Relationship Therapy and Infidelity - Stories from Better Together

19 - Aug - 2023

At the heart of any working relationship is a shared sense of communion and ease which reassures us that we are better being together. Life events and challenges often disturb this, and it is when this happens that conflict arises and we begin to look for what it is that we need to ‘fix’ – an attempt that often only increases conflict and pain.

Nicholas's book, Better Together, encourages readers to take a step back and to think about their relationship through a lens he calls ‘togethering’ which shines a light on how disturbance and struggles occur and the shifts in perception that can bring healing and harmony.

This blog post shares one of the stories from the book of fictional partners in therapy with Nicholas. For more information on this book and how to buy a copy of Better Together - the relationships book

Bree and David 

We can’t get past his infidelity

The Background

Bree and David are in their forties and they have been together for ten years. Recently, David was unfaithful, and Bree found out. ‘We tried to talk about it,’ Bree said, ‘but we got nowhere, we were both so upset. After a particularly bad row, I threw a dining room chair at the French windows and broke them, and David left the house and went to stay on a friend’s couch for the night. That’s when we decided we needed some help.’

‘We feel completely stuck,’ David said. ‘We don’t know whether we want to end the relationship or not. I don’t think we do, but we just can’t get past what happened.’

They began therapy a month ago. It was David who made the appointment with me, ‘because Bree insisted’. Bree had found my details, and she thought David ‘would speak more easily if we had a male therapist’. They both love dogs, having two of their own, and had seen that I worked with Holly, my chocolate Labrador, in the room, so this was also something they found encouraging.

In the first few sessions, David and Bree talked about how, in the past they had, in Bree’s words, ‘never really talked with each other when something was not OK between us’. However, they said, for the first seven years of their relationship they were rarely upset with each other, and life was fun and uncomplicated. They both acknowledged that there was a change about three years ago when Bree took on a new job that required her to take trips away from home and work long hours. ‘I think the relationship suffered,’ David said. ‘We didn’t find ways to adapt.’ 

Bree discovered David’s infidelity a few weeks before they came to therapy, and it remained central to their thoughts and feelings in every interaction. Bree said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about David with another woman. I need to talk about things in order to feel better, but every time we try to talk we both end up feeling worse.’

When they talked about the way they met I was struck by how their different ways of being had been what connected them. Introduced at a dinner party by a mutual friend, there had been a discussion about the TV series Mad Men. Bree had said she would love to get a job in a leading advertising agency, while David, who had worked in advertising, said that he had left his job because of the pressure and was now much happier working as a teacher. They had a conversation about the importance of balance in life but also how hard it was to know what balance meant. In therapy, Bree admitted that she tended to ‘take on too much and stay too long in difficult situations,’ whereas David admitted that he could ‘find it hard to stay present under too much pressure’. 

In their sessions so far, I have noticed a pattern in which thoughts of the infidelity leave Bree feeling hurt, that she then thinks further about the infidelity, feels betrayed and, in her fury, demands that David say sorry. Meanwhile, David says whatever Bree wants, hoping that things will settle down as quickly as possible. 

My Initial Response

In sessions I feel moments of communion with Bree when she talks about how betrayed she feels, and with David when he speaks about his bewilderment around how he ended up being a husband who had an affair. 

I think also about their differing energies: Bree’s gusto relative to David’s calmness. I think of the possibility that, while they understand and appreciate that difference about each other when their togethering is not under stress, these differing ways of being may actually fuel misunderstanding when there is stress. 

I suspect that misunderstanding confronts them with loss, and this activates Bree’s fury and David’s withdrawal, although I am curious to understand whether David’s withdrawal comes before Bree’s anger or vice versa.

They both seem to agree that they should be talking about the details of the infidelity. However, they are not talking about the situation leading up to it. I think they both have a sense of responsibility around the deterioration of the relationship prior to the infidelity.

They are stuck in the pain of what happened, and I’d like to see if something different can happen when the infidelity comes up. Infidelity is almost always traumatic and sometimes healing a trauma happens through revisiting the traumatic event, while at others it can heal through working to avoid revisiting the event. 

Given the nature of infidelity, where one partner is often seen as or feels guilty of a wrongdoing, I also wonder about the potential for one or both of them to feel shame. Often the one who has the affair feels most shame, but partners can feel shame for being in a relationship where there was infidelity— so I wonder about Bree and David’s shame and the potential impact on their being able to speak easily to each other.

In Session

We are halfway through the session. Bree has become upset and angry and has demanded an apology. David has complied.

I notice a change in Bree’s behaviour: she is shifting quite a lot in her seat. David had been looking calmer, but as he is looking at Bree he too appears to be changing in his demeanour.

I start to notice in myself a feeling of discomfort and I feel myself tensing. I am expecting Bree’s feeling of hurt about David’s infidelity to resurface and that the hurt will become anger, directed probably at David, but perhaps also at me because, despite trusting me, she is in pain. So I am steeling myself; my senses are heightened and I am waiting for what is going to come. I also feel excited and hopeful as these are signs that a moment may arise when I might intervene in a meaningful way. I do not know how I will intervene; all I know is that I have a sense that an opportunity to disturb the unhelpful dynamic will present itself.  

Bree looks up. ‘My life is shit,’ she says. ‘I thought I had a fabulous life. And now I feel shit. And you,’ she shouts at David, ‘it’s your fault. You’ve done this to me. You’ve destroyed me.’

She is back in her feelings of hurt, reliving the trauma. I expect David to respond in a defensive way and an escalation in their conflict. 

‘That's right, blame me,’ David snaps back. ‘That’s it, all the time. And yes, okay, I have done this, but you know, I’m not going to keep saying I’m sorry.’

‘You are just terrible. What would your parents think if they knew?’ Bree screams.

At this point, Holly, who’s been lying quietly on her bed, jumps to her feet and slinks around the back of my chair.

‘You always bring my parents into it, don’t you? You’re just nasty,’ he says.

‘Yeah. Because they think they brought up a nice man, don’t they? Someone who’s kind and gentle. But you’re nothing but a cheat.’

David slumps, looking totally defeated. He is looking at the picture of a waterfall behind me but I’m not sure he is actually seeing it. I think that while he is still there physically, psychologically he has left.

This is the moment I have been waiting for: the opportunity for me to intervene. I’m aware that it is probably very much like a replay of the moment when Bree broke the French windows and David left the house.

‘Bree, David,’ I say, firmly and loudly enough to gain their attention, ‘I would just like to point out that what’s happened here is a repeat of the pattern that your conversations take around the issue of the infidelity. You said you wanted to change this, so can I check? Is this helpful when your conversations are like this?’

Bree looks at me. ‘I don't care if they’re bloody helpful or not. It’s helpful for me just to be able to let out my fury. I am so furious.’

‘I understand you are furious, but I notice Holly has gone behind my chair so I would like to move her into another room.’

Bree looks quite shocked and then a bit sheepish. ‘Oh, no, I didn’t mean to . . . poor Holly, I didn’t mean to upset her. I get so mad, and I just don’t know what to do.’

There is a silence and then I notice that David has changed his posture, coming out of the slump and sitting more upright. He looks as though he is coming out of a trance. 

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I know. You get so cross. And then I get so nervous, and I feel ashamed and think I am such a failure. I don’t know what to do. I feel really sad to see you so upset, and it makes me want to leave.’

Bree stares intently at David. ‘I didn’t realise that,’ she says quietly, ‘I didn’t know you felt that way.’

After a pause, she reaches for his hand. They make eye contact and she smiles. He smiles back and I notice her shoulders drop. I feel a change in the charge in the room—the fury and hurt has dissipated.

They both look to me. 

‘You share the same experience of feeling hurt and I’d like to offer the word trauma,’ I say. ‘Bree, your hurt turns to anger and David, while you initially try to stay present, Bree’s anger results in you wanting to get away, so you both end up unsure about what to do. This is horrible for you both, but your pain is caused by the same thing—the loss of the relationship that you say was “fun and uncomplicated” until three years ago.’

They look again at each other, and I feel deeply moved: I am witnessing a private moment of intimacy—communion, if you will.

The Moment

My intervention—and Holly’s—created enough of a pause to enable Bree and David to think about what was happening. Bree became aware of her impact on Holly, and then of her impact on David. David, experiencing Bree differently, was able to speak differently and that changed the understanding between them. It enabled a moment of communion and a move towards a sense of ease. 

They were able to voice their individual truths and at the same time it gave me the opportunity to point out that they had both suffered a terrible loss. This relationship truth, made explicit, allowed them to experience a shared feeling and gave them an experience of their relationship as it had been—not before the infidelity, but before the career change three years previously.

What Happened Next

Bree and David returned for the next session saying that they had been much better together, kinder to one another, and more able to listen to what the other had to say.

They wanted to try to stay together but felt nervous about whether they would feel hurt again in the relationship. We used subsequent sessions to focus on getting them both used to telling each other when something was not okay and navigating their management of time and energy together, so that the relationship would be able to contain both Bree and David. 

Through the therapy they were able to make sense of the infidelity as something that came from a joint failure to keep the right balance—something they had both admitted, in their first therapy session, was difficult for them. Bree’s fury decreased, as did David’s shame, and this enabled them to speak more easily together.

The near loss of the relationship made Bree realise that once again she had taken on too much at the cost of other areas of her life. Meanwhile, David realised that although his inclination was to withdraw and keep quiet it was actually helpful to their relationship and to Bree if he spoke up when he thought she was doing too much. 

These shifts took time for both Bree and David: they were finding a new way of being together and inevitably, at times, this felt uncomfortable, but it led to greater openness and increased closeness for both of them. While the infidelity remained a wound that left a scar and had the potential to resurface at times of stress, it gradually lost its power, as Bree and David found they were able to keep the balance they needed, individually and in their relationship. 

My Reflection

So often people are painfully stuck in patterns without even realising there are other possibilities. Bree’s intense pain, shock, and sense of dissembling was as painful to contemplate as David’s period of loneliness, his shame at his being someone who’d had an affair and his distress at the pain Bree was experiencing. Most certainly this situation brought up loss—David experienced loss as Bree’s work took her away, while Bree was confronted with loss suddenly on discovery of the infidelity, after which they both faced the potential of loss of their relationship. 

Bree and David’s arguments about the infidelity were putting focus on their experience of alienation, when what they needed was to be talking about how the infidelity came to be, and while an infidelity cannot be undone, and their life has changed, their ability to again feel at ease together and to experience communion shows that healing is possible. 

The two had initially connected around agreement on the importance of the issue of balance in their lives, and that, as an aspect of their approach to living, provided a prism through which their togethering could be viewed. When they met, their different ways of being in balance actually created a positive dynamic that worked well for them and they had a sense of ease around engagement, being able to interact without argument because of the level of satisfaction they both felt. But after Bree’s change of job they both struggled, in their very different ways—a jointly held blind spot if you will—with how to maintain balance.

When the relationship lost its sense of balance, there were consequences for them both, individually and together. They were not wrong to allow a change, but they were unable to talk about it and to manage it together. If they had spoken about the ways in which Bree’s new job might impact their relationship, they might have been able to agree that both would keep an eye out around the issue of balance and find ways to ensure the relationship continued to contain them both happily. 

At the heart of any working relationship is a shared sense of communion and ease which reassures us that we are better being together. Life events and challenges often disturb this, and it is when this happens that conflict arises and we begin to look for what it is that we need to ‘fix’ – an attempt that often only increases conflict and pain.

Nicholas's book, Better Together, encourages readers to take a step back and to think about their relationship through a lens he calls ‘togethering’ which shines a light on how disturbance and struggles occur and the shifts in perception that can bring healing and harmony.

This blog post shares one of the stories from the book of fictional partners in therapy with Nicholas. For more information on this book and how to buy a copy of Better Together - the relationships book

As it was, changes to their being and doing—time for themselves, time together, and energy for themselves and together—resulted in a complex disturbance of their connection in terms of how they engaged with each other, and to their sense of agreement. This, essentially, was what lay behind the infidelity. While the hurt and trauma it left could not be simply wiped out, I was aware that as the balance in their communication changed, with David experiencing the value that can come from saying how he felt and Bree feeling less responsibility for voicing concerns, things would improve, and that they would have opportunities to rebuild their mutual understanding. 

I feel sad thinking about the painful consequences that can arise when another area of life, such as work, is prioritised over relationships. I often think of how our attachments to one another form outside of our awareness and how sometimes the full importance and meaning of them only become clear to us when we are confronted by the loss of them.