“We have the same conversations over and over. She gets triggered and tells me about it. She’s in a great deal of pain. I listen and tell her I’m sorry. I am sympathetic. Sometimes she even lets me hold her. But we just keep going through the same events, the same emotions, just as intense, again and again. This feels like hell. Will it never end? Why isn’t she getting over it?”
This is where many couples who are attempting to heal from infidelity find themselves at the beginning of marriage counseling, after trying to heal on their own. They realize, that despite their best efforts, there is little sense of being in a process that feels like it is going anywhere.
There are many ways to think about why couples get stuck. Today I want to focus on one part of it… the quality of presence that the person who has had the affair brings to his or her partner when they are triggered into intense pain and emotional turmoil over what has happened. Healing conversations do take two, and the discoverer of the affair’s work is to develop a willingness and ability, despite being traumatized, to share their experience with their partner in a way that they are most likely to get a response that feels supportive. In a nutshell, the more one attacks, the less likely this is to happen.
But let’s say, for the moment, that the discoverer of the affair is sharing their experience directly, earnestly trying to convey what is happening emotionally when reminded of what has happened… the reminder perhaps triggered by a song, a place, a new email that surfaces…. What can the person who had the affair offer at these times?
It’s an important question. Both spouses can feel bewildered… they process the pain, but it doesn’t change. Recently I’ve been thinking about what it means to be present for a spouse’s pain in these situations. I’ve come up with a “continuum of presence” that starts with remaining physically present and moves through different states to the ultimate form of presence…empathy. (I don’t mean to imply that these are distinct stages that are gone through chronologically. In reality, they are states of being that weave in and out of the healing process… part of an evolution that can involve many “two steps forward, one step backwards” experiences.)
Physical presence can, in and of itself, be an achievement. Some couples separate upon discovery. On the surface this can be about the discoverer’s injury being too great to remain in the same house. But frequently, and on a deeper level, it can also be about a deep and not fully conscious fear that the person who had the affair will not be able to do what it would take to engage in authentic healing. Both spouses can have this fear. In many cases it is the person who had the affair that leaves because of his own fear about this in himself. The task can seem impossible.
So to stay in the room, to bear witness to what the partner is going through can be the first emotional hurdle. Just having to bear witness to the devastation can be overwhelming. Many feel terrified at seeing their spouse so emotionally out of control in ways that they have never witnessed before. However, not going away, like every other step, can mean so much, although it may be hard for the discover to admit this in the moment.
Mentally processing what is heard is the next level…. thinking about what you are hearing. Making sense of it. Understanding what has happened to one’s partner as a result of the revelation. Being able to put it into your own words. Getting it. This is different from mere presence because you can physically be in the room and not be doing this. We have the ability, as humans, to turn off thinking when we are threatened with emotional overwhelm that feels intolerable. We can look just like we’re there. But we’re not.
Compassion is next. The battle at this point is internal… it is between defensiveness and care. When defensiveness wins out, care is wiped away, or only turned toward oneself. Defensiveness leaves the discoverer feeling emotionally abandoned, sometimes resulting in hopeless at a time of extreme vulnerability. If it happens too much they may stop trying to communicate at all. Or, they may step up their emotional expression, still hoping to evoke some compassion, appearing more and more out of control. This is where the horrible, relentless, 2 o’clock in the morning arguments can happen.
Listening, but not caring, sounds like, “I already know that.” “We’ve been over this already.” It is relating to what is being heard as if the purpose of the communication is to convey factual information. But that is not the main purpose at this point. Evoking compassion is.
Once compassion is operating, a natural desire to soothe and comfort one’s partner arises. One finds oneself reassuring their partner that it is okay for them to express these feelings, reiterating their love and commitment and regret about what has happened. It also can include holding, cuddling, stroking… any physical contact that is designed to be of comfort. But just going through these motions without an internal base of compassion will feel bewildering to one’s spouse and confuse things more.
Getting to compassion is an accomplishment, but there is still farther to go. Something is still missing.
Empathy is perhaps the hardest state to achieve. Empathy differs from compassion, which is more related to sympathy. When we are sympathetic, we see the person and their suffering over there, separate and different than us and feel for them. Empathy demands more of us than that. It seeks to bridge the separateness. It requires a willingness to imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes and experience internally what they are feeling by using our imagination. It frequently can happen spontaneously as a result of opening to our spouse’s experiences and moving beyond our defenses.
I’ll never forget one couple’s journey to recovery and the difficulties one man experienced in attempting to experience empathy for his spouse’s pain about his affair. A question had been hanging in the air… “what would it feel like if she had been the one to have an affair?” It was a while before he could allow himself to imagine himself in that position. When he did, he reported he could only do it for one second, it was that excruciating. But from this moment on, his capacity for empathy grew, motivated by his love for and commitment to his spouse.
Why is all of this so hard? I have seen so many individuals who clearly and dearly love their partners and would “do” anything for them, but who find this part of the work so difficult. To top it off, the discoverer is in no condition to act as a cheerleader while one is developing these capacities, and, in fact, probably cannot appreciate what that this is a struggle at the start.
Feeling empathized with is a powerful experience. In most cases, it is the most powerful response to trauma, and holds the most promise for helping one’s spouse move through the traumatic aftermath of discovery.
In Part II I will talk about why these aren’t simply skills that one can practice and learn. For the person who has had the affair, intense anxiety, guilt and shame, not always conscious, grab the emotional reigns once it has been revealed. The ability to develop the capacity for empathy depends on successfully understanding and processing these powerful emotional states.