Lesson Number Five

Julia came in with her husband, Rob, having had an affair 17 years into their marriage. Rob was understandably devastated, angry and thoroughly miserable. He loved her desperately – but wasn’t sure he could cope with what had happened.

For the initial meeting, Julia wanted to focus upon the situation that led to her affair. This is quite an unusual request – so I didn’t guide matters elsewhere. There would be a good reason for the request.

When Julia became engaged to Rob at the age of 22, she had no previous sexual experience. However, during the period of the engagement, she had a couple of sexual encounters with her personal trainer.

I did it deliberately. I didn’t want to go into my marriage without having had any experience other than with Rob. From when I was a little girl, I have always known that it was important to me to be able to choose. I may not have really wanted to consider any of the other choices available. But I hated having no choice. My father was the same.

Anyway, I didn’t have anyone to compare sex with Rob to. In one way, I’m glad I did get the other experience – because I then felt perfectly certain that I was doing the right thing in marrying him. Otherwise I would have always wondered.”

When Rob found out, he was justifiably shattered. Julia offered to pull out of the wedding or postpone it – but Rob declared that he understood why it had happened.

I asked Julia to go through what the marriage had been like for her. For a number of reasons, I was surprised that she had been tempted into infidelity – despite her earlier venture.

The story was enlightening and sad.

Rob had been so sensitised by her fling with her personal trainer, that he developed a policy of trying to ensure that he was, in his own words, “safe.” The tragedy lay in the path he chose aimed at trying to ensure that safety.

He pressured uncomfortably for sexual reassurance, and Julia felt that she couldn’t turn down any of Rob’s overtures because she felt (rightly, as he admitted), that he would see her doing so as a signal that he was not sufficiently loved. Thus, having sex (with Julia artificially creating enthusiasm for the activity) took place more frequently than she wanted.

She knew that, in a similar way, Rob needed constant reassurance on the affection front. The impact of this pressure on any spontaneous sexual and affection interest on her part can be easily imagined. Encounters became dreaded experiences, and followed a doom loop. Julia felt that she was always being checked-up on: Rob was continually asking for confirmation that she was where she said she was. He even asked the children where Mummy had been. She knew that he looked at her phone and her e-mails.

He undermined her when they were in the company of others. Possibly, his thinking was that, if she had little enough confidence, she would feel that she wasn’t attractive enough to look outside of the marriage. Alternatively, perhaps he was punishing her – or bolstering up his confidence by undermining hers. Arguments between them were regularly brought to a premature close by Rob referring to her affair with her personal trainer. Whatever his sins, Rob would claim that her action was the ultimately unforgivable one. It was not difficult to predict what would happen. Julia explained:

I felt more and more claustrophobic and with no standing in my marriage. I felt constantly encircled by him. Whatever I did, he would undermine – probably so that I wouldn’t have the confidence to have another affair.

However worst of all, he wouldn’t let me give him any feedback about what was going on inside of me; or any feedback about how angry I was because, whatever he had done, he refused to be made accountable because of how he saw what I had done.

In the end, I had no confidence left. I felt unattractive and unworthy. His message to me was that I done something that could never be retrieved. So I did the only thing that was left to me to get my confidence back – I had an affair with the friend of the family who thought I was everything Rob thought I wasn’t.

This is not the place to consider whether or not her actions were justified – nor whether his were. The important lesson to me was that of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that comes true because we are acting as if it is already true. In this situation it might be seen as a dreaded outcome occurring because of the huge efforts made to avoid the dreaded outcome occurring. Rob’s controlling attempts to prevent his wife having an affair were the very actions that led her to her affair.

Yet again the lesson to me is that individuals so often fail to look at their own performances because they are so focused on the other person’s. Because of this, they do not ask themselves the question ‘What is what I am doing likely to lead to?’

Rob simply unthinkingly followed the path that he had become hooked into – independent of the fact that from the outside, he could have readily seen what was likely to occur. He was so focused on his own feelings (and so ignoring of Julia’s) that he fuelled his own doomsday scenario. And, of course, he made matters worse by being on continual transmit and not on receive. Unquestionably, he was trying to feel better about matters, and to feel more confident in the relationship. But his choice of policy to achieve these – and his blindness to his own performances – lead to an inevitable conclusion.

My patients have taught me to keep checking out whether I am rushing towards disaster because of what I am doing to prevent disaster.

Names have been changed.