How Two Lovers Overcame Infidelity by Daring to Show Each Other Who They Really Are.

The first time I met Don and Sarah, they were on the verge of a painful divorce that neither of them really wanted. He’d just learned from one of their closest friends that she’d been having an affair, for almost a year. “How could you do this to me?” he cried out to her. “You were always my dream girl.” Sarah shook her head in tears. “You don’t have a clue,” she murmured. “He’s out of shape, not buff like you, or strong or dependable. And he doesn’t have his life together. I never once thought of leaving you for him. But what I got from him and never get from you is he’s curious about me. He asks me stuff, about me!”

 Don and Sarah met in college eight years earlier at a party hosted by his fraternity. Don had to work up the courage to ask her to dance. “You’re the hottest, blue-eyed blond I’ve ever met,” he told her. She frowned and asked him how many hot blue-eyed blonds he’d ever met, let alone had. “Not many,” he answered, with an embarrassed grin. They danced and drank and spent the rest of the night together. She let him take her back to his dorm room, excited by the prospect of playing the hot, blue-eyed blond. But he didn’t come on to her. He undressed her gently and helped her into his bed under the covers. As she watched him take off his clothes, she noticed his growing erection; then burst out laughing when she realized he was too shy to remove his jockey shorts. “You smell so good,” he whispered as he held her and kissed the nape of her neck. She couldn’t resist telling him she was wearing Cashmere Mist. But after he’d fallen asleep, she looked at his face a long while. He’s like a sweet little boy, she thought, as she snuggled up to him.

They were inseparable after that. They dated three times a week, slept in each others rooms and she cheered for him at football games. Don was a pretty good quarterback, a fast runner and a strong thrower, but whenever he fumbled, Sarah saw the humiliation in his eyes. She knew how badly he felt and it saddened her that he could never talk to her about it.

 They soon met each others families. Their parents, who live in the Hudson Valley only 10 miles apart from each other, were ecstatic. “You’re the perfect couple,” they rhapsodized like a church choir. Don’s father once confided to Sarah, “You’re so patient and gentle with him, just what the boy needs.” And Sarah’s mother in tears, once took Don aside and told him, “It’s a joy to see how devoted you are to her, how you’ve put her up on a pedestal.”

Don never told Sarah about his childhood. The only child of a solid conservative family, his mother and father have been married for almost 40 years. As he grew up, his mother was the dominant emotional force in the family. She made incessant demands on his father who always gave into her with humor and unending patience. A former school teacher, Don’s mother micro managed his early education. “I remember her putting a lot of pressure on me to get good grades,” he told me. “And when I did, it was never enough. An A should always have been an A+ and I felt like shit whenever she found out I got a B.” It got worse for Don in high school when his mother started dictating who he should and shouldn’t be hanging out with and tried to hold him to a curfew. When I asked Don how he handled this, he told me it was the easiest thing in the world. “I just tuned her out like my father did, then I did whatever I wanted. In college it was easier because I escaped to the dorm and did pretty good as a quarterback. But even then, seeing mom cheering for me at games, I could never shake the feeling I could have done better. Sometimes I’d fumble the ball thinking about her watching me from the stands. On really bad days, after I screwed up a pass, I always got more support from my father.”

 Don’s idealizing Sarah was a powerful way of keeping her from getting close to him as he’d done with his well meaning mother. But why hadn’t Sarah ever jumped down from her pedestal and confronted her anxious quarterback on the line of scrimmage?

Sarah never told Don about her childhood. Also the only child of a conservative family, her mother and father have been married for over 30 years and are devoted to each other. Sarah describes her mother as a bit shy and introverted and her father as charming in a little boy way that reminds her of Don. Although she’s always adored her father, now Sarah feels a lot closer to her mother. She was able to tell her about cheating on Don long before she could tell her father and Don found out about it. In grade school and through most of high school, Sarah had severe psoriasis and acne. In those years, she remembers that, although her mother cared for her conscientiously, she always had a gnawing feeling that her mother was ashamed of the daughter with the pockmarked face. When she was very small, Sarah remembers being very close to her father. She idolized him. But in those years he was working hard to build a food distribution business. He traveled a lot and was gone for weeks at a time. Sarah remembers resenting him for being gone so often and always gave him the cold shoulder when he came home.

 When Sarah got to college, her skin problems had cleared up and guys started coming on to her. When I asked her how she felt about getting more attention, after years of struggling with the acne and psoriasis, she answered, “It’s sort of weird. I knew they were hot for me and it excited me but I never felt close to any of them, not like I felt when I first fell in love with Don.”

 In her relationships with Don and every other guy who’d shown interest in her before him, Sarah was still hiding the pain and humiliation of the little girl with the pockmarked face who had caused her mother to be ashamed of her. When Don put her up on a pedestal and kept her there all through their courtship and marriage, she plunged more deeply into hiding. At one point Sarah told me, “It’s so lonely up there on that pedestal he’s put me on.” She dealt with it by cutting Don off emotionally, as she’d done years earlier with her father.

 The most important thing I did for Don and Sarah was help them see how their struggle with shame and vulnerability in their earlier lives with their families was being played out in their married life and blocking them from truly knowing, and being known, by each other. I started by having them watch a 20 minute video: Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability. I emphasized two crucial things that Brown had learned from her past work. First, that life is all about connection which is wired into us from birth. We all have to feel connected, that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, or we’ll shrivel up and die inside. Second, the thing that unravels connection is shame, the excruciatingly painful feeling that I’m not worthy or good enough and have to hide who I really am. Brown calls this the Swampland of the Soul. Another thing she learned from her research, which had a profound impact on Don and Sarah, is that shame is experienced differently by women and men.

 For women it’s about: Do it all. Do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat; about unattainable, conflicting, expectations of who women are supposed to be. Cultural norms dictate that they always strive to be nice, thin, modest and use all available resources for appearance. For Sarah, among other things, this meant having to play the perfect blue-eyed blond who could never let Don know who she is or how she really smells under the Cashmere Mist.

 For men it’s all about getting up on a white horse and never showing weakness. Cultural norms dictate that men must show emotional control, value the primacy of work, focus obsessively on the pursuit of status and applaud violence. For Don, this lead to a deep-seated belief that all women, beginning with his mother and continuing with Sarah, would rather see him die on the line of scrimmage than benched like a pussy. And it was never about being pressured by his father, the coach or the other guys on the team (he always got more understanding from his father than he ever got from his mother). For Don, it’s all the women in his life, including Sarah, who are the hardest on him.

 I also gave Don and Sarah definitions of embarrassment, humiliation, guilt and shame based on Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just ME (but it isn’t), and encouraged them to find examples of each in their own lives, both before and after they became lovers.

 I started with embarrassment, the least powerful of the four. “It’s fleeting, often funny and very normal,” I told them. “Oh, like when mom caught you picking your nose on a family picnic last summer,” Don told Sarah. “Yep,” she answered, “and that time we were having sex and you farted.”
“Right,” Don shot back with a grin, “and the time we were walking Jackson and used up the poop bags and he took a big dump on the sidewalk. You apologized to the whole damned neighborhood!”
“Absolutely correct,” Sarah answered with relish, “and the time I caught you shaving your balls in the bathroom, making yourself all beautiful for me.” We both gave Sarah an A+ for that one.

 “Next, there’s humiliation,” I told them, “the angry feeling you get when you’ve screwed up and someone points it out to you unfairly.”
“Ha, that one’s a no-brainer,” Don answered. “My mother’s been doing it to me my whole life and still does it. Every little mistake I make is blown up and amplified. I don’t help Sarah enough with the laundry. I don’t take her out to dinner as often as I should. Her list is endless. If it’d been me picking my nose on that picnic, I’d have heard about it for weeks!”
“What do you do when she makes you feel that way?”
“I never get mad at her. I just eat it and put on a happy face.”
It was harder for Sarah to find an example of humiliation. “I never get mad if someone tries to humiliate me,” she told us. “It’s like I don’t let myself feel anything.” Seeing the sadness in her face at that moment, I knew she was into something painful, but didn’t press her to talk about it.

 “Guilt is the one that’s most often confused with shame,” I went on. Guilt is I did something wrong, feel bad about it and want to do better. Shame is I am wrong and feel absolutely worthless. Guilt isn’t a very pleasant feeling but it’s basically healthy.”
“I know how much I’ve hurt you,” Sarah told Don breaking into tears. “You’ll never believe how sorry I am. I wouldn’t believe you if you’d done it to me.” Don shook his head and turned to me unable to look at Sarah. “When I think of what she did for a whole goddamn year, with that asshole and never a word to me!”
“I’ll deserve it if you leave me,” Sarah whispered as she broke into sobs.

 I saw them a few days later and asked them how they felt about what happened in our last meeting.“I couldn’t talk to her after we left,” Don said, “and I’ve been sleeping on the couch.”

“And Sarah?”
“I just zoned out. I’ve gone to work, done the shopping, cleaned the apartment; but it’s like I’m walking around outside of  myself.”
“Here’s what I think is happening,” I told them.“You’re both dealing with shame, differently. There are three possible ways we all have of dealing with shame.”
 First, we move away, disappear in our own lives, go off the grid where nobody can find us. This is what you’ve been doing with Don all along,” I told Sarah, “long before he found out about the affair.”
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“Think about all the guys at school only seeing the hot blue eyed blond; the girl who could never let Don smell the real Sarah under the Cashmere Mist; who never let him know what she was really feeling inside; then your parents singing a chorus of praises about the two of you, the perfect couple. How could you ever burst their bubble or Don’s bubble, their idealizations of you?”
“I never thought of it like that,” Sarah answered. “I think that’s why no one’s ever been able to get a rise out of me. I just zone out on them and let them do their thing.”
“Now I don’t get it,” Don said to Sarah. “I’ve always done everything for you!”

Before Sarah could answer, I told Don, “This brings us to the second way a lot of us have of dealing with shame. We move toward people, hover around them, bust our asses to please them as you learned to do way back with your mother, continued doing with Sarah, with every woman you’ve been with.”
“There haven’t been that many,”
“You’re such a modest quarterback,” I told him as Sarah smiled. “But you’re missing the point. This pleasing thing you do that started with your mother always got played out in your idealizing Sarah, which kept you from seeing who she really is.” Don shook his head in disbelief. “Christ, eight years we’ve been together and I don’t even know who you are.”
“That makes two of us,” Sarah answered as she reached out for Don’s hand.

 I asked them if they were ready for the third one and they both nodded. “Guess what it is,” I said to Sarah. She looked at me thoughtfully, then started grinning like a Cheshire cat. “I had this dream a few days ago. There was a football game. Don was on the line of scrimmage and his mother was yelling at him from the stands to run with the ball. He was sweating and panting, about to collapse but decided to run with it anyway. I suddenly jumped in, grabbed the ball and bopped him on the head with it; then I threw the ball at his mother and scored a bull’s-eye right on her nose.”
“That one’s a humdinger,” I said barely able to stifle myself. “What do you think it means?”
“I am so pissed at you!” she told Don, “for being such a pussy, always giving into your mother; and idealizing me, your perfect blue eyed blond; even when we make love. Half the time I feel like you’re screwing Barbie, the girl with the perfect body and no wrinkles who wears skimpy clothes. The other half I feel like you’re praying to the Virgin Mary! Did she have to wear Cashmere Mist when she fucked Joseph? Did Mary Magdalene ever wear it when she fucked Jesus? Your sainted mother would love that one!”
Don suddenly burst out laughing. “Are you telling me the real Sarah is like Betty Draper on Madmen
“Yep, one angry bitch,” Sarah answered pleased; then softening and reaching again for Don’s hand, “But I thank my lucky stars you’re no Don Draper.

 I saw them a few more times. I encouraged them to tell each other stories of how they’d gone into hiding with their families and almost done the same with each other. I told them that speaking shame always feels like an impossible thing to do when we’re feeling it. And we can only speak it to people who’ve earned the right to hear it; people who love us despite our faults and imperfections. If we’re lucky, there are only one or two people in our lives we can do this with.

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