Women all over the country cheered Sandra Bullock’s first response to her husband Jesse James’ adulterous indiscretion—she left. Many felt walking out was the right reaction for such an extreme violation of trust. That’s why the news that Bullock and James are now “dating” and may reconcile has caught some women off guard. More often than not, however, couples do stay together after one partner strays. In fact, if you were at a party talking to a group of people about the Bullock-James scandal when it first happened, chances are within your group were several women, their husbands nearby, who have quietly suffered Sandra’s experience. After all the heartbreak, they stayed together. Even though Bullock is a huge celebrity, an Academy Award-winning actress, countless less famous women could certainly empathize with her situation. Yet, we must ask: what would make a woman suffer such pain and humiliation but still forgive?
What happens between two people is never simple. Even when the villain admits his sins, the picture is often more complex. Jen and Chris’ story may illustrate what happens and help us better understand why women (and men when the tables are turned) stay.
Jen and Chris came into treatment after Chris had an affair. Jen always said that infidelity was a deal breaker. But here she was in my office not ready to walk out on the life she and Chris had built in the last 15 years.
Chris was a wonderful dad, a hard worker, and the life they lived was, by all measure, a good one. Why would Chris violate such a basic tenet of their oath? Through treatment Jen discovered that Chris had felt lonely and neglected for several years. Jen’s intense involvement in building her career and caring for her three children left her little time and energy to show her husband the love and affection he craved. Whenever Chris attempted to talk to Jen about his feelings, she was unable to truly listen, overwhelmed with the demands of mothering her children and managing a career.
Digging deeper, both discovered that their childhood experiences affected how they coped with stress and interacted with each other. Jen, whose mother was an alcoholic, buried herself in her work, a defense mechanism to avoid pain and intimacy. Whatever love and emotional presence she could conjure was reserved for her children. Chris’ parents divorced when he was 15, the culmination of a relationship loaded with conflict and anger. Because of this legacy, Chris was afraid of his own anger and did not know how to express his frustrations effectively. His anger festered and transformed into a destructive act—his affair.
While leaving may have been Jen’s first response, after she and Chris shared their thoughts and feelings, they began to communicate more effectively. Jen decided to stay.
No matter which celebrity break up dominates the headlines—Bullock and James, the Gores, the Edwards, even Mel Gibson and his former wife, Robyn, (above) who have remained close—only the parties involved know what factors ultimately force the decision to stay or go. More times than not, however, the couple decides to give it another try. Here are five reasons why:
1. An affair isn’t just an affair.
Most couple therapists agree: the affair is not just an affair. Straying outside the relationship is a symptom that something is profoundly amiss. While it is a challenge to work up sympathy for an adulterer, often men cheat because of their emotional and sexual frustrations with their wives. Much of the time, the affair is an acting-out resulting from feelings of deprivation and anger. In a sense, the affair calls attention to a dynamic within the couple that leaves both unsatisfied.
Even with emotional issues between couples, many manage to maintain a “functional dysfunction.” The practical and material aspects of life together remain intact and strong. Children are raised lovingly, careers flourish, and future goals are set. The couple share similar values, work hard, and are devoted to their children. (Bullock has said she misses “mothering” Jesse’s children, including his youngest daughter, Sunny). Both share a vision of what constitutes a successful life, an aspect of which is an intact family. The pain they would cause their children and themselves by separating stops many women from leaving. The threat of losing the most cherished aspects of their lives—a shared family life and home—forces women to reconsider walking out the door.
3. Love is all there is.
Many women scorned hate to admit it, but immense pain and betrayal they feel is rooted in true feelings of love for their husbands, a feeling that survives even the greatest violation. Many women realize that the connection that brought the couple together in the first place is still there. (Bullock has told friends that Jesse is “the love of her life.”) Love may be tangled in feelings of anger and betrayal, yet with work and effort there is potential to work through the feelings and reconnect.
Somehow we manage to find a partner with whom we relive unresolved disappointments rooted in the first loves of our lives—our parents. It is often uncanny how we manage to recreate and relive our old hurts. If we recognize this and take a stance of reciprocal healing with our partner, there is potential for growth and clearing these emotional hurdles.
5. A better love, a richer life.
The affair, with all its destructiveness, can point to the underlying layers of emotional dissatisfaction and estrangement. If we dare look carefully, delve into the range of feelings, layers of complexity and dedicate time and work to the venture of creating a strong relationship, the affair could become, in retrospect, the trigger to the solution of the problems that have unwittingly plagued the couple.
If couples can find a way to put their feelings into words, to heal the wounds that have been inflicted, many can overcome the breach and move forward to a healthier, more fulfilling relationship.
Michal Tziyon is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice. Her website is www.nypsychotherapy-mtziyon.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.