Sometimes a couple will attend therapy because one partner has broken the marital trust. The person who has caused the challenge usually wants their partner to “get over” the specific problem. In their mind, getting over the problem equals being forgiven and returning to life as usual. This makes sense, since the trust-breaker usually bears an uncomfortable sense of shame or guilt and they do not want to feel that way.
However, what happens to the person who is hurt? How do they overcome this betrayal?
Sarah was watching a movie on a regular Wednesday night. Her husband was away on a business trip, and the kids were already asleep. Luxuriating in these rare moments of down time, she stretched out on the couch until her foot contacted something hard. Curious, she extracted her husband’s iPad from between the seat cushions. That was strange, as James never left the iPad out where the kids could damage it.
Before she could even set it on the coffee table, it began pinging with notifications. And there, right before her eyes, her world began to unravel. She was watching a conversation unfold between her husband and another woman. Sarah knew the woman – she was one of his co-workers. But this conversation had nothing to do with business. The two were flirting and exchanging pictures. Neither was showing any skin – this wasn’t a “sexting” situation – but nevertheless, the tone of the exchange was completely inappropriate.
In our next session together, James confessed to the flirtation. He promised that nothing like that ever happened before and that it would not happen again. He apologized, and thought Sarah would drop it. But Sarah was not ready to let go of the incident quite that fast. Although he could see that his actions had hurt his wife, James felt that his apology was sufficient, and couldn’t understand why Sarah was not able to “get over” the incident.
This event was not the reason the couple was in therapy, but it became the focus for quite a number of sessions until James could understand and work through his emotions. He wanted their life to go back to “normal”. He expected Sarah to understand that he’d made a mistake and he was sorry, and to trust that he would never do it again. He didn’t understand Sarah’s continued hurt and anger, and felt as though she was punishing him because she wanted to talk about it. James believed that if he just gave her some space, she would forgive him and move on, and they would never need to talk about it again. That was his way of healing. That made sense to James.
What James was missing, however, was that he was asking Sarah to ignore her feelings. Since he had never engaged in a flirtation like this before, he expected that she would unconditionally trust his word. At the same time, he expected her to have faith and courage that he would never cheat on her again. In his mind, Sarah is not allowed to have these feelings if their relationship is to work.
This type of problem can be compared to an iceberg. If the surface area of ice above the water line is small, it would be easy to assume that the berg is insignificant. Any ship plying these waters would be able to bump it out of the way or run over it without harm.
The problem with most icebergs, however, is what lies beneath the surface. If the iceberg is deep, the ship will have to go full speed ahead and hope that the hull can split the berg so it can continue forward. Most times the ship will sink.
Expecting a partner to just “get over” the pain may work in the short term to keep the marriage together. But the problem most coupes don’t understand is what lies below the surface, and how deep it goes.
James gave Sarah an ultimatum: either she moves past her feelings or he moves out.
When this happens in a session, as a therapist it makes me wonder two things:
Why is James so adamant that Sarah needs to change? He needs to examine his own actions, and question why his shame or guilt is so deep that he cannot bear to talk about it or have her bring it up. After he has acknowledged his feelings, he must sit with her and hear how she feels, then supply the answers she needs to heal from this event.
Why is Sarah allowing herself to be forced into concealing the disappointment and sadness she feels? Her concession is stopping her from working through the problem. Without information from James, it is nearly impossible to rebuild trust and set new goals for their marriage.
Forgiveness and healing generally occur when both partners are engaged in working on their relationship.
Only when Sarah is allowed to put aside her fears and frustrations, and together they take a really good look at what is lurking beneath the surface, can healing happen. Once the emotions and feelings are named and given the right roles, this couple can move forward.
If not, their ship will continue to sail in uncomfortable waters for a while, but if they don’t resolve this issue and make the repairs to their relationship, at some point in the future they are going to hit another iceberg, and may never recover.