Friday, January 18, 2019

The Unexpected Affair

Judith is a tall, attractive 44 year old woman who carries herself as if she knows she will be noticed, clearly distinguished from those around her. Although she’s presently a stay at home Mom, today she is dressed as the lawyer she is, a perfectly fitting gray suit and black high heels.
“I’ve decided to have an affair,” she says matter-of-factly.
I’m startled. In the six or so months I’ve seen Judith, she talked about being dissatisfied in her marriage, but hadn’t mentioned the presence of another man.
“With whom?” I ask.
“I don’t know yet.”
“I know,” she continues, “that’s a rather unusual way to go about it, but since my husband hardly gives me the time of day – I can’t even remember the last time we had sex or even had a real conversation  - I decided I might as well get my needs met elsewhere. I’m not going to leave him. The kids need their father and I need some male attention so, an affair’s the answer.”
During the course of my career I have seen many men and women who have been unfaithful to their partners with one or many other people.  I’ve always been comfortable talking with them about both their feelings and the meaning of these multiple relationships. But Judith’s cavalier manner, her impulsive decision, and her pronouncement to me without any apparent willingness to discuss her decision, is both off-putting and confusing.
“When did you make this decision? And how do you feel about it?”
“It feels like a good decision. Solves lots of problems. I guess I decided a couple of days ago. Hence my outfit today. I figure any time I’m out and about I need to be looking my best.”
“Did anything happen in the last couple of days? Anything happen since we last met?”
“No,” she replies flatly. “Nothing happened. Same old, same old, I guess that’s what happened.”    
“Do you plan to talk to your husband about your decision?”
“What!? Are you crazy? He’d divorce me in a minute.”
I knew she wouldn’t tell her husband. Why did I ask that question? Was I trying to make her feel guilty? Surprisingly, what Judith is contemplating does feel ‘wrong’ to me, it feels ‘wrong’ for a person in a committed relationship to decide in a calculated and apparently logical way to become involved with an unknown other person. I feel very differently if the person has an affair and wants to talk about it, understand it, and deal with the meaning it has for them. Hmm, I think. Her pronouncement felt as though she was throwing down a gauntlet. Perhaps that means her decision is about me, about our relationship. What was it we talked about in last week? Of course! She told me she read my book, the book in which I discuss both the intensely loving relationship I had with my late husband, as well as my strong emotional involvement with many of my patients.
“Judith, how did you feel about my book? I know we talked a little about it last week, but you seemed to skirt really looking at your feelings.”
“Now where are you going? I told you I thought you wrote very well and that the book was engaging.”
“But how did you feel about it? How did you feel about my relationship with my husband? About my relationship with my patients.”
She shrugs. “I guess I felt you were lucky. Here you had this shitty relationship with your father, but you found this adoring man to marry. I didn’t have that shitty a relationship with my father – not that he paid much attention to me, too focused on my mother – and I married a man who still doesn’t pay any attention to me.”

“So, perhaps you felt angry with me, that, in your words, I got lucky, while you got stuck.”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
“So I came out ahead just as your mother came out ahead and that makes you doubly angry.”
“I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess that’s true.”
“So your ‘decision’ to have an affair is really based on your anger at both me and your mother for getting more than you, for leaving you feeling cheated.”
“You really don’t want me to have an affair, do you?”
“I think you’re saying I’m trying to keep you away from happiness, from your father.”
“That’s a bit too deep for me. I think you think having an affair is wrong.”
“I don’t necessarily think that having an affair is wrong. I think affairs have many meanings.  For you those meanings are clearly related to feelings about both your parents, that you bring into the present and into this room.”
“So you think I shouldn’t have an affair?”
“I think we should talk about it a lot more before you act.”
“I can’t promise that.”
“I understand. You don’t have to promise anything. You get to do what you do and we get to deal with it.”

“Okay. As long as that’s clear, I’ll see you next week.”   

Friday, January 4, 2019


“I hope you had a better New Year than me,” Jeff says with a bitter edge as he settles into the chair across from me.
“I thought you were really looking forward to spending New Year’s with Eileen.”
“Yeah, me too. She broke up with me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You thought this relationship had real potential.”
“Them’s the breaks. I don’t seem to be able to find anyone since my divorce. Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed with my ex, but I know we were both totally miserable.”
Forty-two year old Jeff is a good looking man with blonde curly hair, a dimple in his chin and intense blue eyes. He has, however, had little success in establishing a new relationship.
“Did Eileen say why she broke up with you?”
“Something about my being too sarcastic or too needy or some stuff like that.”
“I guess you want to know what I think about what she said to me.”
“Jeff, your tone is pretty biting today. Are you angry with me?”
“I guess.”
“I’ve been reading your blogs. And I was wondering why you never write about me. What makes the patients you write about more interesting than me?”
“Before I address that question directly, I’d like to look at the feelings that were brought up for you.”
“Makes me feel like I’m not as good as your other patients, not as important, not as interesting.”
“Sounds pretty much how you felt in relation to your two older brothers.”
“That’s for sure,” he says, smirking. “I was the pretty one, but not a girl. And my brothers had the smarts and the artistic talent which was way more important than looks in my family.”
“So you feel less than.”
“Yup! Guess you could say that.”
“And the fact that you’ve built a thriving accounting firm doesn’t undue the messages of ‘less than’ that you took in as a child.”
“Right again!” Pause. “I’m just a numbers man, not an intellectual, not an artist.”
“And the worse you feel about yourself, the angrier you are at the other – me, Eileen, whoever – for, in your eyes, not being valued.”
“So you’re saying Eileen was right about me. That’s great, real support, and from my therapist no less!”
“I don’t know if Eileen was right about you or not. What I do know is that when you feel diminished, less than, you’re so hurt by those feelings that you lash out and that doesn’t serve you well.”
“So why haven’t you written about me?”
Although Jeff’s demandingness makes me want to withhold from him, I feel it is more important to respond to his question and then deal with his reaction to what I have to say. “I don’t know, Jeff, how many of my blogs you read, but every so often I explain that the ‘patients’ in my blogs are fictionalized. I’m real – as real as I can imagine myself to be in a made up situation with a fictionalized patient. Otherwise I’d be concerned about patient confidentiality.”
“You’re kidding me?! Now I feel like a real ass. Competing with imaginary people! You must have been laughing your head off at me.”
“Not at all. This has been a very important session. We could see right in front of us how hurt you feel when you feel devalued and how quick you are to attack the person you experience as diminishing you. It clearly comes from how you felt as a child, but we need to work on helping you not to automatically assume that you are being devalued and, even if you are, not to bring to the current situation all the rage you felt as a child.”
“You know, I don’t even remember being enraged as a child.”
“Well, you might not have been allowed to show it.”
“That’s for sure. No one did anger in my family. We talked about issues like ‘civilized’ people. Anger was off the table.”
“So you’re probably sitting on years and years of anger.”
“You mean like when my mother would make me draw and draw and draw, despite the fact that I had no talent and that she would sit there criticizing everything I produced?”
“Yes, like that. I’m sure that made you plenty angry.”
“Holy shit! You know what I just realized. If the patients in your blogs are fictionalized, that means you’re one of those creative people. Does that make me feel less than? Yes, it does. But for whatever reason, right now that actually makes me feel more sad than angry. I guess I feel sad for the kid whose talents weren’t recognized and only found lacking for what he wasn’t.”

“That’s great, Jeff. I’m really glad you’re able to feel compassion for yourself as that child. That awareness will serve you well.”