Carly: 32, stay-at-home mom
Matt: 34, financial planner
Married: three years
Kids: Ben, 22 months
Carol Helmer, PhD, Coram, New York
In the eight years they'd been together, Carly and Matt had never fought — they truly thought they were the perfect couple. But once they had a baby, they started arguing constantly. Then Matt received a bombshell phone call: Carly had been having an affair.
The Couple's Turn
Matt: Did Carly seriously think I wouldn't find out she was sneaking around? Is she that naïve? Her boyfriend's wife figured it out and called to tell me the whole story. Seems that Carly has been hooking up with her husband for months — and she did it in our house with our son in the next room. When I heard that I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. Carly won't have sex with me but manages to find the energy for this guy?
I knew she wasn't happy, and I haven't been either. But I'd never cheat on her. I don't really see the point of therapy, honestly, because I can't forgive this. I want out of the marriage.
Carly: I don't know why I did such a terrible thing. I'm ashamed of myself. I'm really not that kind of person. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't stop.
I bumped into Gene a few months ago when I was visiting my mom. We'd been close as kids but I hadn't seen him in ages. He's an EMT now, still living in our hometown. He asked me to have coffee and we started talking. I found myself confiding in him more and more. There was definitely chemistry between us — and he was as unhappy in his marriage as I was in mine. Over the next few weeks, whenever I visited my parents, we'd meet for a walk. Eventually it turned into more. He made me feel special in the way Matt used to but hasn't in a long time.
In the past year, Matt's been acting like he can barely stand me. He's always working and when he gets home he gives me a kiss on the cheek and that's it. He plays with Ben, watches TV, and goes to sleep. The only time he talks to me is to make sarcastic comments about my cooking or how messy the house is. This is not the guy I fell in love with.
Matt: Carly has an amazing ability to make her affair totally my fault. She's left out a lot — like the fact that she broke her promise to go back to work after her maternity leave was up. I didn't want to push her, but as three months stretched to 12 and she still made no move to go back, I started to freak out. If we're ever going to buy a house we'll need her salary to help with the down payment. That was our plan. But Carly just makes her own decisions and expects me to go along with them. So yeah, I've been mad. I work 14-hour days and then come home to hear her complain that I'm not helping enough! Meanwhile, she's been ignoring me when I tell her she should put Ben in preschool. He's almost 2 and he should be with other kids. Carly is too attached. She coddles him. She could get a lot more done if she'd stop being such an obsessive mom.
Carly: Obsessive? That is so unfair. Look, I didn't realize until after Ben was born how much I wanted to stay home and take care of him. I've always been close to my parents and I want my son to feel that way about me, as well. Since when does that make me "too attached"? Matt's been badgering me about putting Ben in daycare since he was 6 months old, which I thought was much too young. Besides, there are no good preschools in this neighborhood. It's not kid-friendly at all.
We live in Matt's old apartment, far from any family or friends. I hate it. When we got married, Matt convinced me that moving here made the most sense financially. He said it was only temporary and that once we had kids, we'd move to the suburbs. Well, clearly "temporary" has a different meaning in his dictionary than it does in mine.
And while I know it's my choice to stay home, I really did expect Matt to help more. If I asked him to do something like give Ben a bath, he did it so grudgingly that I stopped asking.
Matt: I can't believe Carly's complaining about this neighborhood. We're here so we can save enough money to get the kind of place she wants. But it's going to take us a lot longer to be able to afford a house in the suburbs with her not working!
And since she's talking about how I've changed, let me say this: I've watched the sexy, independent woman I fell in love with become consumed by baby stuff. I know taking care of a kid is tough, but she's neurotic. She refuses to get a babysitter so we can go out for dinner — forget a night or weekend away. She'll only leave Ben with her mother, who lives two hours from us. There's no room for me in her life. I can't remember the last time we had sex. Carly's always too tense or too tired. How come she wasn't too tired to sleep with someone else?
Carly: If I don't feel loved, I can't make love. The truth is, I don't understand what's happened to me...or to us. We used to be really good together. We understood each other and we told each other everything. Now I can say the sky is blue and he will hear the sky is orange. After a while I went emotionally numb, and I guess that's why I ended up having the affair with Gene. I begged Matt to come for counseling so we can find a way to move on, but he only wants to obsess about what happened.
Matt: I don't think I want to move on! Can I ever trust her? I keep replaying the past few months in my head, wondering how I could've been so blind. The only reason I'm here is because of Ben. I want him to have a happier childhood than I did. My dad cheated on my mom. He was abusive to her as well as to me and my brothers. You did what he said and if you didn't you got the belt. I learned that when I feel hurt, it's best to pull back and say nothing, otherwise I'll just get hurt more. But I refuse to live like that now.
The Counselor's Turn
When Matt and Carly first came to my office, Matt insisted the marriage was over. I disagreed. I believe most couples can find a way to restore intimacy. That said, there are no quick fixes, especially when infidelity is involved.
Like many couples who've been together for a while, Carly and Matt assumed they'd move easily from being partners to being parents. They'd never had trouble communicating before, probably because they'd never been confronted with such high-stakes decisions. Both of them were stunned at how quick they were to argue about childcare, where they should live, and who should do what around the house. Though Carly's affair with Gene was the crisis that brought them to my office, the underlying cause of their relationship problems was an inability to talk about difficult topics.
Instead of communicating constructively, this couple retreated into their respective corners and acted out their emotions in destructive ways. Matt buried himself in work and criticized his wife and Carly looked for attention and affection elsewhere. Until they understood why they acted and reacted to each other in these ways, they couldn't break the cycle. The fact that Carly decided not to return to work without consulting him triggered a deep resentment in Matt, which caused him to shut down. Growing up in an abusive home, Matt had no model for how couples work through differences in a healthy way. When disagreements arose, he'd learned to keep silent and guard his feelings. That may have protected him as a child but it stifled intimacy in his marriage. It's impossible to get rid of anger by stuffing it inside.
I told Matt that his rage about Carly's unilateral decision making and about the affair was normal — up to a point — but that he needed to start talking to her more openly and directly, instead of lashing out and retreating. "If you continue to act this way, you sabotage any chance for reconciliation," I told him bluntly. "Do you want to be married or do you want to be right?"
Carly was used to receiving positive attention both from her parents and her husband. The more Matt pulled away, the more she sought approval and support elsewhere. Though Carly obviously knew her affair with Gene was wrong, her emotional neediness trumped her conscience.
Carly sobbed for most of the first session as she tried to rationalize her behavior. She'd always thought of herself as an honorable woman, so having to discuss her affair with Matt was deeply painful. I was blunt with Carly, too: "As hard as it is for you to go over what happened again and again, you need to listen and respond to your husband's questions. He deserves answers as he comes to terms with what's happened."
Matt agreed to return the following week, even though he had come in to our session saying he wanted out of the relationship. Meanwhile, Carly worked hard to earn back his trust. She took responsibility for her behavior, cut off all contact with Gene, and started to pay more attention to Matt. After a month, Matt said he felt more optimistic about their relationship.
We also worked on communication, since Carly and Matt both needed to be more direct and to ask for clarification when something was bothering them. They found it to be awkward at first, but it's helped them clear up misunderstandings.
Recently Carly arranged for a college student to babysit — a big leap for her — and made dinner reservations. Matt was pleased. "Everyone told us to make time for ourselves as a couple, but we figured we could just power through anything," Carly said. "Now we both know how important it is."
As the hostility between them eased, Carly and Matt became more playful, affectionate, and loving — and felt ready to make some big decisions. They looked for an affordable house in the suburbs and found one about 30 minutes from Carly's parents' house. Within two months, they'd moved and enrolled Ben in preschool. Carly met many other new moms and she and Matt have made friends with several couples. Matt does have a longer commute but he doesn't mind — he uses the time to decompress.
I still feel that Matt needs to communicate better, without sarcasm. His childhood issues will continue to be a problem for him if he fails to address them. I've recommended that he continue to see me, but so far he's been unwilling to do that. Still, he and Carly have both made great strides and the marriage is stronger in many ways.
Carly now makes sure to consult Matt on parenting and household decisions. And if they haven't had sex in a while and feel out of touch with each other, they squeeze it in after Ben is asleep, no matter how tired they are. "I think we're more realistic about what marriage and parenthood are like," says Carly. "We're still going to disagree and argue but now we know how to address a problem before it pulls us apart."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2012.