March 13, 2004


My last column celebrating women who have affairs generated a lot of criticism, but I stand by its essential message: A woman's heroic journey often involves making decisions that are frightening to contemplate or that will assuredly invoke disapproval from those close to them.


Too often, however, they become passive when they ought to get out.


A case in point: My patient who defers to her daughter when contemplating whether she should leave the husband she is so unhappy with.


When this mother asked her 11-year-old, "So what do you want to do?" it was a loaded inquiry.


The daughter didn't want to leave with her mother, didn't want to leave home, didn't want to leave dad. "I want both my parents in my life, she said. "When I'm 18, you can go."


Then the real torrent began: "All my friends whose parents have split, it's a mess. I don't need to be running between two houses. Just wait till I'm gone, and I sure will be."


Teenagers, like adults, don't like contemplating an unknown future. But in this particular case, it is the mother who is especially terrified of the unknown.


Her marriage isn't meeting any of her hopes and dreams; she hasn't had sex in a number of years, and whenever she alludes to moments of sharing and laughter, it is a wistful memory.


She pushes for her daughter's approval, but only a bit and with oddly formal language: "We don't share the marital bed any more. You know that."


"Oh mom, TMI." (Too much information).


She feels she still deserves a chance for happiness, and she knows that will only come by leaving her husband and starting anew. But why does she need her daughter to reinforce her own determination?


For many of us, passivity may rule resolution; old patterns anchor behaviour more than future initiative. So she remains within the flawed marriage, sticking close to her now mightily apprehensive daughter.


For another of my patients, maintaining the status quo meets another deeply unconscious need.


Her version of the slow dance to freedom takes place in the therapist's office. Here, resolutions are made, changes are promised. It all sounds great in the sessions, but once she's out of the office, the sniping with her husband starts again.


It's true: She doesn't trust him any more, and he does her the favour of constantly validating her suspicions. The telltale e-mail messages chronicling an affair continue to surface -- no digging required. While she maintains that she'll leave him right after the next batch of relatives leaves, or after the next birthday, or after the next vacation with friends, she hangs on to hopes that she can rewrite the marital contract and wipe out all the mistrust and betrayal. She has her entire life invested in a dream gone bad.


But one of the couples I care for recently proved the status quo theory wrong. Hope can triumph over experience. Like my husband and me, they came to their relationship skittish and battle-scarred. When we decided to merge our lives, we ran a gauntlet of fire, putting on backpacks and setting out on the Appalachian Trail for a 1,500-kilometre, three-month trek. At the end of that journey, we knew we could go ahead together.


This couple made the same decision. With lots of counselling along the way, they took the risk and combined their two households. She moved in with him, and space was made for all her worldly goods.


But once in, her lifelong anxieties made for a rocky spell. Feeling trapped, she found the house too dark, the kitchen too small. He, on the other hand, was struggling with a slump in his business, and like all entrepreneurs whose anxiety is inversely proportional to the amount of money in the bank, he was counting on her to provide him a safe harbour.


But instead of retreating into his usual pattern of silence and withdrawal, he sat down one night and drew up a plan to offset her fears. He bought lights. He reconfigured a work space for her in the sunny corner of the living room. He cleared more drawer space. And in their sessions with the therapist, he restated his commitment to doing everything necessary -- everything -- to make their relationship work. It may have been that she was coming around anyway. It may have been that all that therapy was coming together. It may have been that his actions were essential and necessary.


As the 11-year-old might say, "Whatever !" It worked. It is indeed risky this business of finding the right way.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.