Dear Beth

Infidelity--two letters, contrasting prognoses

Happiness is: gorgeous wild flowers adorn Ontario meadow

Beth Mares Registered Psychotherapist (Ontario) answers two letters about very different situations involving a husband who has been unfaithful. Beth also works with women who cheat, some of whom have a love addiction or sexual addiction.

Couples therapy for infidelity

First letter: Please help--I'm desperate

Dear Beth: My wife found out that I was unfaithful, and she's gone crazy. I know it's my fault, so I've tried to listen and answer all her questions, but it's never the right answer. She just gets more upset. She cries all the time, sometimes she yells, and she keeps asking for all the details, when, where, and every last thing we did together. She keeps saying there's more, and she can’t trust me till she knows it all--but if I think of something else to tell her, that's proof that I'm still lying and that there must be still more. It's worst at night--we're not getting enough sleep, and I'm having a hard time doing my job. She’s like a detective with my cell phone and computer, and she keeps searching the internet because she says she wants to understand, but it just makes her say things about me that it’s like she doesn’t know me any more. Yesterday I got so frustrated I yelled at her, and then I felt really low. I'm wondering if I should go and stay with my sister for a while so I can get some sleep. She keeps asking how can she trust me. I’ve promised to be faithful in the future, but given what's happened I don't know how to make her trust me. I wish to God I hadn't done it. It can’t go on like this, and I can’t bear to think of losing her. What can I do?

Beth answers: You’re describing the sort of downward spiral that so often results from a betrayal. It is torture, and I feel for you both, especially your wife, who has been blindsided by a disaster that was not of her making. Those desperate discussions by two panicked people usually get them more stressed and confused as time goes on, rather than shedding light on the problem. You’re trapped in a pressure cooker together. For some couples it helps to talk to friends or family members, but often there are good reasons for keeping the problem private; friends and family may add their own anxiety and stress to the mix, have their own agenda, or vilify the offender, leaving more broken bonds. Your situation calls out for professional help. The best choice would be a psychotherapist qualified to do both in-depth psychotherapy and marriage counselling.

Your wife is trying to make sense of the infidelity. She does not need to suffer through every lurid detail, or to scare and confuse herself by compulsively scouring the internet. But she really does need to understand how and why it happened before she can even begin to trust again.

This will take time, as you will probably need the therapist’s help to even figure it out for yourself, and then to explain it. There is a vast array of reasons for infidelity, and a great variety of people that cheat, including some who are usually extremely responsible and some who couldn’t lie straight in bed, as the saying goes; and naturally, the more out of character the infidelity seems, the more traumatic and disorienting it is for the spouse. Once you understand why you did it in sufficient depth, the marital therapist will help you to make the changes in yourself and the relationship that are needed to prevent similar problems in the future, and work with you both to re-establish trust. This usually involves both individual sessions and couple sessions.

Meanwhile, you both need help with surviving the stress, with finding and dealing with pre-existing weaknesses in the relationship to make it as resilient as possible, and with logistics—such as how to stop fights and unproductive discussions, get enough sleep, and make decisions like whether to move out. A short term separation can give the couple a breather and lower stress, and is most often a good idea if the wronged partner requests it; however there can be ramifications that you might not think of, so it’s best to talk it over with your counsellor if possible.

I have seen many couples end therapy for infidelity with their marriage much stronger and more fulfilling than it ever was before, because they have made their relationship a priority and got help with problems they previously disregarded or were unaware of. It’s too bad they had to go through all that suffering to get there.


Second letter: The Other Woman

Dear Beth: My husband works with a "woman" of which he's had a special "friendship" with for a few months. I found an email saying he loves her, our phone bill to her is outrageous, and I even caught his car at her house overnight and yet he still says they're friends. I confronted the other woman by phone - she says they are friends and when I ask her questions, she replies "whatever your husband tells you - my loyalty is to our friendship." We are going to counseling, but he lies to the counselor. He admitted that he has a problem lying but it seems like he does it more now - I guess thinking it's OK because he admits he has a problem lying. I'm trying hard to keep the marriage but how am I ever to trust him again knowing he's lied so much to me? I've asked him to get another job and he hasn't - he's never even said he was sorry. We have a 10 month old baby and I'm trying hard for her as well. How am I to get past this or will I ever?

Beth answers: You cannot "get past" something that is still going on. I have helped many couples to rebuild their relationship after adultery; but for that to be possible, the offending partner needs to be motivated and capable of taking responsibility.

Marital counselling only works when the partners are working together towards a common goal. It looks as though your husband is not presently motivated to change. Therefore I recommend that you go for individual counselling to look at your options re asserting yourself in the relationship and/or leaving the relationship. I would suggest you use a counsellor who is not the marriage counsellor you have been seeing, and it is essential that you see someone who views ending a marriage as a valid option. You do not have to keep putting up with this situation.