How Can I Ever Trust Him (or Her) Again?
One Couple’s Story of Rebuilding Intimacy
by Portia Franklin, LCSW
Maura was devastated when she and her boyfriend, Armando, arrived for their first couple therapy session. After a relationship of 5 years, he had acknowledged being unfaithful to her, while still insisting that he still loved her. There was palpable tension in the air as they came into my office, then sat down--as far apart from one another as the couch would allow.
Armando, a handsome man with deep-set eyes in his mid-thirties, faced slightly away from Maura. He looking somewhat sullen, angry, and intransigent, like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world at that moment. Maura, a heavy-set woman of the same age, had tears in her eyes, and a look of pleading and desperation on her face: “I don’t understand! I’ve done nothing but love you! And always, always supported you! How could you? How could you do this to me? Armando’s lips tightened, as though blocking words that might want to come out.
After several minutes of silence, I softly inquired: “Armando, is there anything you want to share with Maura about what was going on for you at that time—what motivated your decision to be unfaithful to her?”
He finally replied, still avoiding eye contact with Maura: “I don’t really know. I just know I was fed up with her trying to control me—telling me how to be. I’ve had enough of that! She’s got to stop!”
Maura leaped to her own defense: “If you’d do what you’re supposed to do, when you say you’re going to do it, then I wouldn’t have to tell you what to do!” Then, looking at me: “He embarrasses me all the time. When I have friends over for a dinner party, he sometimes doesn’t say a word! Or he sits at his computer, instead of entertaining the company. It’s just rude! And then I feel so desperate—to keep the company happy, to keep Armando happy—it’s just awful!”
Armando appeared to be quietly seething: “Maybe I don’t want to talk to your friends after you’ve told them what a terrible man I am—that I cheated on you—that you can’t trust me. How am I supposed to want to hang out with them, when I know they’re judging me all the time?” You disrespect me all the time—in front of your friends, and in front of your family, too!”
This brief confrontation revealed a lot about the dynamic in Maura and Armando’s relationship. Maura would become frustrated with something Armando had done and would yell at him about it. The louder she yelled, the more he would grow silent, ignore her, and refuse to do whatever it was that she wanted him to do—which would lead to even louder yelling on her part and more stonewalling on his.
In our exploration of this dynamic, it became clear to both Maura and Armando that this was a no-win game for both; that each was contributing to the problematic pattern described above—her yelling elicited his stonewalling, and his stonewalling elicited her yelling. In other words, each was bringing out of the other the very behavior that he/she hated the most. They were co-creating a pattern that led to each feeling frustrated, misunderstood and lonely—the very feelings that ultimately led to Armando’s infidelity.
This acknowledgment of mutual responsibility for their problems is generally the beginning of finding workable solutions for a couple, and this was certainly true for Maura and Armando. Once Maura was able to acknowledge that her “losing it” with Armando was counterproductive, she worked in session to take three breaths before she spoke, modulate her tone, and make requests, rather than demands.
Armando also struggled valiantly in sessions to stay present, despite his strong impulse to clam up and punish Maura for her “disrespect.” When I gently pointed out how his body was turning away and his eyes were avoiding contact with her, as they were discussing this charged issue, he had the courage to turn back around, face her and re-connect.
At the moment that he turned toward her, Maura’s face softened, and she said, almost in a whisper, “I’m sorry for the times it has seemed like I’m disrespecting you. I don’t mean to do that. I never mean to do that. I just get so scared when you disappear—so scared that you’re going to abandon me. And I love you so much—so much! And I get afraid that you’ll hurt me again—that you’ll cheat, again.”
Armando stayed present this time, able to tolerate the intensity of Maura’s feelings without withdrawing, but took a long time to speak. “I felt like a kid who could never get it right for you—like you criticized me all the time. So I guess I got sick of that—and when I was in Atlanta and that woman hit on me—I felt like, ‘Why not? For once I’ll feel like a man—appreciated as a man, not criticized. I guess that was why-- (he looked down, his face showing sadness and regret) why I did it.”
After a respectful silence, I interjected “You’ve both shown a lot of courage today—the courage to acknowledge your respective contributions to the difficulties you’ve been experiencing as a couple and also to express the vulnerable feelings that are so often hidden under your anger.”
Then, sensing that Armando might be willing to express more, I suggested: “You’ve both come here with the goal of bringing trust back into the relationship. Is there anything that either of you might like to say to the other that might be a step in that direction?”
After a moment, Armando volunteered, “I do love you, Maura—I do. But it’s been really hard. It’s not that I want to be with anybody else—but that I want us to be different.” They left the session on that positive note for the first time in many weeks.
Of course, trust is not rebuilt in one hour, but in the session above they took a giant step toward being able to communicate in a way that would help them be less reactive and more responsive to one another, less defensive and more empathic. In future sessions they would have to explore how their respective histories contributed to the unhealthy dynamic they had developed.
Armando grew up in Columbia with highly critical, demanding parents, who often shamed him when his performance wasn’t what they hoped for. They completely disregarded his interests in life—to study journalism and become a sports reporter—and “forced” him to get a business degree. Whenever Maura was dissatisfied and critical of him, she evoked all of the feelings of his miserable childhood—18 years of pent-up anger—as well as all of the defenses he used to emotionally survive those years—generally some form of rebellious silence. He had to work hard to identify these feelings as historical and not take them out on Maura.
Maura grew up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father who cheated on her mother, a depressed woman who was financially dependent on her husband—and therefore at his mercy. There were also three younger siblings who were often in Maura’s care. She remembers often feeling absolutely desperate as a child—trying to keep her father happy, so he wouldn’t be abusive with her mother; trying to make her mother happy so she wouldn’t be depressed; trying to take care of her brothers and sisters when she was still a little girl, herself. Absolutely no one was responsive to her needs.
Maura had to learn that the feelings of desperation that emerge when she fears that Armando will abandon her go back to that early time of life—that they belong to the child who was terrified that her father would leave, and that the family wouldn’t survive. Her challenge is to learn to handle these historical feelings of desperation and anger from back then, without taking them out on her partner now.
For any couple struggling to rebuild trust after a partner has been unfaithful it’s important to recognize that infidelity is often an indirect way of communicating that something isn’t working in the relationship. If you and your partner are struggling in the aftermath of such an episode, it will be important to explore what was going on before the infidelity occurred. Was there a habit of talking past each other, or “talking to win,” rather than talking to really understand one another? If that is the case, the first step will be to learn to listen—really listen—to one another, as well as to respond in an empathic, rather than a reactive way.
It will also be important to explore your respective family backgrounds to get a sense of how the two of you may be unconsciously playing out negative patterns from history. It isn’t easy to recognize how much we repeat the ways of relating that we experienced in childhood. But once we see it, we can change it.
The process of rebuilding trust after infidelity is not easy but, in my experience, when both members of the couple are committed to that goal, it is certainly possible. Each of you can learn to communicate more authentically, to listen more empathically, to become more curious and less critical, more responsive and less reactive.
You can find the courage to look at what your contributions to the problems of the relationship might be--to own these and forgive yourself for all of them. Then, from this openhearted, self-loving place, you might just be able to take a step toward the forgiveness of your partner. Not to deny or condone what happened, but to understand what happened and be willing to make the leap of faith toward beginning to trust again.
Portia Franklin, LCSW, is a New York City based psychotherapist who has helped couples improve communication and rebuild intimacy for more than 20 years. She also works with individuals who are seeking greater fulfillment in life, both personally and professionally. Check out her web site: www.integrativepsychotherapy-nyc.com and her blog: firstname.lastname@example.org