Meet the Couple
Meet Claudia, who has been not-so-happily married to Steve for more than 20 years. Three years ago, Steve confessed to Claudia that he once had a one-night stand — and she's been unable to forgive or forget since. In fact, she's become so angry, her grudge-holding has taken on a life of its own. Now, they're both wondering if their marriage is even worth saving.
Claudia and Steve reveal their sides of the story,and in interviews with LHJ.com contributor Margery D. Rosen, Evelyn Moschetta, D.S.W., a marriage therapist in New York City and Huntington, New York, weighs in with her recommendations for the couple.
Claudia: Three years ago, Steve told me about a one-night stand he had a long time ago. He said it is ancient history, but the pain is as real to me now as if the fling happened yesterday.
I'll never forget the night he told me. It was almost 11 p.m. when he trudged through the door and said he had something important to get off his chest. I knew he'd been worried about work. At the time, his union had been on strike for more than twenty weeks, and there was a lot of pressure on him to settle. Steve is the president of the electrical workers union; it's a passel of problems for him, but he's very committed to the cause. When I asked what was wrong, he began to cry and finally confessed that three years before, he'd met a woman at a bar. One thing led to another and he ended up taking her home and sleeping with her. He swore it was just a one-night stand — that he didn't see or hear from her again after that night. And he said that I didn't know her, either. That was six years ago — but I can't forget, forgive or move on.
How could he do this to me? What did I do to deserve this? I can't shake this deep feeling of betrayal. I don't think about it every second of every day, but the pain and humiliation is always there in the back of my mind. It makes me feel that my whole marriage is a sham. I can't let it go, but it destroys any positive feelings I could possibly have for this man.
We've been married for more than 20 years, but for at least the last 10, I don't think either of us have been particularly happy. The problem is, Steve won't talk — about anything. In the beginning, I made valiant attempts to get him to open up, to tell me if something was bothering him. Now, I've basically given up hope. He comes home from work and yells at me and our two teenage boys. He doesn't seem interested in spending any time with us anymore. It takes two people to make a marriage work and two people to make it fail, I've always thought. I can't change everything by myself, and he's clearly unwilling to do anything. So over the years, I learned to concentrate on my children and resign myself to living in this pretend marriage.
It's so obvious that family time is way down on his list of priorities. I've never understood how or why Steve manages to find plenty of time for other things. He has his union work, and he's spent hours negotiating over conference tables fighting for the rights of the working man. And though he's the Pied Piper of the neighborhood, playing with all the kids, he rarely has time for a game of catch in the backyard with his own two sons. Slowly, he's pulled away from all of us. The man I fell in love with when I was in high school — the guy who spoke softly and lovingly to his children when they were little — is so different from the man who now curses at them and goes ballistic when he sees the mess they make. Yes, teenagers can be messy, self-centered and irresponsible — and are our boys are no exception. But my husband is so judgmental and so nasty that it's impossible to reason with him. Lately, I've chosen not to speak to him at all.
Moschetta: When two people are this angry for this long, it can be very hard to break out of the routine. They've both come to expect rudeness and disrespect from each other — and, unfortunately, it appears that their expectations are being fulfilled. Studies show that couples wait an average of six years from the time problems first surface in a marriage until they actually pick up the phone and call for professional help. Claudia and Steve should have done this a long time ago.
Claudia: I grew up in a very unhappy home, the youngest of six girls. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a housing project; I slept on the couch. I vividly remember the constant arguments between my parents. Each time, the screaming fights would end with my mother stuffing some clothes into a shopping bag, walking out the door and threatening never to return. My sisters and I would run after her and beg her to come back, but it would always happen again.
My mother was always depressed; she spent the better part of the day in bed, and I never felt she was a real part of my life. At the time, my sisters and I thought that my dad, who drove a bus for the city, was a saint; it wasn't until we were grown and out of the house that we learned he'd been a drinker and would often gamble away most of his paycheck. Obviously, my mother had far more on her plate than we ever realized. But I still missed her desperately and wanted more than anything for her to take even a shred of interest in me. I had no one to talk to when I was growing up.
Moschetta: Many of the attitudes, behaviors and reactions we have as adults can be traced to our childhood experiences, and this is clearly the case with Claudia. She never felt safe, emotionally or physically. She never felt nurtured or loved, either. With both parents struggling with their own demons, there was no energy or time to support or encourage a child. Without a lifeline, this little girl must have been frightened, lost and riddled with insecurities. Even as an adult with her own family, Claudia is unable to fill the void left by her emotionally unavailable parents. Her self-esteem is so wobbly that Steve's confession has completely unnerved her, and her pain has lingered long after the actual infidelity took place. Steve had been her knight in shining armor, and she had always turned to him for confirmation of her worthiness. When even he betrayed her, she saw it as further proof that she is unlovable.
Claudia: Steve and I started dating when we were teenagers. Believe it or not, we met at a funeral parlor, at a wake for the cousin of a mutual friend. From the beginning, he was such a gentleman — very shy, sweet and caring. Everyone loved him and I knew that if there were one person on this earth I could count on, it was Steve. We dated seriously for two years and planned to get married when I graduated from high school. But a lot happened all at once: My father got sick — he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and his last year was filled with pain and misery. It was torturous watching him die. Though I'd been a good student, I couldn't concentrate on my studies, and I ultimately dropped out of school. I got my GED many years later, but at the time I found a job as an administrative assistant in a doctor's office.
I was 18 when Steve asked me to marry him — on Christmas Day, at exactly 12 a.m., in fact. More than anything, he had wanted to get engaged on the holiday; he used to be a totally romantic guy about things like that. So we sat in his car, shivering for two hours, and watched the clock tower in the center of town until it turned midnight. Only then would he give me the ring.
We had planned a summer wedding, but Steve was drafted and sent to Vietnam in the spring. The year he was away, I lived with my older sister, and her three kids kept me so busy that I didn't miss him so much. After he came home, we were married and moved into a small apartment not far from where Steve worked as a security guard. At night, he was taking courses at the local college to get his electrician's license. His firm paid for it.
Life was good for a while. Or maybe I just had my head in the sand and didn't realize what a selfish man he really was. We had the twins — Thomas and John are 16 now — and when Steve was making enough money, we bought a small house in the same neighborhood. But when the boys started kindergarten, I realized the schools in that area really weren't very good, so we moved again, this time to a much better school district. Steve gave me a very hard time about the move — but he had already received several promotions and was making enough money, so I couldn't understand what the fuss was all about. Isn't our children's education worth it? If I had to pin our problems to a certain time, this was when they started.
I don't think Steve had a clue what it was like for me to be home all day with two rambunctious boys. His reaction was out of a sitcom: He'd march in grumbling, then hit the roof if dinner wasn't ready or the laundry hadn't been done. Maybe his mother jumped every time his father blinked, but I'm not about to do that. He rarely seemed to have any compassion for me. Last year, when my mother was ill, and I felt so overwhelmed caring for her and my own family, Steve actually told me that he didn't have time for me and my family. Yet he expects me to listen to him talk about his problems at work and his union hassles? Why should I?
Moschetta: It sounds as if Claudia's anger has pushed her toward self-righteousness. To protect herself from further hurt, she displays a holier-than-thou attitude in every encounter and exchange. Steve is forever cast as the villain: He makes mistakes, never she. Her needs must be taken care of, never his. And no matter how hard he tries, she makes him feel that he can never redeem himself. She needs to understand that the desire for retaliation, though understandable, is really a way to deal with rejection and to rebuild self-esteem — and a false one at that. It can be helpful to ask yourself: What' s important to me right now? What price am I paying for staying angry? Is it worth it? Discussing your feelings, instead of holding onto a grudge, is a much better tool for problem-solving.
Claudia: Needless to say, we started to fight a lot. There were the quarrels over the small stuff and the huge battles over Steve's explosive temper. I feel worn down. He blames our problems on the fact that I can't forgive him for what he did. Well, it's typical of him to dismiss all my concerns to just that one thing. But I don't think it's that simple. To tell you the truth, I don't even know if there's any chance for us. I don't want a divorce, but even if I could just erase what happened, how can we be close when we've been so distant for so long?
Obviously, I've failed — as a wife and as a person. The other day at work, I burst into tears when one of the patients got upset with me about a bill. I'm a bundle of nerves. There must be something wrong with me, something I'm lacking. Why else would this have happened?
Moschetta: Claudia is clearly in a lot of pain and conflicted over how to deal with it. Not only did her husband betray her trust, but she has internalized that hurt as further proof that she has failed as a human being. On the other hand, is there a statute of limitations on grudges? At what point will her husband have paid for his mistake?
Steve: I was a fool — a complete and total idiot. I never should have opened my mouth. It's been six years since I had that one-night stand and three years since I confessed. Six years! I told Claudia then, and a thousand times since, that the woman meant nothing to me. I swore it would never happen again, and I've been true to my word, but she's still holding it over my head. Is she going to torture me forever? You're not going to believe this: She actually told our kids about it, just to make me look bad. What do kids know about something like that?
Why did I open my big mouth? Because I was miserable, our marriage was going down the tubes, and I thought that if I got this off my chest and confessed, maybe I'd clear the air and things would be better. I figured we'd grown so far apart that it couldn't get worse, and I had nothing to lose. Claudia has always begged me to talk and share stuff with her, insisting that no matter what the problem was, we could work it out together. So I gave it a try. Inside, I suppose I really believed that if I told her, we'd be able to go back to square one. Big mistake.
I'm not proud of what I did. But at the time, my home life was lousy. My life at work was lousy. Everything seemed to be crashing down around me. And here was this good-looking woman coming on to me. I took advantage of it. What did I have to go home to anyway? A wife who treated me like a stranger.
You know, despite everything that's happened, in my heart I believe that Claudia and I are meant to be together. Call me crazy. But when I look at her, I can still see the girl I fell in love with. I don't think I could ever love anyone else. How can I get her to believe me?
Moschetta: Although we speak often about honesty in marriage, the question of whether an unfaithful spouse should reveal a betrayal remains a hot-button issue. Therapists themselves are divided: Some believe that keeping secrets perpetuates the betrayal and that the only way to salvage a relationship is to rebuild it on a foundation of honesty. Although truth-telling may well trigger a marital crisis, they add, as it did in this case, not telling creates distance and precludes intimacy. Other therapists point out that it may be better to address the problems in your marriage first, to confront your partner with the specific reasons for your unhappiness and, once you work them out and are both feeling better about your union, consider revealing the betrayal. There is clearly no one solution that works best for every couple. Though I can say emphatically that in either case, failing to address problems you are having in your marriage or pretending they don't exist will ultimately weaken the bonds between you.
Steve: I fell madly in love with Claudia the moment I first saw her, though it took me weeks to get up the nerve to even talk to her. Once I did, we dated throughout high school and I knew we'd get married, but my life came to a halt when I was drafted. I had mixed feelings about going. In fact, after basic training, I was actually AWOL for thirty days before reporting for assignment. I couldn't decide whether I should go to Canada or sign up. My whole life was just opening up. I was in love, I had a terrific job with great opportunities. Hell, I was only nineteen.
When I got back, I tried to pick up where I'd left off. The security firm where I had been working offered to put me through school so I could get my electrician's license, which is what I'd always wanted to do. I started to make pretty decent money — more than my dad ever made. But after the twins were born, I really began to feel the financial pressure. Claudia was itching to buy a house because our first apartment was too small for all four of us. I knew it was tight but I didn't think we could afford to move. Still, she was so insistent that we did. I loved her and wanted to make her happy. But as soon as we were in the new house, Claudia started complaining that we had no yard for boys to run around in and the schools weren't good enough. So we moved again. I began to think that this was a woman I could never please. With her, the glass is always half-empty.
What kills me is that while she begged for a bigger house, she never took care of it. I would come home to find a mess — the kids' stuff all over the place, laundry piled high on the bathroom floor and nothing for dinner. Look, I'm not saying it's easy. But once in a while, can't she get it together? It makes me nuts to come home to such chaos. I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy who thinks of his home as his castle. Instead, I get no peace. She badgers me about spending time on work-related matters. Look, I'm union president, and an awful lot of people have cast their vote for me to represent them. It's my job to be there when a dispute comes up. Is that so tough to understand?
I've always tried to aim high, but I never got a lot of encouragement at home. My dad, a construction worker, always instilled the wrath of God in all of us. He used to put me down and make me feel like I was never good enough. He was a tough man who never had much time for my younger brother or me. I can't remember one conversation or heart-to-heart talk we ever had. But when he disapproved of something, boy, did you hear from him then. If I needed to talk, I'd go to my mother. She was a good woman who tried to make peace with a difficult man and raise her children to be decent young men. In many ways, I feel I've let her down, too.
Moschetta: It seems that Steve shares many of his wife's feelings about himself. The son of an overprotective mother and highly critical father, Steve, not unlike his wife, is also convinced that he's a terrible person, destined to live in misery for his sins. Since he believed he was unworthy, he worked hard to prove himself to his wife. But just as he could never gain his father's approval, he can never measure up in her eyes, either. And so he walks around with a cloud of guilt over his head and, at home, assumes blame for things that have nothing at all to do with him. Following a pattern modeled by his own father, he lashes out angrily when something displeases him. At the same time, he's afraid to say what he's thinking or feeling, since he's already convinced it will get him into hot water. When he clams up and says nothing, Claudia interprets this to mean that he doesn't care and doesn't want to try. The cycle remains unbroken.
Steve: I thought that in a marriage, a husband and wife are supposed to talk to each other. But I haven't been able to do that with Claudia for years. She doesn't want anything to do with me most of the time, and if I say something, she gets defensive. She'll never admit that she's ever wrong or that maybe I have a point. Trying to have a discussion with her is ridiculous since she blames me for everything and rarely bothers to listen to what I have to say. She just gives me a look that could kill.
Clearly, the one-night stand was an idiotic thing to do. It only made our problems worse. Something has to change; this is no way to live. As Claudia said, we're both miserable. Every weekend there's another huge blowout. This is so different from the life I dreamed we would have.
The Therapist Says
Moschetta: Steve's one-night stand is not the problem, but a symptom of long-brewing issues in this relationship. One of my goals in counseling was to help them recognize, and then take responsibility for, the ways in which they had both contributed to the problems they faced over the years.
However, marriage is a mutually created reality. Steve may have made a mistake, but Claudia is continuing to exacerbate problems and make the distance between them greater. While she has every right to feel deeply betrayed, the fact that she has nursed her anger for so long not only adds fuel to the fire but creates new flames.
I don't mean to minimize Claudia's pain. What Steve did was wrong; infidelity, even one time, and even if itsupposedly had no emotional strings attached to it, shatters the trust that is fundamental to a healthy marriage. Proving that he's worthy of that trust is going to take time and hard work on both their parts. But if Claudia wants to save her marriage, she has to stop collecting and nurturing her grievances. Holding a grudge benefits no one, least of all the grudge-holder.
What's more, I told her that revealing Steve's betrayal to their sons was also a betrayal, one that was potentially harmful to the children's sense of security and served no purpose other than further alienating Steve. This is an issue that needs to be kept between the two of them. Although rare is the person who does not fantasize about getting back at the one who wronged him or her, revenge is not always sweet — and there are far more effective, healthier ways to deal with broken trust.
One of my first steps was to make sure Claudia realized she was holding onto her grievances out of self-protection. Once she was clear on this, I worked to help her learn to speak up and say what's on her mind the moment she feels upset, ignored, unworthy or unloved. "He can't read your mind," I reminded her. "You have to tell him how you feel." I explained that the tone of voice she used with her husband was important to the message she wanted to deliver. Instead of snapping, she could say, in a firm but nonconfrontational, non-blaming way: "This isn't sitting right with me. Can we talk about it?"
Claudia also had to hone her empathy skills so Steve wouldn't feel that the things that were important to him were always being brushed aside or forgotten entirely. I told them that empathizing doesn't mean you have to make another person feel better by fixing their problems. Nor does it mean you both have to agree all the time. But it does mean that you need to take the time to really hear why a spouse is upset. Once she was able to do this, it put a whole new cast on their conversations. As Steve felt less and less like a victim, he began to participate more in the give-and-take of family discussions. Claudia started to view him as an ally rather than an adversary.
While learning to speak up and not be afraid of Claudia's reaction was important for Steve's self-confidence and self-worth, at the same time, he needed to learn how to constructively channel angry feelings. He handled anger the same way his father did: by yelling and screaming, rather than by working to resolve issues. Although Claudia has since made an effort to keep the house neater, and has insisted that Thomas and John do the same, Steve had to learn to cool down before his temper reached the critical stage. The time-honored tricks of counting to ten or leaving the room to regain his composure helped, as did making some small adjustments in his routine. For example, instead of coming directly into the house when he gets home, Steve takes fifteen minutes to either sit in the car and just think, or to walk around the block. Giving himself some transition time between his workday and his evening at home allows him to calm down.
This couple also learned to reconnect by sharing happy times instead of going their separate ways. Many couples in crisis allow the bad times to overshadow the good, and they often must make a concerted effort to shift gears. Steve was the one to do that this time: At one of our last sessions, he described what had happened the previous weekend. On Saturday morning, he had asked Claudia what she wanted to do that day. She shrugged and said she had a lot of errands to do. Steve persisted: "I didn't want it to be another wasted day. I suggested we do errands in the morning, but by 1 p.m., get together for a movie or just go for a walk. I don't give up so easily anymore." Not surprisingly, they had a wonderful day together. "I needed an extra nudge," Claudia admitted, "and I'm grateful Steve cared enough to give it to me."
By the time they ended counseling, Claudia finally had forgiven her husband. "I don't need to fight that battle anymore," she told me. "I love him, and I know he loves me."