A few weeks ago ABC News reported hacked emails that suggested that Colin Powell had had a close relationship with a Romanian Diplomat. In his statement he acknowledged that these emails were of a personal nature. He went on to say that there had not been nor was there now, an affair.
I have admired many sides of Colin Powell. I find myself once again reflecting on the meaning of how today’s use of emails and text messages reveals the human yearning for a deeper connection.
As a marriage counselor, I often sit with couples as one partner has just discovered what seems like “cheating” through the Internet. I want to describe my experience of this phenomenon in the therapy session with the couple.
In my approach, I seek to move out of a seat of judgment or the familiar “who’s right, who’s wrong” game and instead I want to take a long, loving look at the real. For the wife or husband who discovers these emails, indicating a kind of intimacy between the outside couple, the impact will be like a tsunami. The sense of betrayal will have a long lasting impact that will take a long time to heal.
So many times, I have seen the partners who have reached outside of the marriage express enormous surprise at their own betrayal of values, held dearly in the past. Almost as if waking up out of a trance, they realized that they still love the partner and cannot believe what they have done, and are staggered by the enormous amount of pain that this has triggered in the other spouse.
Yet the person who has felt the hurt cannot believe that someone who has loved them could do such a devastating thing. In such circumstances, a wife or husband will say, “I just don’t know this person anymore. I would never have imagined that this could happen. ”
Let me describe the way in which I have come to see this now very familiar experience in many marriages whether in politicians or otherwise. Over and over a drama happens with couples. Here’s one typical scenario.
After the birth of the children, couples throw themselves into one of the most important roles of their lives. One or both of them will be giving their all to creating the safety and security of a home with all of the demands of money and time it takes. Sometimes this requires many long hours at work or in travel. Partners give their best energy to their work and kids and simply lose touch with each other.
As this distance begins to develop, one or both partners will begin to tell themselves stories about what it means about the other. Reaching out to the other partner who seems fixated on the Internet, they begin to feel lonely. When one longs for touch or intimacy and the other is too tired to respond, one imagines that the other does not care.
As time passes, and overtures are ignored, the stories become justifications for giving up and pulling away --one’s best defense against the painful longing for the other partner. So many partners turn to their electronic devices and lose themselves in the many seductive distractions found there. Of course a major place to lose oneself can be one’s emails and Facebook.
One may reconnect to a college friend. In response to the loneliness, this partner will share more and more of his or her personal life which leads to the crossing of a sacred line that our stuff will not be shared with others.
Online the connection to another sends a small dopamine squirt to the brain. This dopamine squirts are addictive because they leave one longing for more.
A fantasy connection quickly develops, not actually grounded in reality, but again opening the door to a sharing of longing for another. Unfortunately it may include statements about how the spouse does not understand. Flirting and sexual innuendo may become part of the correspondence--part of the escape. Soon the magical hormones that govern the “in-love” feelings kick in.
Suddenly the exchange leads to a feeling of comfort -- here’s someone who understands me and really gets me and what I really care about. Next comes the feeling of I have known this person forever and I have never felt this way before. The in-love spell is cast. Many intimate feelings are shared which tragically may be read later by a partner who cannot help but feel totally betrayed and the feeling that the other partner has been cheating.
What touches me as a marriage counselor is that underneath we all have a deep yearning to be special to someone else. We want to feel that this person cares and will be there to celebrate our joys and our setbacks. We want to know that this person will take time to get what something means to us and will have an appropriate response that will be soothing and supportive.
So I see how the discovery that one’s beloved has begun to share much of that with another upends this person’s whole universe. The broken expectation of fidelity disrupts one’s sense of what one can trust the other, friends, or even the world. The very partner one would wish to turn to for soothing now seems like the enemy.
Like the people after 9-11 a partner will sometimes have a PTSD like experience with flashbacks to the moment of discovery with every glimpse of something that reminds them of the loss of a dream of a secure marriage. A movie or a restaurant where they went can be a triggers a feeling of deep sadness about a safe world that has been shattered.
So as I sit with a couple where the reality of the outside relationship has become known, I find myself feeling enormous compassion for both sides. But let me say what I do know from experience over and over. The first stage of shock and awe will blow partner’s minds. Just getting through the managing of the hurt and anger will be a challenge almost every day.
Yet I know that 80 per cent of the couples who decide to work hard in therapy to rebuild can recover a new sense of life and hope as a couple. First full remorse needs to be expressed over time in a way that proves its trustworthiness. The almost obsessional reviewing of details and the hurt needs to be listened to and valued.
The partner who has moved away needs to show complete commitment to regaining trust. Over time the other partner will find the freedom to move from feeling like a victim to a courageous dignified person taking a calculated risk to trust again. The relationship will never be the same because each is no longer the same person.
Next the couple needs to the diligent work of seeking to understand the story of how this relationship became vulnerable to an outside relationship. This leads to the stage where they can learn new tools and skills for building a deeper meaningful closeness, worthy of trust.
Many times I have heard a couple say at the end of their therapy, “You know this outside relationship was the worst thing to happen to us. But at the same time it’s been the best thing in that it got our attention.
The two by four can be such a waking up experience. Sadly, this may take two years. Positively, taking on the challenge of learning and growing together can be exhilarating.
While I do not know what happened in Colin Powell’s journey, I do know I that it’s a story shared by many couples and there is hope. They can move toward each other again, discovering what a deeper sense of love and intimacy is all about.