I opened the counselling session with one of my usual questions to the couple: “How have things been?”
The wife did not answer first; she wanted to see how her husband would respond.
He paused and thoughtfully said, “Overall, things are better. We are improving, but we are still quarrelling.”
To appreciate his response, we need to see what brought them for counselling. They had come for help because of an extra-marital relationship on the husband’s part. Remorseful, he had sought forgiveness and asked for another chance. His wife wanted to be able to trust he could be faithful again and to heal from the profound hurt.
With respect to these desired outcomes, they were making reasonable progress—the wife felt more secure when her husband had to stay back late for work and they quarrelled less around rehashing the why’s and wherefore’s of his affair.
Their current quarrels had to do more with patterns in their marriage that preceded the affair.
As the main breadwinner, the husband expected to have the major say in matters of the family and home even though he was less in touch with their children’s schooling and well-being. His “involvement” unfortunately tended to be expressed in impatient criticisms of his wife’s role as a mother. In addition, the husband did not welcome any comments about his work. Although both work in the same industry, he, being in a more senior role, would snap at her when questioned about his work practices, such as frequent socialising after work. His retort took the form of challenging her intelligence and understanding about the “ways of the world”.
The husband’s response to the persistence of these robust discussions was rather positive. He engaged to explain that his brash responses were rooted in his impulsive character and his family’s style of communicating. Moreover, they were reinforced by work practices that required him to bark orders. They were not expressions of his disregard for his wife’s views or feelings.
His clear explanations were met with an equally clear reply: “But I let you know I would not put up with this anymore.” She made a stand about not having her opinion swept aside without any due consideration.
At this point, I quickly weighed in with two points. Firstly, the frankness and clarity of their exchange, done in a respectful fashion, was a positive development. Moving forward, this ability and commitment to discuss differences openly would help keep their relationship strong. Secondly, this topic, though different from the infidelity, is also related. The husband’s past disregard for his wife’s feelings showed he felt entitled to focus exclusively on his feelings and needs. His sense of importance and entitlement opened a door for his transgressions to slip through.
With this understanding, their marriage must no longer be based on who is better, smarter or earns more, and can therefore dominate over the other. Instead it has to be based on mutual respect.
Although this couple will still have prickly conversations from time to time, I am confident that they are on the right track. Their willingness and ability to work through differences will build the foundation for a stronger marriage.
Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
Picture by junce/Bigstock.com