The role of affairs in relationships

Your heart is not living until it has experienced pain…the pain of love breaks open the heart, even if it is hard as a rock.

– John Welwood

If you find out your partner has had an affair it can be one of the most devastating experiences possible. The shock, sadness and anger experienced by the betrayed partner are often what bring a couple to therapy.

In couple therapy we need to give a place to these feelings and to acknowledge the hurt and the breakdown in trust the affair has caused.

But, if we are working from a soulful perspective, we also need to look below the surface, at what the affair may be signaling about deeper issues in the relationship.

In a paradoxical way, while not devaluing the pain and damaged trust that an affair can bring, it is possible that exploring the deeper meaning can actually help a couple improve their relationship in the longer term.

Getting to this place is a gradual and often difficult process. It will depend on the betrayer being willing to take responsibility for their actions and the painful consequences. The hurt partner also will need, in time, to look beyond the immediate experience of anger and distress.

At a basic level, one partner having an affair is signaling that something is not working in that relationship. This may be because one partner is feeling, either consciously or unconsciously, neglected.

When a couple has children, for example, many fathers experience feelings of neglect and exclusion, alongside the more acceptable feelings of joy and elation. If they are not fully conscious of the more troubling feelings and not able to talk to their partner or another trusted person about them, they can find themselves caught up in an affair in which they feel ‘special’ again.

Similarly, a woman whose partner seems to be constantly working or disinterested in her may find herself, without consciously intending to, drawn into an affair with someone who attends to that part of her that feels neglected.

At an unconscious level the affair can be a signal by one partner that they want more attention. When the other partner finds out about the affair it can, therefore, is a catalyst to looking at what may be missing in the relationship. But that transformative effect is more likely to happen if the couple is able to work through their feelings in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, such as couple therapy.

It may emerge in explorations of the feelings around the affair that earlier ‘betrayals’ have been re-awakened, such as the anger and despair of a child whose father or mother abandoned the family.

It may transpire that the partner having the affair seeks romance with others as a way of avoiding intimacy with his or her main partner. The couple therapist may ask, what is it about intimacy that this person fears? And what about the other partner, are they colluding in an avoidance of deeper intimacy?

These kinds of questions can help the couple look at their relationship and the expectations, hopes, fears and disappointments that they bring to it. Out of this can, potentially, emerge something different – a new and more authentic way of relating.

Helping both partners get in touch with earlier emotional wounding can shed light on the possible role of the affair and how it can, potentially, help them come to terms with earlier, unresolved pain.

Couple therapists Hal and Sidra Stone argue in their book Embracing Each Other that the partner having the affair is often acting out a deeper unmet need of that individual and of their relationship.

For example, a very responsible family man may find himself in a romance with a very sensual, free woman. He falls for her because, at a deeper level, she allows him to connect with his disowned wildness.

Or a woman who, with her husband’s encouragement, gave up her studies and career plans in order to be a stay-at-home mother, may find herself having an affair with a man who values her intelligence and ambition.

‘There is usually an intense pull to have an affair when something within wishes us to break form and move ahead,” say Hal and Sidra Stone. But an affair can be used either to maintain the status quo or to risk something new – it can shore up a relationship that lacks important elements or it can be a catalyst that releases new energies, ‘and either changes or ends our current relationship’.

But there are rarely clearcut resolutions or complete closure when it comes to affairs.

There is always the possibility that the ‘victim’ partner will be so hurt by the affair that they are unable or unwilling to continue the relationship, even if the other partner is genuinely taking responsibility for their actions and the consequences.

Nevertheless, as psychotherapist and author John Welwood argues, to allow ourselves to truly feel the pain of betrayal can lead to a deeper understanding.

Referring to a male client, whose pattern has been to end relationships by having affairs but who now finds that his partner has had an affair, Welwood writes in Journey of the Heart: “He began to realise that his pain was not just about being betrayed. On a deeper level, it was also a sorrow about never having given himself fully to a relationship. In opening to this sorrow he saw all the ways he had kept himself apart from Sarah, just as he had with women all his life.”

Discussion Individuals

The need to sometimes disappoint our parents

A common reason people come to therapy is that they are unhappy about living a life that doesn’t feel authentic or meaningful at some profound level. Part of the reason for this is that they have taken on – consciously or unconsciously – their parents’ expectations of what they “should” do and how they “should” be.

The therapist’s role is to help the client get in touch with their deeper needs and wants, even if those conflict with parental expectations.

This process can take time because the messages we get from parents – about the kind of person we should be – may be extremely subtle. Nevertheless, we usually know deep down what will please them, or disappoint them.

The danger is that we either let our lives be lived according to parental expectations and thus devalue our own deeper wishes, or we can go to the other extreme of doing the opposite to what our parents want, in order to punish them.

While rebelling may make us feel we are being independent, it can also be a sign that we are simply defining ourselves in opposition to our parents and are stuck in a kind of adolescence. In this case we are no closer to living an authentic life than the son or daughter who dutifully complies with the family expectations.

There is also the possibility, as Jung pointed out, that we end up living out our parents’ unlived lives. Jungian author James Hollis argues that many women, whose own lives have been frustrated by gender limitations, have sought to live out their squashed ambitions through their sons, which explains the prevalence of the ‘My son, the doctor’ jokes.

But how to find out what we really want and need, as opposed to following parental expectations? One way is to become more aware of the parental voices in our heads. For example, most of us carry around an inner voice that tells us what is ok and not ok to do, and which can be very critical of us if we fail to meet these standards. This  “inner critic” is often derived from one or both parents.

There are other, less critical but usually much softer voices that we can tune into when we make a sustained effort and a soulful approach to therapy involves tapping into that part of ourselves that is compassionate and has genuine wisdom. This part of ourselves often shows itself in what people call intuition. For instance, we may not know why but we just have a strong sense that our parents’ religion, occupation or many of their values are not for us.

For example, we may have been brought up by parents who were uncomfortable with, and judgmental about, anger or sexuality. This can mean that whenever, as adults, we feel angry or sexual it can be accompanied by feelings of guilt. Or our parents may have been left-wing politically and judging of any career that didn’t reflect these values, making our desire of being an entrepreneur feel like a kind of betrayal.

As small children we absorb our parents’ values and expectations. What is not approved of is often disowned and this process continues, as we get older, with the expectations of schoolteachers and peers. As author Robert Bly says in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, a small child is like a running ball of energy: “But one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like, ‘Can’t you be still?’ or, ‘It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.’ Behind us we have an invisible bag and, the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.”

Not disappointing our parents, however, can become a betrayal of ourselves and sometimes that may be the choice – to be true to ourselves and disappoint others or to please others but fail to honour our own journey. It may also be that, if we have the courage to disappoint our parents by finding our own path, we are actually able to develop a more authentic relationship with them in the longer term.

Further reading

A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert  Bly

Under Saturn’s Shadow, James Hollis


The importance of sadness

‘Only love can break your heart’
– Neil Young

I will often hear a client say, ‘I’m afraid that if I start crying, I’ll never stop.’ The sadness they are holding in feels so overwhelming that they try to keep it all pushed down.

Another client will say: ‘I don’t feel I’m making much progress – I’ve felt so sad all week.’

But recognising, and experiencing, our sad feelings something new can be freed up, a space can be made for other feelings.

In contrast, by consciously holding it all in, or unconsciously repressing the sadness, we can end up in a worse situation in the long term.

To feel sadness, to feel grief, is to be at odds with the dominant values of our society. We are told to ‘think positive’ and to get on with things. Or to distract ourselves from such uncomfortable feelings with TV, work, drink, cleaning the house or anti-depressants.

And yet, when we suppress these feelings they do not disappear or melt away. Instead, they flow below the surface of our consciousness like an underground river. They make themselves felt through illness, tiredness, anxiety, depression or addiction.

This is what Carl Jung meant when he said, ‘The gods have become diseases’, that when we do not attend to all parts of ourselves, like the ancients honoured their gods, the result is neurotic symptoms.

When we feel sad about something it can be very tempting to push the feeling away, to distract ourselves or ‘count our blessings’. This is especially likely if we grew up in a family in which sadness was not really seen as an acceptable emotion and instead was judged as ‘self pity’.

Psychotherapist and author Robin Skynner, in Families and How to Survive Them, distinguishes sadness from depression. He points out that sadness is a rich, deep emotion even though it hurts. It can make us feel more alive and connected to others.

Depression, on the other hand, which often results from suppressed sadness or anger, can leave the individual feeling empty, ‘dead’, and disconnected from others.

This is because if we try to squash one important emotion, such as sadness, we end up squashing, or ‘depressing’, all our feelings including ‘positive’ ones like joy and enthusiasm.

It is important to recognise that sadness plays an essential role in our development because it helps us deal with loss. From early childhood onwards we experience losses, large and small, in our lives. These can range from the gradual losses involved in the process of a child separating from mother, to the loss of a job or the death of a loved one.

Feeling sad about these losses, grieving them, enables us to honour what has been lost and, ultimately, move on.

Being told to put the event in the past too quickly, before the loss has been grieved and the sadness expressed, can result in a false feeling of moving on.

In therapy it is an important moment when a person is able to get in touch with sadness that has been pushed down, rejected or forgotten about. Frequently this sadness relates to the unmourned losses of childhood, such as how parents were not able to be there for the child in the way the child needed them to be.

Providing a supportive space for these feelings to be expressed can help the individual come to terms with the losses and disappointments of childhood. That, in turn, can enable the individual to take more responsibility for their life and not continue in the vain hope to find parental substitutes to give them what they didn’t get as children.


How much should you know about your therapist?

ImageIn the novel Lying on the Coach a therapist makes a dramatic decision – he will try a completely different approach with his next client and be as honest as possible.

Uncomfortable with the gap between his professional persona and personal life, the therapist, Ernest, decides to be much more open with clients.

“Is it so impossible for therapists to be genuine, to be authentic in all encounters?” he asks himself.

Ernest finds himself getting tangled up as he realises how difficult it is to be genuinely open while also maintaining appropriate boundaries.  The matter is made more complicated by the fact that his client turns out to be a woman he finds himself highly attracted to and who wants to seduce him for her own ends.

Nevertheless, Ernest’s struggle to be open does bring benefits to the therapeutic relationship, even with a duplicitous client!

Clients who have been frustrated by their therapist’s with-holding of personal information may applaud Ernest’s attempt to be more open.  After all, there is a grain of truth in the cliché of the therapist who replies to every question with another question.

Controversy over how much therapists should disclose about their personal lives goes back to the days of Freud, who argued that therapists should be a ‘blank screen’. But much depends on the theoretical approach of the individual therapist. Those from the ‘psychodynamic’ school, who work more with clients’ projections, are likely to be less self-disclosing than ‘humanistic’ therapists.

One of the main objections to self-disclosure has been that it can be used for the therapist’s gratification. For example, certain disclosures could lead to the client feeling they need to care for the therapist.

Whether there has been any increase in self-disclosure is unclear but the growth in therapists’ websites and social networking sites has clearly made it much easier for information to be made available and shared.

To what degree therapists should take advantage of these channels is debatable and will depend a lot on the individual personality.

Irvin Yalom, existential therapist and author of Lying on the Couch, is at the more open end of the spectrum, possibly because of his background in group therapy where there is more pressure on the therapist to self-disclose.

Yalom argues that therapist disclosure encourages client disclosure.  He is happy to say whether he is married, whether he liked a particular film, etc. Disclosing this kind of information does not mean the reason for the question – the process – cannot also be explored, says Yalom.

But there are caveats, he insists, such as being aware that any information given to a client may be passed on to their next therapist! So don’t disclose anything you genuinely want to remain private.

This suggests that there are three levels of information therapists work with – public, personal and private. A therapist may choose to disclose some personal information, in the interests of the client, but will not disclose private information.

Jungian analyst Jane Haynes says in her memoir that she is willing to share aspects of her personal life selectively with clients. She says there are some aspects of one’s personal life that are private, even secret, and other areas that it may be beneficial to share.

She says: ‘Any therapeutic disclosure requires careful thought and personal scrutiny. Possibly, it is in those creative tensions that distinguish spontaneity from impulsiveness that wisdom resides.’

It seems likely that the more experience a therapist has the more likely they are to self-disclose. In a study of leading therapists’’ approaches, author Michael Kahn says that most became more self-disclosing the course of their careers: ‘[They came] more and more to trust their spontaneity and express their human warmth.’

Nevertheless, Kahn believes that caution is the watchword when it comes to disclosure, as ‘it can reduce the opportunity for the client’s valuable exploration of fantasy.’


Between Therapist and Client, by Michael Kahn

The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom

Lying on the Couch, by Irvin Yalom

Who is it that can tell me who I am?, by Jane Haynes.


Why couples need to parent their own inner child

Only you can re-parent your inner child. No-one can do it for you.’

–       Lucia Capacchione, author of Recovery of Your Inner Child

A common theme in couple therapy is when each partner criticizes the other for the same thing. They may complain that their partner is too ‘needy’, not loving enough or too controlling.

When you actually look beneath the surface, however, it often turns out that both partners share similar feelings of low self-worth. Deep down they don’t feel lovable and don’t trust that their needs will be met.

They also feel shame in acknowledging this to themselves, let alone to the other person.

What can then transpire is that they, unconsciously, seek to get their partner to be a ‘parent’, giving them the unconditional love and understanding they lacked in their own families. When they don’t get this idealised love they feel disappointed and angry with their partner.

A useful prism to view these relationships through is that of the inner child. For many, more skeptical, people the concept of the ‘inner child’ has become a cliché of therapy. But in my work with clients I find it an extremely valuable way of helping people understand their behaviour and feelings.

So, what or who is this inner child? He or she is that part of you that feels like a child and can behave like one – in both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ways. The inner child is often a part of us that we are uncomfortable with and that we can disown. This is because it can represent our more vulnerable and sensitive feelings.

But rejecting this vulnerable part of us also means rejecting our spontaneity, passion and playfulness.

A relationship in which both partners are, without realizing it, carrying a wounded inner child is one that will usually feel unsatisfying and frustrating to both parties.

This is because each partner is not really taking responsibility for looking after their own inner child. They aren’t listening to what its needs are and finding appropriate ways to meet those needs. Instead they are looking to their partner to be the perfect parent they never had.

The first step in healing this dynamic is for each person to become aware of their own wounded inner child.  With this new knowledge they now have an opportunity to grieve what they did not receive as children.

Often a person with a very wounded inner child grew up in an environment in which basic emotional needs were not met. Part of the process of nurturing one’s inner child as an adult is to grieve what was missing from one’s childhood.

Paradoxically, getting in touch with the sadness, anger and grief over what one did not have as a child can open up the possibility of coming into relationship with that loss and moving on.

Therapist and author John Bradshaw describes the ‘original pain work’ that people with wounded inner children need to do. What he means is feeling the sadness and anger of the child who was not properly cared for.

He says: ‘Grief is the healing feeling. We will heal naturally if we are just allowed to grieve.’

Further reading

Homecoming – Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child. By John Bradshaw

Recovery of Your Inner Child. By Lucia Capaccione

Embracing Each Other. By Hal Stone and Sidra Stone

Healing the Child Within. By Charles Whitfield



Men and loneliness

Something few women realise is the sense of loneliness that many men carry with them. The sad part is that even men themselves are not fully aware of their isolation, at least until they are affected by a crisis and realise there is no-one they can really talk to about it.

This is because they may have no friends they feel comfortable in opening up to about personal matters – after all, men are brought up to compete with other men. Even with their wife or girlfriend they may have avoided disclosing fears and anxieties, preferring to present an image of ‘everything’s fine – I can handle it.’

In western Europe and North America we live in a society that encourages girls to express their feelings and, as they grow up, they seek emotional support from other women. Men get the message that ‘boys don’t cry’, that they need to be independent and self-reliant.

At the risk of gender stereotyping, there may also be an inherent aloneness or feeling of separation in the male condition. This aloneness is an archetypal masculine quality, by which I mean an ancient pattern within the human psyche that has traditionally been more associated with men than women.

In earlier cultures boys and men experienced rites of passage, initiations and sustained contact with older men in the community. This helped them feel connected. We have lost most of these traditions.

While there are clearly many benefits for men in developing self-reliance and independence, there is also a price to pay. An obvious cost is that, not having the same support network that many women enjoy, men find it harder to adapt emotionally to crises such as bereavement or divorce. They are also three times more likely to kill themselves than women.

As a therapist, many of the men I see both as individuals and in couples seem very alone in their struggles. They may be carrying some very challenging emotions, such as sadness and grief, but find it hard to acknowledge these feelings or to know what to ‘do’ with them once they have recognized them.

Author James Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow writes about the shame that many men have been made to feel when opening up emotionally: ‘Every man will recall times when, as a boy, as a youth, or even last week, he dared to reveal himself and was shamed and isolated. He learns to stuff that shame, to mask it in male bravado.’

The first step that men need to take is to acknowledge their loneliness and isolation and to experience the pain of their deeper wounds. This may be faciliatated with a therapist or it may be with their partner or a mentor.

There is something powerful and potentially healing in acknowledging one’s feelings, whatever they are, and in this way a man can begin to come into relationship with his deeper self. By becoming less alienated from himself a man becomes less lonely, although he may still feel a sense of aloneness at an existential level.

From this exploration other questions will flow: how am I living my life? Is my work genuinely fulfilling? Am I being open and authentic with myself and others? It is in struggling with these themes that a man can feel more connected and more in tune with his deeper desires.

Discussion Individuals

The power of vulnerability

When we were children we used to think that when we were grown-up we would not longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…to be alive is to accept vulnerability.

–       Madeleine L’Engle (novelist)

I’m often aware how difficult, how very hard it is, to acknowledge my own vulnerability. After all, being vulnerable means being open to physical or emotional wounding. But when I do acknowledge this part of myself, and show it to someone I trust in an appropriate way, it is extremely powerful.

That would seem to be a contradiction – how can dropping one’s familiar protection actually be powerful?

I think it’s because vulnerability is what can connect us, at a deeper level, to others and help us feel less alone. It is also an acknowledgement of reality and of our humanity – that even though we try to, we can’t control our lives or control others.

There is a difference, however, between being in touch with one’s authentic vulnerability and being over identified with it.  People who are over identified with their vulnerability are often extremely sensitive and find it hard to protect themselves and get their needs met. They are often regarded, and see themselves, as ‘victims’, always been taken advantage of or exploited.

Authentic vulnerability is less about blaming others and more about just being open about one’s deeper feelings – such as sadness, distress, loneliness or anxiety.

I’m thinking of a couple going through problems I was seeing, in which the man allowed himself to cry at his fear the relationship may not be saved. His partner was moved emotionally and it enabled them both to show a deeper part of themselves to each other.

But vulnerability is regularly devalued in our competitive and materialist society, which values ‘masculine’ qualities like strength, fortitude and mental toughness.

Because of this many people, particularly men, have an understandable reluctance to show, or even allow themselves to feel, vulnerability. To them it can feel like weakness and it intensely scary, especially for those who were shamed by parents when they showed vulnerability as children.

Because of the large number of people who were shamed as children for feeling sad or distressed, showing one’s own vulnerability to others is something to be done cautiously. Otherwise we can be re-shamed if someone sees our vulnerability and tells us not to behave ‘like a child’.

But there is also a high price to pay when we protect our vulnerability too rigidly, as these defences can become barriers to connecting with others at a deeper level.

In my therapy work, with both individuals and couples, I am constantly struck by how hard it is for people to be seen in their vulnerability. They shield their face, look down or even try and make a joke.

With a couple, I will try and express appreciation at the risk one of them has taken in showing true vulnerability. I will also try and make sure that the other partner does not squash or dismiss what has been said.

This is because it is these moments of vulnerability between partners that offer the prospect for deeper connection and healing. To show vulnerability is to let go, even if only for a moment, the desire to be powerful and to be ‘right’. Instead, it opens a small space for the other person to be moved and to connect.


The danger of wanting our children to be happy

When I think about what I want for my children sometimes I feel I should be more pushy – get them to apply themselves more, learn more, aim higher. At other times I’m able to take a more relaxed approach – let them find their own passions and interests and let me support them in this, I say to myself.

At these times the over-riding feeling is often, ‘I don’t mind what they choose to do when they grow up – as long as they’re happy.’

On the face of it this attitude seems commendable for many liberal parents, especially those whose own parents had very fixed ideas about ‘acceptable’ jobs and careers.

But underneath the apparently supportive and progressive stance there can be a more subtle, unspoken, pressure. It is something like, ‘Do what you want to do, be who you want to be. But don’t let me down by being unhappy, even if that is what you are feeling.’

Novelist James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has highlighted the problem when discussing his own experience of being a parent. Saying you don’t mind what your children to as long as they are happy can actually be a very controlling message to give your children, he argues.

This is because it only makes them feel more unhappy when they realise they cannot live up to your unrealistic expectations.

Even with young children there is a danger that they will get the message that it is somehow ‘wrong’ to feel unhappy, upset, angry or lonely.

When my six-year-old son says he is sad because no-one would play with him at school my first reaction is to try and reassure him – ‘I’m sure you’ll find someone to play with tomorrow – let me talk to your teacher in the morning.’

It is much harder for me to simply listen to him and to acknowledge his feelings. There may also be a role for reassurance and practical help, such as helping him develop more social skills.

But if I try to immediately rescue him from his painful feelings too quickly he is less likely to confide in me in the future as he will not have felt genuinely listened to.

It is only when our children feel they are not failures if they are unhappy, upset or sad that they can more authentically experience happiness and fulfilment.

At a deeper level perhaps we need to accept that we cannot control our children’s happiness and that apparent symptoms of unhappiness are not necessarily problems to be ‘fixed’. Instead, as psychologist James Hillman argues, a child’s ‘problem’ of tantrums, shyness or sadness may be expressions of that child’s ‘calling’ or destiny and have some meaning connected to their development that we are unaware of.


Why it’s good to fall out of love

In our culture we are incredibly attached to the idea of falling in love and meeting Mr (or Miss) Right. There is something mysterious and hugely powerful about the process of falling in love with someone.

But we don’t realise that a more authentic, deeper love only comes once we’ve had to let go of that initial romantic experience.

It would be so nice, we may think, if that feeling of excitement, passion and bliss could last. But inevitably the honeymoon period comes to an end.

That’s when we can start to question whether we’re with the right person. After all, they’re not quite as affectionate as they used to be and maybe we don’t find them quite as irresistibly attractive as the early days. We also start to notice little things about them that we once found endearing but which now get on our nerves.

At this stage many people decide to throw in the towel, persuading themselves that their soul mate must be somewhere else ‘out there’. Others, especially couples with children, decide to stay together but may feel inwardly disappointed and resentful that their partner no longer makes them happy.

But how would it be if we viewed these relationship problems, this disillusionment, as potentially teaching us something about ourselves and our expectations of relationship?

As a therapist I’ve seen, again and again, how painful it is for couples to acknowledge the disappointment they have come to feel in each other and in the relationship. It is important that each partner voice these feelings in a compassionate rather than blaming way, and takes responsibility for their feelings.

The paradox is that once those disappointments are named, something can shift in the relationship. Both partners may recognize, for example, that they share similar disappointments and that these feelings may in some way relate to earlier, childhood disappointments.

We may learn that, in some ways, we have been treating our partner as a parent who can make everything right for us.

Gradually letting go of these unconscious expectations, and taking the risk of allowing the other to see our pain, can mean we are able to emotionally connect at a deeper level. That can lead to greater intimacy.