a lightning bolt.
He wasn't thinking about me. This wasn't about him battling his conscience, torn between the pajama-clad wife at home wiping her toddlers' faces or the showered, perfumed Other Woman.
He wasn't thinking about me. At all.
It's crazy right? And crazier still that this made me feel good. In that moment, I got it. I finally understood that his cheating really had nothing to do with me. This was about a parallel world he believed in where he was free to do what he wanted. Where he didn't have obligations or responsibilities. Where it was all about him. He didn't care about her. Didn't even like her. She was escape. And escape was what he craved.
So often when women write to me within their letters is the question "why?" over and over and over. Why would he do this? What was he thinking? How could he ruin our relationship? What about our children? Didn't he think about them? 
Aren't I enough? they ask. How could he throw away five/ten/twenty years? Didn't he think about what he was doing?
I doubt it.
Cheaters become masters at compartmentalization. Some are so good at it because they're truly narcissists who simply don't care about anyone else. They aren't thinking about you because they never think about you except in how you can be of use to them.
But the others, like my husband, are garden-variety fuck-ups. They've got issues, often deep issues, that haven't been addressed. Childhood abuse or neglect. Emotional detachment. Mother issues. Unprocessed grief. An inability to recognize or manage their own fear – of growing old, missing out, failing.
And then someone comes along who offers escape. Someone in whose eyes they loom large and exciting and interesting. The someone is less important than what that someone offers. A parallel universe. Escape.
It's the reason so many of these guys are stunned when the affair is dragged into the real world and suddenly it seems so ridiculous and cliché and embarrassing. They can't believe what they've done. They're acutely aware of just what they have to lose.
It's not always immediate. Sometimes this parallel universe has such a hold on them that it takes them a while to shake it from their psyche. Like someone in the dark arriving, blinking, into the bright sunlight. They're not sure which one is reality, the light or the dark.
But a lot of guys know immediately that they've really messed up. That this escape has been a total illusion. That the price of this fantasy is going to be high.
They're the ones who insist that they're not that guy. That they didn't know what they were thinking. They don't want to talk about it. It's humiliating. It's confusing. They can't really explain what they were thinking because they weren't.
If they really think hard about it they might acknowledge that they were thinking variations on such things as nobody will get hurt. Or I feel young again. But mostly they just weren't thinking at all.


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