NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When Just "Moving On" or "Starting Over" Isn't the Answer to Your Problems

There are times when "moving on" or "starting over" isn't the answer to resolving your problems.  The reason why is that, in those instances, there are underlying reasons for your problems, and if you don't understand how and why those problems developed in the first place, you're more likely to repeat the same problems.  I've been writing about infidelity lately, and this is the type of problem that requires a deeper look, so I'll use this as an example in this article (see my articles: Coping With Secrets and Lies in Your RelationshipInfidelity: Cheating on Your Husband Even Though You're Not the Type and Infidelity: Your Spouse Cheated on You. Should You Stay or Should You Go?).

When Just "Moving On" and "Starting Over" Isn't the Answer to Your Problems 

When a problem occurs that makes you feel uncomfortable, it's tempting to want to sweep the problem under the rug by saying you want to "move on" without exploring what contributed to the problem (see my article: Discovering the Unconscious Issues at the Root of Your Problems and Therapy Can Help You to Stop Sweeping Uncomfortable Problems Under the Rug).

This is most likely to happen when you feel ashamed of your behavior, as in the case of infidelity.  But if you brush this problem aside, even if you apologize to your partner, you and your partner are missing a valuable opportunity to discover the underlying reasons for what happened.  You might also be minimizing your partner's feelings of betrayal, sadness and anger.

Without that understanding, you're leaving the underlying issues for the problem in place and there to be activated again in the future.

While no one likes to admit that they made a mistake, taking responsibility for your behavior is part of being a mature adult.

While you might be very ashamed and feel guilty for your behavior and you might think that these feelings alone will prevent you from making the same mistake again, it's more than likely that the problem will reoccur due to the unconscious underlying reasons.

This is why it's so important to get help from a licensed mental health professional, who can help you to discover what the unconscious reasons were and how to prevent this problem in the future.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: 
When Just "Moving On" or "Starting Over" Isn't the Answer to Your Problems: Infidelity
The following clinical vignette illustrates these points using the example of infidelity.  However, there are many other problems, besides infidelity, that are similar in terms of there being underlying issues that need to be discovered and understood.

Ann and Bruce
When Bruce discovered that his wife, Ann, was having an affair with a coworker, he was devastated.

Married for several years and with two children, they knew they wanted to stay together rather than throwing away the life they had together.  But they each had different ideas about how to overcome their problems.

After Bruce discovered pictures of Ann having sex with her coworker, Jim, on Ann's phone, he was devastated.  He trusted Ann completely, and the thought that Ann would cheat on him never crossed his mind, so he was shocked and upset when he found the pictures.

He told Ann that he wanted to forgive her and to remain in their relationship, but he didn't think he could without understanding why this happened.  And since Ann, who expressed her regret and shame, said she didn't know why she got sexually involved with another man, Bruce told her that they needed to go to couples counseling.

Ann resisted the idea for several weeks after Bruce discovered the affair.  She told Bruce that she thought they should "move on" rather than talk about these issues in couples counseling.  She tried to reassure him that she would never cheat on him again, but Bruce wasn't convinced.

After a few weeks where they were barely talking to one another and realizing that this was affecting their two young children, Ann agreed very reluctantly to go for couples counseling.

Bruce sought the couples counselor and made the appointment.  He left his office early on the first day of their appointment and waited for Ann, who was 15 minutes late.

The psychotherapist obtained basic information from them, including the nature of the presenting problem and why they were seeking couples counseling.  Bruce provided most of the information while Ann sat looking sullen.  She barely made eye contact with Bruce or the psychotherapist.

When the therapist asked Ann why she was there, Ann said that she came because Bruce wanted to do couples counseling, but she didn't see the need for it.  As far as she was concerned, they should "just start over," especially since she acknowledged her mistake and made a promise not to do it again.

When Just "Moving On" or "Start Over" Isn't the Answer to Your Problems

The therapist could see that Ann was very ashamed and this was getting in Ann's way of being open and honest in the session.

She provided Ann and Bruce with psychoeducation about couples counseling and discussed some of the ground rules--speaking from your own experience, not interrupting the other person when s/he is speaking, and showing up for regular weekly appointments (see my article: Why It's Important for Psychotherapists to Provide Clients With Psychoeducation About How Psychotherapy Works).

Then, the therapist explained why it's important to discover the underlying issues involved in the infidelity, and she stressed that there are always underlying reasons.

She also emphasized that discovering the reasons is not the same as condoning or justifying the infidelity.  Rather than condoning or justifying, knowing the reasons for the infidelity would provide them with a chance to make changes in themselves as individuals as well as making changes in the relationship.

At the end of the session, they talked about scheduling their next appointment, but Ann said she didn't bring her work appointments with her, so she would need to wait until the next day in order to be able to make an appointment.  She made a commitment to call the therapist on the following day with information about when both she and Bruce would be available.

But the next day came and went without Ann contacting the therapist.  When Bruce asked Ann about it, she told him that she forgot to check her work schedule, so she would have to wait another day.  She knew she had a few tentative meetings at work and a possible upcoming business trip, so she wanted to wait until she had more information about these work events before she contacted the therapist.

Bruce expressed his frustration to Ann.  He felt that Ann was procrastinating and putting her work life ahead of their marriage.  He was also concerned because the man that Ann had an affair with still worked with Ann.

After they argued, Ann contacted the therapist the next day with a sense of resentment, and she made their next appointment.

During their next appointment, Ann was surprised that their therapist asked her what she got out of having the affair--what made her happy about it?  Ann hesitated to answer, and Bruce squirmed in his seat.

Seeing they were uncomfortable, the therapist explained that even though she understood that Ann felt remorseful for the affair and made a commitment that she would never cheat again, it was still important to understand what Ann felt she gained from the affair in order to discover why it happened and what changes could be made so it wouldn't happen again.

After the therapist explained the importance of understanding this issue, Bruce said he understood and, although he was uncomfortable, he realized that he had the same questions, but he didn't know how to ask Ann.

Ann hesitated a few seconds before she answered and then, looking down at the floor, she said she wasn't proud of her behavior.  In fact, she said, she felt very ashamed, which is what was making it difficult to talk about it.

She explained that her coworker, Jim, had been flirting with her for a while before they got involved. At first, she made light of Jim's comments or she laughed it off.  But then they were thrown together on a project, so they had to work closely together.

Over time, she explained, she felt flattered by Jim's attention and she began to feel attracted to him.  After a while, she began flirting back with him and she liked how their flirting made her feel.  She hadn't flirted with anyone in several years, and it made her feel sexy and attractive (see my article: The Connection Between Infidelity and the Need to Feel Desirable).

Then, in the middle of Ann telling her story, she stopped and said to the therapist, "I want you to know what I told Bruce after he found out about the affair.  He's been a wonderful husband and father.  He's been very good to me.  I love him and I know he loves me.  The affair isn't his fault."

Taking a deep breath, Ann continued:  After a few weeks of spending time with Jim and flirting, she realized that she missed him when she wasn't around him, so she would find reasons to text or email when they weren't at work.

After a while, Jim was texting her on a regular basis when they weren't together and she would respond to his flirty texts.  Soon after that, they went on a business trip together.  After a few drinks, "one thing lead to another and we slept together."

She expressed feeling very guilty and ashamed, but she also wasn't ready to stop having sex with Jim.  When she was with him, she felt attractive, free and sexy--something she had not felt in her marriage for many years.  At the time, she liked the way she felt with Jim, and she didn't want to give it up.  She never intended to hurt Bruce.

She thought she had hidden the pictures they took of themselves having sex.  In hindsight, she realized that this was a reckless thing to do but, at the time, it felt like fun.  Had she known that Bruce would find these pictures, she never would have agreed to taking them.

As Bruce listened, he began to cry, "You and I haven't had sex in more than a year.  With all the stress that you've been under with your job, taking care of our kids, and all other responsibilities, I thought I was being considerate of you by not pressuring you for sex.  It's not that I didn't want it--it was just that I thought you weren't interested in sex anymore.  You can't even imagine how hurt I feel knowing that you were having sex with another man and feeling sexy and attractive with him when I was getting your tired, irritable self" (see my article: Have You and Your Spouse Stopped Having Sex?).

At that point, Ann got up to leave, but the therapist urged her to stay and talk about what was going on for her at that moment.

Ann sat back down and looked at the floor, "This is torture for me and for Bruce.  I know you said it's important to understand the underlying reasons that contributed to the infidelity, but I'm having a very hard time with this."

In their next session, Bruce talked about how he wanted to have back the sexual wife that Ann had been when they first got married.  He talked about how they used to have sex almost every day when they first got married and then, gradually, the sex diminished until they got to a point when they weren't having sex anymore.

Ann explained that she felt like a different person when she was with Jim.  She didn't have to think about the kids or her responsibilities at home.  She felt free for the first time in a long time.  She also felt like "a new woman."

They talked about what changes they could make as individuals and as a couple so that they could improve their sex life.  Bruce had a few suggestions about allowing his parents to take the children more often so they would have time to themselves to rekindle their sexual relationship.

But Ann wasn't open to this.  She said she didn't like the idea of sending the children to their paternal grandparents, even though they liked to visit their grandparents and their grandparents would love to have them over more often.  So, they were at an impasse.

After a few more sessions where Bruce came up with more ideas for them to rekindle their relationship, including going away together without the children, and Ann coming up with reasons why Bruce's suggestions wouldn't work, Ann refused to continue in couples therapy (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).

So, Bruce came on his own.  When Bruce returned to therapy on his own, he was still hopeful that he and Ann could rekindle the passion between them.  But, as time went on, he told the therapist that Ann went back to being "shut down."  Now, she refused to talk about their problems and she didn't even want to have the occasional sex that they once had.

As time went by, Bruce felt increasingly disheartened.  Ann refused to come back to therapy and she also refused to discuss things between them.  She went back to saying that she thought they should "move on" with their lives and she promised she would never cheat on him again.

Several months later, Bruce discovered texts between Ann and Jim that began a month before.  It was also clear that they had resumed their affair.  When he confronted Ann about it, she tried to deny it at first.  But when Bruce showed her the texts that he found, she admitted that she resumed the affair with Jim, and she apologized again.

But Bruce was too hurt and angry to remain in the household, so he moved out.  He needed time to think on his own.  He also asked Ann not to contact him while he was deciding what he wanted to do.

When Bruce spoke to the therapist about it, he realized that he no longer wanted to be with Ann.  He knew he couldn't trust her anymore, and he wanted a divorce.  They talked about how he would tell Ann and how they could both approach their children.

A few weeks later, Bruce told Ann that he wanted a divorce.  She begged him not to leave her, but he told her that it was too late.  He still loved her, but without trust, he couldn't stay with her.  Soon after that, he hired a divorce attorney and recommended to Ann that she do the same.

Bruce continued in therapy to work through his feelings of betrayal, anger, sadness and loss.  Even though he would have preferred to have nothing to do with Ann ever again, he knew they would need to have at least a civil relationship because of the children, so he also worked on this in his therapy.

There are some problems that require delving below the surface to understand the unconscious reasons that contributed to the problem.  Infidelity is one of those problems.

All too often either one or both people in the relationship want to sweep the problems under the rug.  Shame often is a big contributing factor.

Making a decision to "move on" or "start over" doesn't change the underlying reasons for the problem.  That decision only pushes down those underlying factors.  It doesn't get rid of them.

With infidelity, in particular, men and women often cheat on their partners because they get to experience themselves in a different way when they are in an affair--attractive, sexy, carefree, unencumbered by the day-to-day issues involved in maintaining a relationship and a family.

Although this might sound superficial, for the person who has the affair, it represents a renewed sense of self, a sense of self that all too often has disappeared.

Even when you make a commitment to yourself and to your partner that you won't engage in infidelity again, these underlying reasons become compelling factors in continuing or resuming an affair--unless you work in therapy to understand them and find ways to try to create an atmosphere in your relationship where you can experience that sense of yourself--even though it can be challenging.

This doesn't mean that every person who has an affair will cheat again.  But when you don't address the underlying issues on both sides that contributed to the affair, chances are that these underlying reasons will get activated again and result in a continuation or resumption of infidelity.

Getting Help in Therapy
Shame keeps many people out of therapy (see my article: Overcoming Shame: Is Shame Keeping You From Starting Therapy?).

It takes courage to ask for help (see my article: Developing the Courage to Change and Overcoming Your Fear of Asking For Help).

If you've tried unsuccessfully to work out your problems on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my articles:  The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist)..

Getting help sooner rather than later is often the key to resolving problems.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

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.