I regularly see couples after an affair. ‘That’s the end of them!” you might say. And, yes, an affair can signal the gasping breaths of a relationship that’s dying but it can also signal to the couple that their relationship needs attention and it can herald the start of a new relationship … together.
Erica had just discovered Max’s affair when they rang me for an appointment. In shock, she was constantly replaying in her mind the past months; the Christmas Day he’d taken the dog for a walk, his gift to her of a January weekend together in France, that business trip to Ontario in March and the unusually expensive gift he’d bought her …… This ghastly revelation of infidelity was now colouring her memories, causing her to question events while her imagination ran riot.
She cried, she needed holding, she wanted to pummel him to smithereens, she couldn’t sleep, she shouted, she wanted sex, and more sex. Affairs bring all sorts of reactions in both parties – sexually some reclaim their partner, others shun them.
But it’s QUESTIONS that all clients find so tough to deal with and Erica and Max were no exception
Max came to counselling distraught and shameful, terrified he would lose his wife. He was avoiding talking about the affair, trying to move on quickly, “It is over. I don’t want to talk about it to Erica. She gets upset and angry. I don’t feel good about what I did. I don’t want to answer her questions. I love her. Surely it’s best left behind so we can move on?”
But Erica wanted details of times, dates, places, feelings – and Max was getting frustrated with her incessant questions. “When did it start? Which day? Why? Where was I? How many? What if I’d not found out? Who knew? Did she buy that shirt?” Max either had a bad memory or was avoiding; and his stock answer was “I don’t know.”
Max felt shame and then guilt. These weren’t great feelings and they were heightened by Erica’s visible pain and angry questioning, and shame can make us feel angry. But luckily, Max was empathic to her distress and he could hold her, emotionally and physically, while she grieved. If he’d been angry, as some are, the early days would have been less well negotiated.
Max needed to understand that, up until this happened, Erica knew all about their relationship; I describe it as like a jigsaw, a complete and interlocking tableau of their years together. But now, suddenly, it was shattered and huge holes had appeared where pieces were missing. Erica’s questions were her way of attempting to fit the new pieces into the gaps so she could complete the puzzle. I normalised for Max that Erica would likely repeat the same questions over and over and, “For goodness sake, I’ve already told you that….” from him, would not be helpful. He needed to consistently answer as many times as she asked.
But, two weeks after the discovery, Erica’s questioning was overwhelming them both, preventing sleep and causing exhaustion and, if not contained, would cause further damage.
The first task was to help them agree a plan, setting times and boundaries. Erica was to keep a note of her questions and bring them to the table at the designated times. Initially this would be almost daily, but not quite. They needed a day or two a week where it was off limits.
Max had the affair. It was important that Max, at this point, took responsibility for the repairing of the relationship and to do this he shouldn’t shy away from the subject. In fact, against all his instincts, he should bring it up. This would show Erica he was not covering it up or minimising it and was keen to help her with her feelings. So Max was in charge of sitting them down together for question time, not Erica, although this was going against his original wish to avoid. If he could do it, he’d see the benefits; Erica would not need to angrily pursue him for answers because he was offering them.
Erica wanted chronology but she also wanted the details of the sexual aspects of the affair, some of which she’d already seen hints of in text messages. Before asking about the intimate details, I asked Erica to list some of her questions aloud in the room, without Max having to answer. I then wondered with her what she expected to hear, what was the worst thing she might hear, how she thought she’d manage the information ….. and I reminded her that once heard, it could not be unheard and, like a traumatic scene in a film, could constantly haunt us.
We did agree that Max could ask to defer a question asked at home and bring it to the next session where it might feel safer to talk about. They would report back each week, and we would make adjustments to the format and explore the nature of the questions and the answers.
As well ask getting information from Max, Erica needed him to know how much hurt she was suffering. This was voiced in question form. “Have you any idea how I feel? Do you realise how stupid that makes me feel?” We worked out questions he could ask her, to show he was concerned for her and felt her pain without her needing to ask. This would demonstrate he wanted to hear and understand and she said this made her feel he was on her side. It softened her responses. She stopped being the interrogator and adult conversation began to emerge.
After the trauma of discovery, counselling can bring the relief of being ‘held’ securely in the ensuing chaos. Dealing with the inevitable questions is but one element of the early work.
Erica and Max didn’t want to lose their marriage and gradually began to build a new one. I still see them, much less frequently, over a year on. They are doing well.