Case study 4 – relationship renewal after discovery of a long term extra-marital affair
We were living like roommates. We weren’t having sex. We barely communicated and if we did it turned into a war of words. He doesn’t appreciate me. She always criticizes me. What I’ve observed is that most of these people display strong signs of feeling neglected before they cheat. They think, “I’m not in a real marriage anymore so the rules of marriage don’t apply to me.” And that’s how an otherwise moral person gives himself, or herself, permission to cheat.
There was a man named James known as Hap. He was a cold climate wine maker who slowly comprehended the enormity of his partner Jennifer’s disclosure of her serial affairs over many years. He told me, “all that I had held dear was utterly betrayed. All that I had worked for completely meaningless.”
He ranted and raged for a week, threatened everyone involved, made ‘stupid’ phone calls to family and friends, tried to bargain with Jenny to make it go away, ate and slept little until finally he collapsed and wept uncontrollably for three days and nights, “sobbing his little heart out”, she told me. Jenny held him like a wounded animal exhausted from fever, soothed him, rocked him and sobbed herself with grief and shame.
She stayed connected with him and he with her, and neither checked out on each other.
From this profound and renewed collaboration came the realization that he had never dealt with the emotional abandonment he knew as a child. Through his tears he laughed at the TV soap ‘revelation’, but knew it was undeniable. He had put the past behind him, but always feared getting close in case abandoned and thereby like many of us, co-created the very conditions in which it can occur.
He could not connect deeply with Jenny, would not draw her to him as the beloved nor open his heart to her. She, who so desperately longed for that meeting gave up hoping after one of their twin son’s, Simon died at age 3 and Hap wasn’t there for her. She found what she needed outside and tried to hide it from him so that he wouldn’t hurt. Hap buried himself on a chilly slope founding a Riesling vineyard. They disappeared out of reach and not from lack of love, commitment or even knowledge of what makes marriage work, but from that deep aloneness and exhaustion of a marriage that has lost its way.
Jenny was a veterinarian for large-animals and travelled interstate two or three times a year for the breeding programs she supervised. She was organized, intelligent, systematic and she could keep a cool head. Unfortunately Jan, the wife of one of her lover’s, found out through a third party who had seen them out of town and late at night. Jan ranted and raged (as Hap was about to do) and swore her partner Cobby would never be allowed to forget it.
Jan had been suspicious of his odour for some time but he had denied sleeping around so she was on the warpath when finally there was solid evidence. For good measure she took out an insurance policy by calling Hap with a wine order and telling him, ‘I’ve heard so much about your wines from Cobby and just by the way, I don’t know if I should tell you this but do you know they’ve been sleeping together ………….’
Hap had wanted to believe it was only the one time, but so many over the years seemed to make a complete farce of their whole relationship. Jenny too had wanted to tell him that it was only the once, but she had reached a place of terminal desperation and couldn’t see the point in going on with the marriage if the core of it couldn’t give her, give both of them what they needed.
So she, in a sense and like one does in a final gasp of hope, took hold of them both in her capable arms and told him everything and spared him nothing over that first sleepless week. She answered his every question over and over until he had taken it all in. Unravelling the process and making sense of how this could happen to them of all people, the ideal couple according to their friends, began healing the betrayal and then the marriage and then the grief of losing the twin arose as if it had never begun and then, finally it reached their childhood wounds. That took many months. They not only had to forgive each other but also their parents and themselves for what they took from the lessons of childhood and applied wrongly in adult intimacy and that they were not there for each other when Simon died as they could be now.
There are layers of forgiveness and inter generational grief that infidelity opens. Hap’s parents were also unable to give that intimacy to each other but for a different reason. They were ‘forced’ to marry because of the pregnancy that delivered Hap and that then bound them together in an unhappy arrangement. Jenny’s story resonated perfectly, as it does for many in long term relationships.
She knew her father found relief from his unhappy marriage through clandestine affairs. That was her knowledge of a normal resolution of unhappy marriage and she knew it was wrong.
As a result of betrayal and recovery, Hap and Jenny became married, intimate for the first time in their lives. They rebuilt accurate maps of what was going on in each other’s hearts and heads, which enabled them to better differentiate and anticipate the other’s needs and wants. They had a shared language for this geography of mind that kept their knowledge fresh and relevant.
Much else changed. Hap was more open about the stuff he used to sit on for months, even years and without having to be asked ‘what’s the matter?’ over and over again. Jenny stopped flirting at wine functions, which before may have sold an extra case or two, but now could trigger Hap reliving the trauma. He now let the grapes grow without anxious supervision. They travelled interstate together on her trips having their own ‘dirty weekend’ to look forward to and he held her so tightly that she, finally, felt wanted and belonged.
They talked and loved like they never had before and this always had the added poignancy of how it would have been were they able to do this earlier – ‘so many wasted years’ they said, made each new day so precious. I didn’t meet their grown up children though I spoke to the youngest, but I have met others later, and so can imagine the work this story will have given their kids on their journeys to intimacy.
When Jenny and Hap wanted to talk about it with the kids and felt ready to share what had hit them in the last 12 months, and how their process of healing proceeded, Jenny planned it very carefully. Their purpose was to undo, to the extent that they could, the emotional climate they feared they had passed on as that of a normal family. It had mixed results. A rift formed with the eldest and surviving twin son Marcus. He was wedded to the system of partner distance that he learned at home and chose a capable wife in Victoria, who railed against it rather than take an escape route outside. Maybe he felt abandoned by his parents when they disappeared emotionally, after Simon’s death but he remembered nothing of that time and yet somehow he was hurt. The anger he now felt equally toward Jenny and Hap stirred it and he pushed them away.
This too resolved in the following year, but it was hard going for all of them and particularly for Victoria who with Jenny could see the cost of a family pattern that failed (and through failing healed) Hap and Jenny, being carried on by the next generation as normal. For their recently married daughter Harriet, it drew she and her partner closer and they took what they learned to confirm the life they were already building.
For the youngest one Kelly, who lived on campus at the University of Queensland, she said didn’t care as long as Dad and Mum stayed together and sorted it out before she left with her team for the Commonwealth Games. Kelly was the organizer and it was she who called me first to see if I ‘did couples’. Her coach had been a client of mine and was concerned that her father’s crazy phone calls were interfering with her training!