From Crisis to Healing

Working with couples in therapy immediately after the discovery of an infidelity first requires crisis management along with a plan for healing. In the safety of the office feelings of both partners must be explored and acknowledged. A recounting of what happened is the first step in laying this trauma down into the context of the relationship. Couples usually want to know what to do next to get through this and I share what I have seen work in the past. Therapy proceeds in a parallel fashion. At one level we always touch on the hurt partner’s processing of the trauma, progress, setbacks, recent triggers, additional questions. At the same level we touch base with the experience of the partner who has inflicted the damage. It is a challenge to him/her to be the healer here. Have patience, do what is required to reassure, steps taken to rebuild trust, stand in the fire for a while.  At a different level in the parallel process we begin to touch base on the relationship and what may have contributed to the environment where the infidelity occurred. If we do this too quickly, it is often perceived as looking for excuses. Many times there are questions of individual growth and development that have contributed and individual counseling can be helpful.  It is a roller coaster of emotions through the fog…but I have seen couples come out the other side saying they have a closer, more honest relationship that may have never developed, but for this crisis.

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Musings on cohabitation

I ran across an article in the Journal of Family Psychology indicating that couples who live together before  marriage  are more likely to get divorced than couples who don’t move in together.  At first glance I thought that this makes sense since people who share space are more likely to encounter conflict in working out day to day compromises and that ‘familiarity may breed contempt’ in the words of the master. However the study concludes that a major reason for this fact is that living together often leads to marriage for all the wrong reasons. In other words, people slide into marriage in part because they are already living together.  Thus it is perceived to be more difficult to stop cohabitating – which has all the emotional pain of a divorce- than to just go ahead and plunge into marriage.  When I think of my experience working with couples I have encountered many who tell me that they had to stop living together in order to make the decision to get married….that they suspected that they were in fact “sliding into marriage”.With nearly 70% of couples cohabitating before marriage, there is certainly a rich environment for further research!
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Bite your tongue!

There is an old saying that contradicts the emphasis on communicating feelings and frustrations to our partners. It says, “Marriage is improved by the two or three things not said each day.”

So many arguments begin with sniping about minor, day to day issues. The alternative of holding your tongue instead of responding with a retort or contrary information can do much to create a more peaceful environment. Some wise words to use in the face of a disagreeable comment are. “You may be right about that.” You are not agreeing or disagreeing, merely acknowledging  that you have heard what was said, neutralizing what could become a bigger fight over an issue that is not worth it!

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Can Marriage survive kids?

Is it possible that children can be both the best and the worst thing for a marriage? Once children enter the picture, parents often throw themselves into kids’ activities with enthusiasm that seems to add depth and interest to the relationship as they see themselves happily engaged in building their perfect family. Over time this kid-centric focus wears on both parents – who have no time for their own social life with other adults, and children – who are overscheduled and unable to entertain themselves without parental involvement.  After a decade of playing tag team with kids activities, parents often have grown distant from each other just when their kids begin to see them as an embarrassment and want more social independence. To avoid divorce it may be wiser to ignore your kids and focus on the relationship rather than to focus on your kids and ignore the relationship….or strive for a happy medium!

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Jealousy may mean you’re paying attention

Unfounded jealousy can cause problems in a relationship however it can also be an accurate reaction to valid suspicions.  Sometimes a partner may be oblivious to the subtle manipulations of someone who is attracted to him or her and the partner is often the first to notice that someone is trying to slip under the marital gate.  Too often I have heard a partner wish he/she had raised an alarm earlier and perhaps forewarned a wavering spouse.  
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Why did this affair happen?

When working with a couple where one partner has had an affair the question of why it happened always comes up. The conventional wisdom is to look to the deficiencies of ‘the relationship’ – what did not happen in the relationship that should have. This can cause resentment from the betrayed partner who says “hey I did nothing wrong or anything different from before! Are you saying it’s my fault?” As expected it depends on the situation as to the causal question. One observation that I have is that it is important for the person who strayed from the marriage to look within themselves for the answer as to why. Perhaps there has been growth and change and poor communication skills or discomfort with intimacy has led him/her to look elsewhere for answers. Maybe there is a legacy of values passed on from the family of origin (ie. is divorce ok) Maybe there is a substance abuse problem that has contributed to impulsivity and lack of judgment.  I almost always recommend individual counseling for the straying partner to develop more understanding and insight into themselves and what contributed to their willingness to entertain the option of going outside the relationship.

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Signs of sex or love addiction

I ran across this excellent list of indications that the quest for love or sex may rise to the level of an addiction:

**Constantly seeking a sexual partner, new romance or significant other
**An inability or difficulty in being alone
**Consistently choosing partners who are abusive or emotionally unavailable
**Using sex, seduction and intrigue to “hook” or hold onto a partner
**Using sex or romantic intensity to tolerate difficult experiences or emotions
**Missing out on important family, career or social experiences in order to maintain a sexual high or romantic relationship
**When in a relationship, being detached or unhappy, when out of a relationship, feeling desperate and alone
**An inability to leave unhealthy relationships despite repeated promises to self or others
**Returning to previously unmanageable or painful relationships despite promises to self or others
**Mistaking sexual experiences and romantic intensity for love

Just as with any behavior that crosses the line into unhealthy addiction, only the person experiencing it can tell whether it is a problem.

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Gaslighting

Wikipedia defines Gaslighting as:  “a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”  The term is based on the 1944 movie Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman where a husband tries to drive his wife insane by staging strange events in the house with no rational explanations, making her doubt her own mind.

Sometimes I run into this in couples counseling when one partner comes in with numerous examples of behavior and incidents that indicate the other has been unfaithful and is frustrated by the other partner’s complete denial and lack of explanation. Coming in to therapy is yet another means of truthfinding in the frustrated partner’s eyes. I remind the couple that I have no truth meter in my office. But because the disbelieveing partner is often doubting his/her sanity I believe it is my responsibility to provide the point of view of what 99% of other men/women might be inclined to suspect, given the examples in question. This is not so much to get at the truth as it is to reassure the suspecting partner that he/she is justified to have concerns. This may be the only palliative intervention available to this couple as the desire to protect self and partner from emotional pain of disclosing an affair usually thwarts real progress in couples therapy.

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Healthy sex in long term relationships

I recently attended a conference on sexuality in relationships and heard a presentation by marriage and sex therapist Barry McCarthy on Building Bridges to Desire – healthy sex in long term relationship. McCarthy believes that when sex is going well in a marriage it contributes 15-20% to marriage satisfaction and vitality. But when it is problematic or non-existant it plays a much more powerful negative role – 50 to 75% – of marital dissatisfaction.  His book Discovering Your Sexual Style talks about the realities of desire and sex in a long term relationship – something we never see in movies or television.  Popular culture depicts ‘good’ sex as spontaneous and unplanned with desire striking quickly – a hallmark of the early stages (first year) of a relationship. In long term relationships sex is somewhat planned and the early stages of playful and erotic touch is integral to inciting desire.  He talks about intercourse being the fifth gear of sex with the early gears/stages of touch building to that end rather than starting it off.  I highly recommend this book for couples who are dissatisfied with sex in their relationship.
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Sexting

Flirtatious texting ( sexting ) is once again a hot topic in my office with the recent news of Tony Parker and Eva Longaria’s divorce filing said to be in part due to Tony’s one year texting flirtation with a woman. Often gossip and popular news on celebrity relationship problems causes anxiety in couples who are working to solve their own challenges with betrayal. Usually the news makes the hurt partner feel even more insecure and unsafe – a PTSD like trigger that can mean a few steps back in the healing process. As for me it reinforces the fact that the intimacy and emotional connection facilitated by secret flirtatious texting causes as much hurt and injury as a one night stand.

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