By Yehudis Karbal June 22, 2008
A lovely couple (let’s call them Chana and Ruven) recently came into my office. They were both in their mid 40’s, second marriage for both, and are now “empty-nested” – as their children (his and hers) were grown up, married and out of the house.
Chana began speaking and it wasn’t long before she started crying softly. With tears streaming down her face, she explained how they had such a good beginning, ten years ago. They shared so much in common. They had gotten through the adjustment years with both her and his children in the home. Everything seemed to be going so well for both of them. They both have satisfying jobs and community activities. Recently, she found that Ruven seemed more distant from her and despite her prodding, he was reluctant to communicate.
One evening, she just happened upon an email on his computer and found he had been “flirting” with a woman in their synagogue. The woman, about to be divorced, was actually a (former) friend of Chana’s. When Chana confronted Ruven about this, he was very casual and remarked that it was “no big deal.” It was just a “casual flirtation” and nothing more. He didn’t see what all the fuss was about. That’s when Chana insisted that they see a therapist together – to help her figure out how to handle the situation and the overwhelming flood of fearful emotion that now occupied her every waking moment.As soon as a third person enters the picture, the nature of the sacred relationship changes.
When Ruven spoke about this episode, he said he was just “bored” and enjoyed excitement. He explained that, even as a kid, he was prone to “acting up” and since he had ADD, he needed a lot of action and stimulation. He never was able to be by himself, without someone or something at hand (electronic games, activities, social events, etc.) He claimed that he really loved Chana and didn’t want to break up their marriage. He didn’t mean to hurt her. He just was “having some fun.” And furthermore, after promising never to do this again, he wondered why she couldn’t just “get over it.”
Very often it seems that people who come to therapy do not have a psychologicalproblem as much as a philosophical problem. In other words, the lack of direction, purpose and spiritual goals produce great confusion and stress. Without a solid approach to life, the “normal” action of gravity will simply pull one down – and keep him down!
In Ruven’s case, as he described his early years, he “got away” with a lot. His ADD became an excuse for all kinds of troubles, and he never got the help he needed to learn to deal with his impulsive behavior. As a result, although he basically is a good person with a good heart, his “boredom” often brings with it tendencies to destroy rather than build.
Furthermore, he never really connected his observance of Judaism with the commitment to refinement. Like many observant people, his daily life/thoughts/action seemed quite separate from a larger spiritual perspective. They have not benefited from a truly integrated understanding of Torah where mind, body, heart and soul are experienced as one entity, Divinely designed and created to bring one to a sense of wholeness. That explains why, whether the breach is physical, emotional or spiritual, the results will be the same – disconnection.
With the celebration of Shavuot this past week, I couldn’t help but bring to mind the “ultimate marriage” – that of G‑d and the Jewish people. Many images are evoked by the “marriage” concept—that of G‑d the groom and the Jewish people, the bride. G‑d, the giver and the Jewish people, the receiver. The marriage relationship is based on commitment to the marriage contract. We agreed to the terms of the contract – steadfast trust in the relationship. Not “kosher style” – but truly kosher. Not 612 mitzvot – but all 613. Not doing what “feels right” – but actually learning and observing according to Jewish law. Not “flirting” with other gods, but knowing G‑d and His Will.
What seemed to Ruven as an “innocent flirtation” was actually a violation of his commitment to Chana and their vows of “kiddushin” – being separate from every other couple on this earth. As soon as a third person enters the picture, there is a break in the trust, and the nature of the sacred relationship changes. Thus, “emotional adultery” can be as devastating as physical adultery.
Fortunately, for this couple, there was enough of a foundation and a true liking of each other, to provide stability for the challenging work ahead of them.
What does the “work” consist of? I would say there are 3 basic steps in the process:
1) Understanding the seriousness of the breach of contract. This includes not minimizing the spouse’s feelings, and continual communication on what is “safe” for each other.
2) Willingness and determination to stay focused on the uniqueness of the relationship; enhancing and strengthening the connection in mutually agreeable and enjoyable ways.
3) Patience for the process of healing and forgiveness—however long that process takes. Forgiveness can evolve in time—but it cannot be hurried or demanded.
I suggested individual sessions with each spouse as well as joint sessions to check the progress of the relationship and share insights and experiences. Ruven spent time learning to recognize the ADD symptoms and how to deal with them in a more positive manner. He began to channel his energy into production rather than destruction (and the ensuing low self-esteem). And, although frustrated with the slow progress between himself and Chana, he remained committed to rebuilding the relationship.
As for Chana, it became apparent to her that she was actually functioning like a “mother” in this relationship. Even before the “flirtation” incident, she had often felt that Ruven was “like a child” and she had to direct, motivate and guide him. She agreed to step back and allow Ruven the opportunities to develop his strengths.Whenever trauma is experienced because trust has been broken, it changes the relationship forever.
He began attending more regular Torah lessons and even took on tutoring some younger children. That position helped him gain confidence and self-esteem, and certainly heightened Chana’s respect for him. Slowly – ever so slowly – trust began to be rebuilt.
Would the relationship ever be able to return to its former state? The answer is “no” —for whenever trauma is experienced because trust has been broken, it changes the relationship forever – as an element of anxiety has now been introduced. However, that, in itself, is not necessarily a negative outcome! What could realistically be hoped for is that new insights, sensitivities and truthfulness could eventually produce an even stronger relationship.
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By Yehudis KarbalYehudis Karbal, M.A. LCPC (Licensed Clinically Professional Counselor) is based in Chicago, but is available for phone-consultations.