When Shannon and Toby first came into my office for marriage counseling, they had already begun the healing process. They were talking more and sharing more than they ever had in their marriage before. They were already using this very painful experience to grow as individuals and as a couple.
Toby grew up in a family where there was a lot of screaming and fighting. Things would go from quiet and peaceful to extremely stressful in a short amount of time and these outbursts between his parents were unpredictable. He also described himself as the kid other kids made fun of. Because of this he came to avoid conflict at all costs in his own marriage. If things got loud, he felt very unsafe and would shut down. In his marriage, he would stuff his feelings and rarely share himself for fear of that conflict or rejection.
During a period of time when Shannon was working a lot, he began to feel she didn’t care about him. Because he avoided, this was not something he shared with her. During this time he was contacted by an ex from college. She came on strong because to her, he was the one that got away. He was seduced by the level of desire she had for him and slowly crossed the boundary from friendship into an affair. This affair lasted for one year. At times he tried to break it off, but she would threaten him with telling his wife. He didn’t want to tell his wife because he assumed she would not understand, and she would leave him. While there are times that affairs occur because of lack of love for a spouse, this is not always the case. In this case, Toby loved his wife very much and did not want to lose her. He wasn’t sure how he got himself into such a mess and for a period of time was in denial of what he was doing.
When Shannon found out about the affair, she did not get angry and lash out. She wanted to understand why. She made a decision from the start that she was committed to her marriage, and although she was hurting and had angry feelings, she wanted to do what needed to be done to make it work.
Toby was equally committed. He felt a sense of relief at his secret being out, his guilt, shame and regret came to the surface and he was willing to do anything to rebuild his marriage and to understand himself and why he would make such an awful choice. Toby was surprised by Shannon’s calm reaction and commitment. It instantly made him realize how lucky he was and what he almost lost. He devoted himself to understanding why he did what he did and began the work of making amends and rebuilding trust.
Shannon asked a lot of questions. Toby readily answered her questions with caring, openness and honesty. Together they explored the reasons for the affair and this is what they identified: he felt inadequate financially evidenced by his wife needing to work two jobs, she’s very independent and he began to feel unnecessary, he avoided being open with her, he was closed off in his marriage, he felt neglected, he had a fear of rejection, failure and loss. Both of them understood that exploring these things was not an excuse for the affair, but helped bring about understanding for the purpose of growth, healing and prevention from affairs in the future.
Toby began to open up in ways that he never did before. Shannon’s caring responses and refrain from lash outs made it a safe place for Toby to grow in this way. His continued openness and honesty began to restore Shannon’s sense of trust and safety in the relationship. In this regard they were working together to heal and strengthen their relationship. Shannon realized early on that even though it was Toby that committed this damaging act, it would take both of them to heal from it. They both worked at making their marriage a priority, carving out time for intimate connection, and committing to being responsible for their own happiness.
Some people may read this story and think, “Not me, I would never forgive my spouse for cheating.” Infidelity happens in good marriages and to good people. It is tremendously damaging and not to be excused. It is important for the cheating spouse to take accountability for their actions and show remorse and a willingness to make amends for a marriage to begin to heal. Healing can and does happen. Both Shannon and Toby, while not being thankful for the pain of the affair, are thankful for the opportunity it provided for them to grow individually, spiritually and as a couple. They vow they would never go back to the kind of marriage they had before and are thankful for the strong marriage they have now.