He never told Sarah how hard his mother had been on him when he was younger—that she micro-managed his school work and no matter how high his grades, they were never good enough. Even in college where Don was a pretty good quarterback, seeing his mother cheering him from the stands, he could never shake the feeling that he ought to be doing better. He always coped with his mother by tuning her out, a strategy he'd picked up from his father and continued using with Sarah. But why hadn't Sarah ever jumped down from her pedestal and confronted her anxious quarterback on the line of scrimmage?
Sarah had never told Don that when she was a little girl, she'd suffered from severe psoriasis and acne. And even though her mother had cared for her conscientiously, she always had a gnawing feeling that her mother was ashamed of her. It didn't help that when she was very young, her father was gone for weeks at a time building a food distribution business. When Sarah got to college, her skin problems had cleared up and guys started coming on to her. "It's sort of weird," she told me. "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."
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 was being played out in their married life and blocking them from truly knowing—and being known—by each other. It was also a great relief to Sarah when I told her about the difference between guilt and shame. "Guilt is the one that's most often confused with shame," I said. "Guilt is thinking, 'I did something wrong, feel bad about it and want to do better.' Shame is thinking, '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 in tears. "I want so badly to make it up to you." Then, Don reached out for her hand and she broke into sobs.
Over the next few weeks, Don became convinced that Sarah was feeling genuine remorse for having cheated on him. He owned his responsibility for idealizing her and deepened his understanding of how this had driven her to zone out on him. On her side, Sarah began to see that there was no real reason to hide who she really is from Don.
I saw them for a few more sessions and encouraged them to tell each other stories of how they had gone into hiding in their earlier lives with their families and had almost done the same thing in their present lives. By rediscovering the real people they truly are, they were able to slowly repair and save their marriage.
Andre Moore is the Director of Marriage Couples Counseling and Life Coaching in New York City.