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.
In continuing my work to share stories of couples who sit on my couch, it is my goal to provide hope and encouragment out there to those who are struggling in their marriage.
Infidelity is one of the most painful and difficult challenges for a couple to work through because it pulls the floor of safety and security right out from under you. But the marriage can be restored. In fact, it can be better than before. It's been said that time heals all wounds. When it comes to infidelity, time is certainly a factor, but it's not the only one. There is work to be done in that time to restore trust, emotional safety and connection to the relationship. Time alone won't solve those problems.
This story is about a young couple I'll call Tom and Suzanne (fictitious names, of course). Suzanne had lost her father at a young age which left her feeling abandoned. She grew up never having felt "good enough". When she married Tom, she had a lot of insecurities and needed a lot of approval. Because of this she avoided conflict like the plague. She was afraid if Tom got upset with her, he would abandon her. He would see the qualities that she saw in herself and he would not want to be with her any longer. Because of this fear, she manipulated herself to please him, never really being authentic. As some years past, she felt a loss of her sense of self.
This is the first in a series I am starting. The series is going to involve couples stories. Some of them will be success stories, and some of them not. But each of them will give you a glimpse into what other couples struggle with. I think you'll find that you are not alone in your own struggles. I hope that from reading these stories, you find insight into your own marriage and how to make improvements. These stories come from my experiences in counseling couples. In my 4 years of practice, I have treated over four hundred couples. To protect the confidentiality of those involved, names are not used. I will also leave out certain details or edit parts of the story so that the couple cannot be identified and confidentiality is maintained.
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When betrayal occurs in a relationship or marriage, it breaks the foundation of trust and safety. Everything you thought you knew now comes into question and there is doubt and insecurity. When going through the pain and trauma of betrayal, often the question is asked, can the relationship be saved? And if so, how?
Here are some key steps to healing from betrayal asÂ illustrated by John Gottman:
There must be believable and genuine remorse
Behavior change with understanding and insight. (One must understand the reason behind the choice, why conflict was avoided, emotions stayed hidden.)
Compensation: the act of making it good again. Making changes in the relationship to rebuild trust and positive connection.
Building a new relationship to include: creating the sacred in the relationship, honesty, transparency, the cherishing of your partner on a continuing basis.
Building emotional attunement.
What is emotional attunment? It is very important to a healthy relationship. It means being in-tune with each other. Noticing when your partner is experiencing negative emotions. Awareness of what your partner’s in the moment experiences are. Understanding and being tuned into your partners world and making the choice to turn toward your partner, not away, during times of vulnerability.
These are just an outline of some basic essential ingredients in healing a relationship after a betrayal. It is often very important to get outside help to understand what happened, why it happened and to begin the process of rebuilding.
In any healthy marriage, it is important to seek out help when things are not going the way you want them to. All couples encounter difficulties at some point in the marriage. Looking for a marriage counselor can be a daunting task. You are struggling and want someone to help but you might not know where to start. How do you know if someone is going to be able to help your marriage? If you go to a counselor that doesn’t have the right skills, it could end up doing more harm than good. Here are some questions to ask when interviewing potential marriage counselors.
Ask what their training is: make sure it’s not just in mental health counseling but that they have additional training in marriage and family therapy. The skill sets for individual and marriage counseling are very different and you want to make sure that your therapist has training specific to couples.
Ask what percentage of their practice is made up of couples. For example, my practice is made up of about 85 percent couples. You don’t want someone who sees less than 50 percent. A lot of counselors will say they do marriage counseling but don’t like to or hardly see couples. This person may not have adequate experience to deal with the difficulties in your marriage.
Ask how long they have been doing couples counseling. I would recommend seeing someone who has specifically worked with couples for at least 3 to 5 years or longer.
You also have to examine how you feel when you are talking to the person. Are they kind? Courteous? Receptive? Do they take the time to answer your questions? Counseling is also about the relationship so you have to feel comfortable with the person you choose.
Here is an article from William J. Doherty, Author of Take Back Your Marriage on the do’s and don’ts of good marriage counseling.
Do’s of Good Marriage Counseling
The therapist is caring and compassionate to both of you.
The therapist actively tries to help your marriage and communicates hope that you solve your marital problems. This goes beyond just clarifying your problems.
The therapist is active in structuring the session.
The therapist offers reasonable and helpful perspectives to help you understand the sources of your problems.
The therapist challenges each of you about your contributions to the problems and about your capacity to make individual changes to resolve the problems.
The therapist offers specific strategies for changing your relationship, and coaches you on how to use them.
The therapist is alert to individual matters such as depression, alcoholism, and medical illness that might be influencing your marital problems.
- The therapist is alert to the problem of physical abuse and assesses in individual meetings whether there is danger to one of the spouses.
Don’ts of Bad Marriage Counseling
The therapist does not take sides.
The therapist does not permit you and your spouse to interrupt each other, talk over each other, or speak for the other person.
The therapist does not let you and your spouse engage in repeated angry exchanges during the session.
Although the therapist may explore how your family-of-origin backgrounds influence your problems, the focus is on how to deal with your current marital problems rather than just on insight into how you developed these problems.
- The therapist does not assume that there are certain ways that men and women should behave according to their gender in marriage.
I recently heard this story about facing adversity. I thought I would pass it on to you. In your marriage, you may face turbulent times. When reading this story, you can apply it to any adversity in your life, but you can especially apply it to struggles in your marriage. Will your marriage be the carrot (crumbling under tough times), the egg where you harden and become cold with one another, or the coffee bean.
Enjoy the story and I hope it inspires you!
ARE YOU A CARROT, AN EGG, OR A COFFEE BEAN?
by Mary Sullivan
A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as if as soon as one problem was solved a new one arose. Her mother took her to the kitchen.
The mother filled three pots with water.
In the first, she placed carrots.
In the second she placed eggs.
And the last she placed ground coffee beans.She let them sit and boil without saying a word. About twenty minutes later, she turned off the burners.
She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl.
Turning to her daughter, she said, "Tell me what you see."
"Carrots, eggs, and coffee," she replied. (You known the tone of voice.)
She brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did, and noted that they felt soft.
She then asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg inside.
Finally, she asked her to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma.
The daughter then asked, "So, what's the point, mother?" (Remember the tone of voice.)
Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity – boiling water – but each reacted differently.
The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak.
The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid center. But, after sitting through the boiling water, its insides had become hardened.
The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water…they had changed the water.
"Which are you?" she asked her daughter. "When adversity knocks on your
door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot , an egg, or a coffee bean?"
Think of this: Which am I?
Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, do I wilt
and become soft and lose my strength?
Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat?
Did I have a fluid spirit, but after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship, or some other trial, have I become hardened and stiff? Does my outer shell look the same, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and a hardened heart?Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water – the very circumstances that bring the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor of the bean. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you instead of letting it change you.
When the hours are the darkest and trials are their greatest do you elevate to another level?
How do you handle Adversity?
ARE YOU A CARROT, AN EGG, OR A COFFEE BEAN?
There are more than 400 million active users on Facebook. It has grown into a huge social networking site. While it is useful in that it gives you access to all your networks of friends and family and helps you stay in touch, there are some dangers to be aware of.
In my practice, I have had a steadily increasing number of couples with complaints that Facebook has become an issue in their relationship. It doesn’t have to be, but if you are not careful, it can certainly wreak havoc.
Infidelity happens at the place where vulnerability meets opportunity and a choice is made. Anyone can be vulnerable to an affair. It is a dangerous thing to think your relationship is affair-proof. Vulnerability can result from issues in the relationship: poor communication, disconnection, or lack of intimacy. Vulnerability can result from external circumstances such as grieving the death of a loved one, loss of a job, birth of a child, anything that causes undue stress. Vulnerability can result from personal issues such as lack of self-worth, fear of intimacy, or substance abuse.
Opportunity for an affair can come in different forms. It can come in the form of a friend, a co-worker, or friendly neighbor. In recent times, the Internet has broadened the depth of opportunity that is out there for an affair to occur.
Here is where Facebook becomes a threat. This is where people connect with ex-lovers, ex-flames, an ex-crush, or even with an old friend, and it might feel nostalgic to reminisce. This nostalgia can be mistaken for love interest. This may be innocent on the surface, but to the couple who is struggling, it becomes a great threat.
Here are some boundaries that may reduce the threat of Facebook on your relationship:
Be each other’s Friend so that nothing is hidden.
Do not connect with an old flame on Facebook unless you talk about it openly with your spouse and your spouse is comfortable with you doing so. But if you are having any difficulties in your relationship, avoid this at all costs.
Do not discuss any marital problems with people on Facebook. This is where the potential to share and relate opens the door to a deeper connection that threatens your relationship.
Make clear on your profile page that you are married or in a relationship.
If members of the opposite sex begin inappropriate sexual or flirtatious banter, put an end to it immediately and share it with your spouse.
Talk openly with one another with how you feel about certain types of friends on Facebook, and what each of your own personal boundaries are around its use. Be respectful of each other’s freedom of choice and privacy, but also respect each other’s boundaries on what is okay and not okay.
Be protective of your time as a couple. The other way that Facebook threatens a relationship is the amount of time spent chatting with friends, playing Farmville or Mafia Wars, or other addicting games that rob you and your partner of quality time. So put some limits around its use.
Facebook itself is not necessarily the issue, but it presents opportunities for connection that was not there before and something that may have started out as harmless fun can turn into something that breaks down trust in your relationship.
Facebook is not going anywhere any time soon. Online opportunities will continue to pose threats to the fidelity of your relationship. It is up to you to not let these outside influences inject themselves into the safety of your relationship.
Our negative emotions (pain, fear, frustration) serve a purpose. They let us know that something is going on within us that needs attention.
When we experience physical pain, it is the body’s way of alerting us that something is not quite right and needs attention. If we were to just medicate that pain without looking at what’s causing it, we can inadvertently cause more damage.
Such is the same with negative emotions. Our culture wants immediate gratification and happiness and has lost sight of the valuable growth that comes from delayed gratification and understanding and “feeling” emotions. Many are in the habit of numbing or avoiding their negative emotions. Whether it’s through prescribed medications, or self-medication techniques like drugs, alcohol, porn, sex without love, etc. Emotional pain is an indicator that something is not right. And if you allow yourself to feel it, examine it, understand the thought process and behaviors behind it, then you can do the necessary work to grow, to move through it and create healing. The problem with this method is that it’s time consuming, it’s not a quick fix. However, it’s a longer term fix and allows for a deeper connection with yourself and the important people in your life.
ÂAll marital partners, at some point in their marriage, will feel disconnected from one another. This is a normal occurrence in marriage. However, if it is not recognized as normal, if steps are not taken to prevent it, recognize it, or recover from it, it can make a couple vulnerable to infidelity.
What does it mean to be connected? It means being emotionally in tune with each other. You know when your partner has had a good or bad day, who are their best friends and who are their enemies, what’s going on at work or with extended family. On a larger scale, what their dreams and goals are, what makes them sad and what makes them happy. What their scared of and what they most aspire to be. These are things that two people who are connected know about and care about each other. It requires openness and honesty, genuineness and kindness.
When do couples become disconnected? A couple experiences disconnection for many reasons. There are times in a couples life when they are extra vulnerable to disconnection; the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or other life changes. Disconnection can also happen from not taking the time to be alone with one another, to talk to each other. Not making your marriage a priority and letting other life happenings get in the way.
How do we prevent becoming disconnected: one major way to avoid disconnection is by making your marriage a top priority and always taking time to spend with one another. When there is conflict, to deal with it by talking openly and in a caring way with one another so conflict can be discussed and resolved. Don’t allow resentments to build, talk to each other and stay in tune with each other’s emotions.
You may take all of the precautions and still find that you feel disconnected. The first important step is recognizing it. Being able to catch and notice that you have not been connecting with your partner. The next step is to address it. Let your partner know, without attacking or blaming, that you feel disconnected and together figure out what you need to do to reconnect with each other and tune back in to each other.
When you find yourself disconnected, deal with it with each other. If you do not, you both become vulnerable to infidelity. When disconnection exists for too long, it becomes to easy to find connection from someone outside the marriage.
Couples are not connected ALL the time, that’s normal. And feeling disconnected is not a sign of an unhappy or unhealthy marriage. But how you deal with it when you feel disconnected is. You must recognize it and address it and find each other over and over again to minimize the vulnerability to infidelity.
There is the obvious definition of an affair, having sex with someone other than your spouse. But are there different types of affairs? And now that we have the Internet, how does that add to the problem.
One of the ways to define an affair is to ask the question, is what you are doing secretive? If your spouse knew what you were doing, would it hurt him or her? Are you going to someone outside your marriage to meet your emotional or physical intimacy needs?
Let’s use pornography as an example. If it is not done in secret, your spouse knows about it and is not hurt by it and it is not taking the place of physical or emotional intimacy with your spouse than that would not constitute as an affair. But let’s change it around. Let’s say you are using porn behind your spouses back, and knew that if he or she knew about it, it would be hurtful. And let’s also add that you are replacing emotional and physical intimacy with your partner with pornography, that could fit under the heading of infidelity.
Let’s say you talk often with a friend of the opposite sex. You might share intimate details of your life and marriage. If your spouse knows about this person and does not see this person as a threat to the relationship and you are not looking to this person to meet emotional needs that are not met by your partner, then that is a friendship. But let’s now take the same circumstances and your partner doesn’t know about this interaction, it’s secretive and if your partner knew about it would be hurt by it, and let’s also add that from this person you get emotional support that you don’t feel you get from your spouse, this constitutes as an emotional affair.
It is important to understand the physical and emotional boundaries of your marriage and to discuss them with one another. Going out to lunch with a co-worker of the opposite sex may be completely harmless, but if it is done without your spouse knowing about it, it could potentially be construed as betrayal. It also leaves the door open for a relationship to flourish if this were to become a regular thing and you tell yourself it is harmless but fail to share it with your partner. Boundaries not only need to be clearly defined, but they need to be respected.
We all have relationships with others outside our marriage, with friends, co-workers, extended family members. This is not only normal but also healthy. We also get emotional needs met from others aside from our intimate partner. But where is the boundary? What makes your intimate relationship unique? What are the things you share with your spouse that you would not share with another? What is sacred?
There is a closeness and connection between husband and wife that is special and unique. There is a bond of emotional and physical intimacy. If you are feeling disconnected from your partner, it is never a good idea to turn outside your marriage to deal with it. Whether it be by venting to friends or family, talking to a member of the opposite sex about your marital issues (by the way one of the most common ways an affair begins), having an affair, alcohol, gambling, drugs or other destructive means of coping. Disconnection must be dealt with in the marriage with communication, compassion, empathy, understanding and love. If you are unable to work through it by yourselves, seek the outside help of a qualified counselor or pastor from your church.