One of the knottiest problems that I see in my couples’ therapy practice is that each partner wants his way. I don’t mean in the big things, like values, religion—those that couples agree on to start out with—but in small things like when to clean out the garage, or what color stone to use for the fireplace. Take the case of Christen and Vic, not too happily married for 18 years.
“I think everyone in NY is coming to this party at my house.” Christen looked perturbed.
Vic smiled nonchalantly, “Not so, just my friends and business contacts.”
Christen said, “I don’t want 200 people at my house.”
Raising his voice, Vic said, “What 200 people? I only invited my close friends and business people.”
Looking defeated Christen complained, “I’m tired and don’t like entertaining.”
“Tired? I work all day at a stressful job and she stays home and she’s tired.” Vic bellowed.
A tear escaping Christen said, “You’d think I do nothing. I have the two girls.”
“The girls are teenagers and they’re not home all day.” Vic yelled.
I intervened with, “I notice that both of you seem to think you are single. I hear a lot of “me” but no “we”. When is the last time you did something together?”
Vic calmed down as he responded, “We went to the caterer together and picked out the food.”
Christen was not calm as she remarked “Oh yeah, but we fought there also. I picked out focaccia bread that the caterer said went with eggplant parmesan or Italian salami, but Vic wanted meatballs and sausage which would have to be heated up.”
“I don’t want eggplant.” Vic said loudly.
I then asked, “I have a question to ask you both. What is more important, the menu or your marriage?”
“You’re right. I don’t really care about the menu. But she doesn’t let me do anything I want.” Vic was angry again.
Eyes darting, Christen said “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
“The garage is a mess and I want to clean it out before the party.” Vic shouted.
Christen explained, “I don’t do things like he does. I start from the top down, so now I’m doing the closets upstairs putting away summer clothes, then I do the main floor, and the garage would be last”.
Vic continued to shout, “The guests won’t see the upstairs closet but they will see the junk in the garage.”
I said, “Again, I will ask you what’s more important, the order of cleaning up or the marriage?”
Vic said, "Yeah, of course it’s the marriage.”
“You are both intelligent adults, behaving like children. I have found that when couples fight over small things it is a way of distancing from each other. All I hear is “me”, not “we”. After all, "me” does not denote intimacy, but “we” does. So your fights are in service of avoiding intimacy,” I interpreted.
Christen was clearly angry as she shouted, “I wanted an intimate relationship but he had an affair with that slut, his secretary Lena.”
“That’s so long ago. I thought you were over it.” Vic said.
Christen burst into tears, “You see how he is: he wants me to just get over it.”
“Are you angry with him?” I asked.
Christen responded, “Yes, I am. I don’t trust him and when I talk about it he gets angry with me.”
Anger filled the room as Vic said, “I apologized so many times and I’m trying to make it up to her, but she doesn’t let it go “
Infidelity is the prime obstacle to establishing intimacy in a marriage. If a partner fears intimacy in the marriage, he or she may opt for an extramarital affair. As such, he or she does not have both feet in the marriage or the affair.
In an intimate relationship empathy—putting yourself in your partner’s shows is essential. In the throes of an exciting affair, empathy, thinking of your partner, or the reality of the pain you will cause, is cast aside.
Then there is the issue of trust that is paramount to intimacy. Infidelity violates that trust. The pain of betrayal along with feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and depression make healing a long arduous task.
In the case of Christen and Vic, we are working hard to repair the damage wrought by the infidelity. Although this is a painful way to turn “me” into “we”, we are in the process of doing just that. We are working on forgiveness, empathy, understanding and how to heal the hurt angry feelings, the guilty feelings and the depressed ones.
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