“What happens when the vulnerability he’s feeling is about something in the marriage itself—an issue he does not know how to bring up with his wife?”
Q: My husband and I have been in therapy because he’s been having emotional affairs with other women online. He does not meet these women in person but I, of course, am deeply hurt by his behavior. To be honest, I’m not too impressed with the couple therapy we’re getting and I’m not sure his individual therapist is helping him understand why he keeps doing this. I wonder if you have worked with these kinds of problems and what you might suggest.
The internet was a boon to global communication, online commerce, and instant access to knowledge, but it also has been filling therapists offices with concerns like the one you wrote me about. I would not presume in a brief written response to be able to address all the complexities of your situation, but I can share some things I commonly see in these situations.
First, most men are still raised to be uncomfortable talking about vulnerable emotions. Most see emotions as unmanly or a sign of weakness. Men usually expect women to help them talk about such emotions. If a marriage is doing well—that is, if it has a capacity for a deep and confiding intimacy—then a man may feel his wife fulfills his need for talking about difficult emotions. The problem is that expecting one person—his wife—to be able to handle all of his vulnerability puts too much pressure on that relationship.
What happens when the vulnerability he’s feeling is about something in the marriage itself—an issue he does not know how to bring up with his wife? This is when some men turn to other women, often convincing themselves that as long as it’s just an online relationship without sex then it’s no big deal. These relationships are deliberately hidden from his wife, so even though he tries to minimize it, he is aware that they are a form of infidelity.
The question I often ask men like your husband is: “Do you have male friends in your life in whom you can confide difficult life issues or feelings?” Almost always, the answer is, “No.” Heterosexual women need other women to talk with when they are feeling challenged in their marriages. The same is true of heterosexual men, but few men have developed friendships with enough depth to handle deep and vulnerable conversation. Therefore, when they don’t know where to turn, some men turn to other women, either in-person or via texting or online chats.
I sometimes tell the men who consult me with marriage issues that when I run a concern about my wife by my most-trusted guy friend, he almost always says, “Let’s look at this from her point of view.” That’s the kind of friend every married person needs. It’s easy for a man’s friends to say, “Yeah, women are just a pain sometimes” or for a married woman’s friends to say, “Men, they just don’t get it!” A deeper friend will listen to me with empathy, but also challenge me to see my partner’s perspective. (I’m thinking here of typical marital stresses that affect most couples, not physically or emotionally abusive behavior.)
When I meet with couples who present with the kind of pattern you’re describing, I help them re-establish trust by building a deeper, more confiding relationship with each other. I invite them to show up daily to a conversation that’s more intimate than “How was your day?” Other questions go deeper and build a stronger connection: “What was a highlight of your day?” or “What felt difficult for you today?” or “Where did you feel joy today?” These questions convey a deeper sense of wanting to know a partner’s inner world more intimately and desiring to walk through life together in a more deeply connected way.
Many couples need a lot of help learning to break out of habitual patterns of being volatile or reactive when upset or withdrawing from even mild possibilities of tension. Trying to avoid the difficult parts of relationships, or escalating about them on a frequent basis, increases the possibility that one or both partners will seek companionship or understanding elsewhere.
If you and your husband decide to find a new couple therapist, I recommend someone who is well versed in the work of both John Gottman and Susan Johnson. I suggest you interview therapists on the phone before visiting them. Ask them if they use Gottman’s work and if they are familiar with Johnson’s important ideas about secure attachment. It wouldn’t hurt to Google these two important experts to learn more about their ideas to help you select a therapist. If you know more about these experts than the counselor, keep looking!