Ask Dr D; “I had an affair”
Helen has been seeing a psychologist colleague for approximately four years.
The focus of their discussions has been around her dysfunctional marriage.
Helen has felt she has been “taken for granted”, lonely in the relationship and has missed friendship, companionship and intimacy.
Her husband has been a good provider and a caring, although somewhat distant father of two daughters of 17 and 19.
Attempts to address Helen’s concerns included the development of her self esteem and ways of communicating her needs. Her husband was a reluctant participant in marital therapy for one session only and then refused to attend saying it was a “waste of time”.
They went on a cruise a year ago and Helen met Greg who was travelling with his wife Shirley. “There was an immediate attraction” says Greg and we’ve been seeing each other ever since.
After much debate, both Helen and Greg decided that they wanted to be together and that they would speak to their respective spouses about divorce.
Greg was referred to me by Helen’s therapist who felt that it was important that he was absolutely sure of his decision and he was afforded the opportunity of talking this through.
It was a challenging session highlighting all the positive and seductive aspects of affairs and pointing out that the relationship existed primarily on a fantasy level and had never been “tested”. The fact that there would be huge challenges concerning children and money was discussed. Greg engaged intently but remained insistent that he would deal with the obstacles and he knew what he wanted.
Although he expressed affection towards his wife and was concerned about the effect of divorce on his children, a boy and a girl he was adamant about his decision and although anxious, excited about sharing his life with someone who enjoyed similar activities and shared many common interests. He dismissed any possibility of addressing the expressed areas of concern regarding his marriage.
Before Helen told her husband of her affair he found out and tracked her cellphone. He was devastated and she and her therapist requested that she make an appointment with me. Greg of course was most anxious that I meet and talk with Helen.
Helen: Thank you for seeing me. I have never been so confused in my entire life.
D: This has been quite a journey hasn’t it?
Helen: More like a rollercoaster without breaks!
D: You and Greg had it all worked out. You were going to tell your partners at the same time. He was so sure and said you were …
Helen: Well, I am – I mean I was. There is no way that I was leading him on.
I really meant to leave Richard. After all I have been trying for 10 years.
D: Sounds like now you are not so sure…
Helen: His reaction when he found out about Greg was astounding, mind-blowing in fact.
The anger part I can understand but I honestly could never imagine that he would be so devastated. It was amazing.
D: You were so surprised that your husband was devastated to learn that you are having an affair - and with someone whom he knows and likes?
Helen: Quite honestly I have never seen him so emotional. Never, not even when his father died.
D: You didn’t know he cared so much did you?
Helen: That’s just it! I had no idea. Why didn’t he show me all these years? Why did I have to beg for attention? Why did I feel so taken for granted?
D: Why did you have to have an affair?
Helen: Exactly!... Well, I didn’t have an affair to get his attention. I genuinely fell in love with Greg.
D: What was it about Greg?
Helen: That’s easy. He is kind, available. He listens to what I say. I feel that I matter. We talk for a long time and never run out of conversation. We enjoy the same things. We are both the adventurous sort you know and are game for anything. We would spend hours planning our future…
D: So what’s the dilemma?
Helen: I don’t really know I was so sure (becomes tearful)
D: It seems that this is the first strong indication that you’ve received for many years that your husband truly loves you.
You have felt invisible and can hardly believe how important you are to him and it is that that has thrown you.
Helen: I thought I didn’t care anymore but when he said he would do anything absolutely anything to not only save but improve our marriage I knew that I could not just walk away.
D: Could not or would not?
Helen: I don’t understand.
D: Is it guilt, remorse, the kids or …
Helen: I don’t want to! Believe it or not – I can hardly believe it. I really still care about him. I just needed to be cared about.
He could have just been angry, just accepted it but he even saw his role in all of this.
D: So the options are, more of the same which is not on, to leave and go with Greg or what you’re saying is that you’ve seen another possibility a possibility that you never imagined. You do really want to make every effort to make this work, your marriage I mean?
Helen: Yes, I think so but I’m also scared. What if we go back to more of the same … to where we were for so long? How do I know things are going to be different? And also of course, I will miss Greg terribly.
D: You are talking as if you have no control. You have a say. You know trying does not mean staying. One thing for sure is that where you were was totally unsatisfactory - for you anyway. You never have to settle for that again. You are entitled to have your priority needs met and you know what they are.
You and Richard are looking to a future with a difference and your task is to make it happen and that requires effort on an on going basis.
Helen: I know this and so does he at least he does now. He says he’ll commit to therapy or to whatever it takes.
D: You are worried about lapsing into complacency again so how will you ensure that this does not happen?
Helen: I feel absolutely determined about this. I can’t live being legally married and emotionally single again. I’ll have to have a bigger mouth and he’ll have to have larger ears!
D: So your “contract” is to make every attempt by highlighting the positive, identifying the areas of improvement and addressing them primarily with a therapist and of course acting on new insights at home on an ongoing basis.
D: This is very different from a commitment to staying unconditionally in a relationship that is unfulfilling. It’s almost as if it’s the end of a road and beginning of a journey.
Helen: It’s a journey that I think I want to undertake with Richard and we will undertake it in a different manner. We will talk about our route, plot our destination, read the sign posts and hopefully support each other along the way.
D: Sounds like the best direction to me. You are in a marriage. You do have children. You do want to feel that everything that could be done to make it into the best relationship that it could be has been done. If you walk away at the end of a concerted effort at least every attempt has been made.
Helen: Definitely. I know I will miss Greg and I will have to be disciplined in not contacting him every time things go slightly wrong but I’m convinced this is the right decision for everyone.
D: So what’s your plan?
Helen: Well would you see Richard and me?
D: Unfortunately, as I have been seeing Greg that won’t be possible especially as I think he will want to continue in the light of all this but I will refer you to excellent marital therapists and you can make your choice.
Helen: Of course I care about Greg. I will worry about him and I don’t think it will be easy for me either but this is something I have to do.
Thank you so much for helping me clarify my direction.
One month later:
I have seen Greg on two occasions. He’s finding it difficult to come to terms with Helen’s decision. There are many times in a day when he picks up the phone to call her and stops himself knowing that she will not take his calls.
His wife knows about the relationship and wants the marriage on any terms. She finds it difficult to discuss and attempts to ignore the “elephant in the room”.
He has no wish to involve her in any therapeutic interaction at present.
Helen has called. She is excited about how things are going with her husband Richard. She says their relationship is better that it has ever been and that he is relentless in his ongoing effort. She feels somewhat guilty and says how unfortunate it was that people were hurt.
It’s as if she had met her husband for the first time.