NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, March 7, 2016

Coping with the Sudden Realization That You Don't Really Know Your Spouse

In an earlier article, Movies: "45 Years:" An Old Secret Haunts a Loving Long Term Marriage, I discussed how events from the distant past upend a long-term marriage causing the wife to feel suddenly that she really didn't know her husband or understand their marriage.  Until then, they had been, seemingly, going along happily.


As I mentioned in my prior article one of the things that makes this movie so powerful is that this is the sort of thing that happens in many relationships.  If it's happening to you, you can feel that you're the only couple going through it because, similar to the couple in "45 Years," couples often don't talk about these issues aside of their relationship or their couples therapy.

If you're experiencing a betrayal in your relationship, aside from the shock, you can feel very alone in your experience.

The betrayal can make you ask yourself: Who is this person that I'm married to?  You can also question your marriage.

This can be extremely disturbing and leave you reeling, especially in a long-term relationship where, prior to the betrayal, you  thought you understood your spouse well and you felt confident in your marriage.

In prior articles, I've written about infidelity (see my articles: Your Relationship: Your Spouse Cheated on You--Should You Stay or Should You Go?  and Coping with Infidelity in Your Relationship).

But infidelity is not the only form of betrayal that couples often go through.

The following vignette, which is a fictionalized example of many different cases with all identifying information changed, I discuss another form of betrayal in a long-term relationship:

Donna and Jim:
Donna and Jim came to couples counseling because they were struggling to overcome Donna's sudden realization that Jim had gambled away their life savings (see my article: Compulsive Gambling: Beware of March Madness).

They were married for 15 years, until Jim's secret gambling problem emerged, Donna felt content and secure in their relationship.

Jim worked as a stockbroker and Donna worked as an executive assistant.

Until recent events unfolded, Donna was unaware of any serious problems in their relationship.

Jim took care of their finances, so Donna was unaware that there was any problem--until she came across a bank statement that Jim had accidentally left out and she saw that their savings was a fraction of what she had always known it to be.

Alarmed, Donna approached Jim with the statement to show him what she thought was a bank error.  But when he hung his head down and averted her gaze, she felt queasy and knew something was terribly wrong.

Over the next hour, Jim broke down in tears and confessed to Donna that he had been secretly gambling in the last several years and he had depleted their savings.  He apologized to her over and over again, but Donna was in a state of shock trying to come to terms with what she was hearing.

Donna described how she suddenly felt like the floor under her feet had dropped away and she was falling into an abyss.  She was so upset that she could barely understand what Jim was telling her.  She felt like she was in a bad dream and any moment she was going to wake up and feel relieved.

But, as the hours passed, she realized that this was no dream and her shocked turned to rage.  She told Jim to stay at his parents' home for the time being so she could wrap her mind around what was happening.

During the days that Jim was away, Donna felt lonelier that she had ever felt.  She couldn't bear to tell her family or close friends what had just happened.  At that point, she couldn't even bear to tell her daughters.

All the while, Donna felt like she was going through the motions in her life. It was as if everything looked the same, but nothing felt the same.  She felt like her every day life had been replaced by replicas of people and things that she ordinarily knew.  Nothing seemed real.

All of this time, she could never have imagined that Jim had a gambling problem or that he was gambling away their savings.  The thoughts that kept going around in her mind were:

Who is this man that I thought I knew for all of these years?
Does he really love me?
How could he do this?
What is our marriage about if he could be so dishonest and ruin us in this way?
How can I ever trust him again?

Initially, Donna considered divorce and told Jim that she didn't think they could ever overcome this betrayal.  But Jim begged Donna for forgiveness and pleaded with her to reconsider and not give up on their marriage.

After several weeks of trying to talk it out between them to no avail, Jim sought out couples counseling as a last resort, and Donna agreed reluctantly to give it a try.

After a couple of sessions, Donna agreed to stick it out in couples counseling to see if they could work out their problems.  She was still deeply hurt and upset but, after the initial shock wore off, she realized that she still loved Jim and she didn't want to give up their marriage.  She also realized that he had a serious problem and he needed help.  She was still very angry, but less so than she had initially been.


Clearly, finding out about Jim's gambling problem was traumatic for Donna, especially since she grew up in a household where her father was a gambler with devastating consequences for her family.  She had always vowed to herself that she would never marry a gambler and to find out about Jim's secret reopened old emotional wounds related to her father's gambling.

Jim agreed to attend his own individual therapy with a therapist who specialized in addiction.  He also began to attend Gambler's Anonymous regularly and obtained a sponsor.

On a practical level, Jim had to borrow money from his family, which meant that he had to reveal his gambling problem to them.  Donna took over the finances because, at that point, she didn't trust Jim with their money.


On an emotional level, they had a steep road to climb to repair their relationship.  Jim acknowledged that he had been deceitful and seemed genuinely remorseful.  Over time, Donna realized, in hindsight, that there had been signs of Jim's secrecy that she chose to ignore.  Eventually, she attended Gam-Anon, which are self help meetings for spouses or family members of gamblers.

Over the next two years, with much difficulty, Donna and Jim reconciled their relationship.

Jim discovered in his own individual therapy that, on an unconscious level, he wanted to be found out.  Although it appeared that he had accidentally left the statement out, he realized that he felt so guilty and worried about his secret that he wanted Donna to know, but he didn't know how to tell her.

Jim also discovered what triggered his craving to gamble, and he learned to develop better coping skills.  He also changed careers because his job as a stockbroker was not conducive to overcoming his gambling problem.

After they completed couples counseling, Donna entered into her own individual therapy to deal with the aftermath of Jim's betrayal as well as her own unresolved issues regarding her father.

As time went on and Jim abstained from gambling, the family became closer again.

Having gone through this traumatic event in their lives, Donna and Jim seemed to grow as a couple and as individuals.

There can be many forms of betrayal in a relationship.

The fictionalized scenario presented in this article illustrates many of the stages that a couple can go through when a betrayal comes to light.

In the scenario presented above, the couple got help in couples counseling and decided to remain together.  Of course, this is not always the case.  But after the initial shock of a betrayal, many couples decide to try to reconcile their relationship in couples counseling.

Often, couples who come to couples counseling learn new things about themselves as individuals and as a couple.  They often learn that they are more resilient than they thought they were.

A couples counselor won't tell you whether or not to stay together (see my article: Your Relationship: Should You Stay or Should You Go?).  However, she will facilitate the process so that each person in the relationship can decide if he or she wants to try to salvage the relationship.

If a couple decides that they can't salvage their relationship, they can benefit from going to couples counseling to try to end the relationship as amicable as possible, especially if there are children involved.

Getting Help in Therapy
When you feel betrayed in your relationship, you can feel confused and bewildered about what to do.  It's often not the best time to make any lasting decisions.

You might not feel comfortable talking to family or friends because you might know that could make any decision that you're trying to make that much more difficult.  Family and friends usually want the best for you and they might try to sway your decision one way or the other before you're ready to make a decision.

Many people seek help in individual therapy first to be able to sort out their feelings about the betrayal and how they feel about the relationship.  Over time, like Donna in the fictionalized scenario in this article, people often discover that the betrayal opens up old wounds from their childhood.

Other people enter into couples counseling and then one or both people might attend their own individual counseling.

If you're struggling with a betrayal in your relationship, you're not alone.

Rather than trying to deal with it on your own, you could benefit from seeking help in therapy to help you to work through the issues involved (see my articles: The Benefits of Therapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist who works with individuals and couples.

I have helped many clients struggling with a betrayal in their relationship to overcome the emotional trauma and make important decisions about their lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.