Helping you ... Helping yourself

CAITLIN AND GREG: An Interview with a Couple Who Came Back From the Brink of Divorce

By Lynne Foote MA, LPC

I interviewed Caitlin and Greg (their names have been changed to protect confidentiality), a couple who have been together for 33 years, because this is a story of two people who found their way back from the brink of divorce. I worked with them over the course of only three months and was moved by the way they reclaimed their marriage and also by the courage each had to face their own part in the Dance. Their process was truly transformational and my hope is that this interview will help other couples who are suffering in their own version of a dysfunctional connection and facing the possibility of divorce. Perhaps Caitlin and Greg will encourage you to find a way to forge a more secure bond in the next chapter of your lives.

Greg came to me initially because his wife discovered him surfing the internet for porn. This time she reached her breaking point. Greg recognized this, as you will see here, and called me for individual therapy. After only two sessions, because he could clearly recognize his role in the dance and because of his determination to save his marriage, we shifted to couples' counseling. Caitlin came in wary but hopeful. Together, we were able to discover the negative cycle that they were caught in and also how to change the steps in their dance.

Greg had withdrawn from Caitlin because he was not comfortable with emotional confrontation. He began to realize how he had been shutting Caitlin out of his world. Caitlin felt this as a rejection and tried desperately, and in many different ways, to find a connection with Greg. But the fear that she was losing her husband put a critical and blaming tone on her attempts to connect. This critical tone drove Greg even further away, into his own world, which made Caitlin feel more desperate, and thus their negative cycle was born. What cracked this negative cycle was when Greg saw how his choice to view online porn, and the deception he needed to protect this secret world, was profoundly hurting Caitlin.

And it was Caitlin's amazing ability to forgive Greg, letting him back into her heart, and her choice to begin the process of rebuilding trust with him, that completed this transformational process. In my work with couples over the past 25 years, I have been witness to the various ways that couples get stuck and trapped in their negative dance. This negative cycle blocks their bids for connection and buries the love they share under layers of hurt, disappointment, rejection, and fear. This is how one couple found their way back to each other.

Lynne to Greg: What brought you to therapy?

Greg: My wife was going to leave me if I didn't get some help. Like a big bang, a gut kick, this hit me so hard. I never felt like that before. I saw that the life that I wanted, with the mate that I wanted, was about to disappear. Desperate people take desperate actions I guess. Going to a therapist was a desperate action.

Lynne: Why was your wife threatening to end the marriage?

Greg: I was caught surfing the net for porn and had promised it would not happen again. I was caught for the third time.

Lynne: What was going on those first two times of getting caught, and yet you didn't stop?

Greg: I just didn't take it seriously. I didn't take it as a serious threat to my marriage. I just thought it was a frivolous endeavor on my part. I wasn't seeing the damage that it was doing to Caitlin until the shock of her catching me the third time and then this put our marriage in serious jeopardy.

Lynne to Caitlin: What was different for you this third time?

Caitlin: There was a difference the third time. The second time he promised, "Never again, I promise you." I didn't feel like he had changed and I asked him over and over if he had stopped and he would get very very angry and defensive. So the last time I actually saw the page, I just told him that this is it. "You either get help or this can't go on anymore."

Greg: I think the trust factor was also affected by the on-again, off-again smoking that I was doing. I smoked for 20 years and I was quitting for 10 of those and she was constantly asking me, "You've had a cigarette haven't you?" And I'd deny it. Again, it was just a function of my self-centeredness. The marriage was in trouble anyway because we weren't talking directly to each other. We would have eventually reached a breaking point, even without the porn.

Lynne to Greg: What happened that day that Caitlin saw the porn that third time?

Greg: It was not even verbal. Seeing the shock on her face, I knew that what I had done had hurt her so deeply. The pornography was secondary. The trust was broken so plainly and I could read that in her face and that is what hurt me. I seldom shed a tear. I am not that emotionally connected but I cried that day for what I had been doing to her.

Lynne: Did you cry with Caitlin?

Greg: I cried in front of Caitlin. She was totally alienated at that point.

Lynne: Can you describe in more detail what that moment was like when Caitlin walked in that third time?

Greg: It just represented the total loss of "us" and I saw clearly that I had taken so much for granted. I justified it by being a good provider. It is almost hard to say. It was like being in shock with the realization that I have effectively ended my marriage unless I do something significantly different. I started to look back at all of the things I should have been doing. I was a good provider, a good father, but I was a lousy husband. I just wasn't in the present with her and somehow I figured that out fairly quickly.

Lynne: My sense is that this time was different for you because Caitlin had clearly reached her breaking point.

Greg: All that I could think was that she has reached her breaking point and I have caused that.

Lynne: What do you understand about your choice to watch porn?

Greg: There was a certain thrill to it. And I was thinking that this was my thing so it shouldn't affect her. She should understand that we each have a separate part of our lives. But what she showed me was that we don't have separate lives, and that we are in this together. And then I realized, because of a selfish pleasure, I was turning away from her.

Lynne: In those early therapy sessions, were there any critical turning points for you?

Greg: That's a very good question. I think it was more of an evolution. I knew that what I had done was wrong but the bigger picture was that I didn't want to lose Caitlin. Going into our separate circles was not the way to do it. She would tell me something, and I would hear that. I would tell her something, and she would hear that. And then we would go on our separate paths. We didn't confront issues like we used to. We had just become separate lives, primarily because of me. She was left on her own while I was off doing my thing. The evolution of seeing that came when, in my individual therapy sessions, we started to look at the patterns of our disconnection. The surprise for me was that when I came here, I wasn't judged or criticized and I got in touch with what I was truly feeling. I saw that I was free to end my marriage, this was an option that I had, and I got to choose. I chose the option of making my marriage better.

Lynne: I want to back up to something you said earlier. You said that there was a gulf between the two of you and that you were relatively comfortable with it. So the porn for you was your thing and you thought that it shouldn't really affect Caitlin. There was a way that you were living in a kind of separation. So when Caitlin would ask you about this….

Greg: It was like she was invading my space.

Lynne: So on some level you didn't feel like you were deceiving her. It was more like "get out of my space". But in that wakeup moment what you saw was "this is my wife!" and she is coming to me and she is hurting and I am not there for her. I am not showing up, and in fact this whole secret world is a violation to her.

Greg: I realized that if I didn't change, then I had no right to expect anything different from her. Instead of assigning blame, I accepted responsibility for my own behaviors and actions. I had to divorce myself from the same old me. And that's what has started to make all of the difference.

Lynne: So with the wakeup call that you could lose your marriage, you saw the value of Caitlin.

Greg: I had to reflect on what do I really want out of this life? Now that the kids are grown, I was looking at how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I chose a long time ago to spend it with Caitlin but I saw that I hadn't been nurturing this, tending to this.

Lynne to Caitlin: When you discovered the porn, what happened for you?

Caitlin: When he describes my face, I can still feel it. I know what I must have looked like….extreme sadness, disappointment, done. I just couldn't do it anymore. I tried so hard the first and the second time to believe him when he said he would stop but he was becoming more and more isolated. He would spend all weekend in the basement watching sports. I would go down there and I felt like I was violating his space. Every attempt at discussion would be pushed back with extreme anger. And so when I saw those image on his computer for the third time, I thought," This is just not going to be resolved and we are going nowhere but down."

Lynne: I wasn't working with you during this time, would you describe what you went through?

Caitlin: I told him that he had to find help and that he had to fix this. I tried for almost 30 years and I finally owned that I couldn't fix this. And I told him that if he didn't get someone to help him that we were done because I was just emotionally spent, worn down, and so tired.

Lynne: Because you didn't know what he would do, what were you feeling?

Caitlin: I just felt lost. This is my second marriage. I have been through a tough time before. I felt lost, disappointed. It was just gut wrenching. I was totally empty.

Lynne: And what did you do?

Caitlin: I left the house, which I don't normally do. I usually stay. I just had to get out.

Lynne: Did you seek friends?

Caitlin: No, I didn't. This is a personal matter so I don't do that. I drove to the Casino in Black Hawk. I love the drive. I just sat there. I remember some people up there saying: "are you alright?" I was in a daze, a total fog. I guess I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. How would we split things? Because I had tried to get him into couples counseling year after year, and he refused, I went to my own therapist to try to break the patterns. It doesn't work. One person can't fix two. I didn't think he would call anyone. When I came home, he showed me that he had called you and made an appointment and that really made a huge difference to me. Huge. He took the step he needed to take. When he saw you that first time, he came home and cried and apologized to me. After just one visit with you, it opened him up, which is not something that happens easily with him at all. I felt very good that day that he had finally understood the point I was trying to make for so many years. The words came out of his mouth and were truly, truly meant.

Lynne: What was he saying?

Caitlin: He just said, "I have been taking you for granted. I have been treating you badly. I am very sorry. You don't deserve that." He said, "I want to be a better man and I am going to be a better man. I haven't been a good husband and I am going to be a good husband. And we are going to stay together and I am going to make sure of that." With this, I felt a huge burden fall off my shoulders. For years I questioned: how can I approach him? How can I make him understand without him getting angry?

Lynne to Greg : When you came home after that first session and went to Caitlin from a place of vulnerability and openness, and what to me is especially important, owning your part in the dance, what did you experience?

Greg: I came to the realization that I wasn't a committed partner. I was coming to realize that I was very isolated, and on my own path. What I really wanted out of life was a real partnership. I saw that there is no magic in marriage. The magic in marriage comes from within oneself. It doesn't come from your partner. I always expected that something magical would happen because I love this woman. For some reason I had lost track of the effort that I needed to put in to keeping our connection strong. I knew that I had to build the marriage regardless of what she did. She is a good wife, obviously for putting up with what she did for so long.

Lynne: What you were seeing is that you had gone too far into your own world, and that you had not been a good husband to your wife. That day after our first session, when you went to Caitlin in your vulnerability, what was it like to turn to Caitlin in that vulnerability?

Greg: It was scary. It's almost a cliché but I didn't feel worthy. The more she fed back that it was ok that I was on a path, the more I felt like I could open and let down my radar because she was accepting. I knew that if I didn't start to show my true self then she had every right to say goodbye.

Lynne: When he came home from the first session, what was different for you Caitlin?

Caitlin: The words. He would never have said anything like that before. I felt like he finally got it and that's what I heard. He said that he was not going to lose me. He showed me his next appointment with you and I knew he was serious. And he really did seem different. For years he had this wall up that I just couldn't break through but the wall wasn't there. And he seemed relieved, unburdened.

Greg: I was shocked that I could cause that kind of pain in somebody that I loved.

Lynne: What that shock did was take you down into a very raw place and you knew that you couldn't argue your way out of this, fake your way out of this. You didn't know how to fix this but you went to Caitlin in your rawness, without a plan. And Caitlin, what you saw was that his wall was down and you knew that something was very different here.

Caitlin: I finally had hope. I had hope after all these years that we could be a couple again, like the way we started out. Of course it is different. We have had kids, careers. But I always wanted the closeness. I wanted a husband. I didn't want to live a separate life. I love him. But I didn't know I would ever have hope again and hope was there, and relief.

Greg: Early in our marriage, my career was not so important and we didn't have kids so the focus was husband and wife. But as focus became career and parenting, we lost the husband and wife piece. And that was the hard part. We have both done well as individuals and parents but at the end of the day it is just going to be "us" again.

Caitlin: One thing that you said to me the other day is that you realized that you had become extremely selfish.

Greg: This selfishness served me in my work life. But it does not serve me in my home life.

Lynne: How has couples' counseling helped you?

Greg: There is much more ease and relaxation between us. Caitlin is more open. In the past, when she would say: "close the refrigerator", I would feel criticized. When I came to her after that first session and felt forgiven, all of a sudden everything that came out of her mouth didn't sound like a criticism.

Caitlin: Also, I changed how I approached you with things because I was sharper in my tone than I needed to be because of my desperation level and my sadness. I was just sad.

Greg: You weren't sure what you were going to get back in response.

Caitlin: No, I didn't. I was always on edge. I was anxious about how my words were going to be perceived, no matter how I phrased it. You were always angry. Now I know more about how to speak and how to approach you.

Greg: There wasn't a lot of overt anger between us. We had our disagreements but we would automatically settle back into our separate lives. Now we are trying to settle back into our joint life.

Caitlin: Yeah. You don't have that wall up, that attitude of "oh here she comes" as soon as I walk into the room. We had a disagreement last week about something or other and he actually came to me and said, "Let's talk." That is a first. I mean that never would have gone on before. It takes two people to plug along to keep this going and we have to be helping each other out and resolving the issue.

Lynne: So Caitlin, when Greg came to you from that raw place, even in all of your pain, you knew something was different. You loved Greg and didn't want to end the marriage but you couldn't go another step further with it as it was. All of a sudden there was a hope that something could be different. This hope allowed a kind of softening in you. When you felt this softening, Greg, you felt more safe. You were still dealing with the guilt of the pain you had caused Caitlin but rather than get lost in this guilt, you realized that you needed to show up more for Caitlin. You didn't know exactly how to do this but you began to show up in a less self-centered way. With Greg being more present, it became safer for you, Caitlin, to stay open, to approach him more softly, and not be critical, which in turn allowed you, Greg, to stay engaged. So what you both have been doing is fostering a more secure bond. Greg, you had to be willing to own your part in this dance, and you had to be willing to go to Caitlin in that open vulnerability. Because Caitlin, if he had come to you rationally, what would have happened?

Caitlin: The same thing that always happened. He always handled it like it was a court proceeding and he was an attorney, laying out the facts the way they were. Even his demeanor was staunch and sitting upright, taking a powerful stance. If he had approached me like that, it would have gone nowhere, nowhere at all.

Lynne: Why?

Caitlin: It wouldn't have been true. It would have been the same old preparation in advance. He would be defending himself and the wall would be there and "that's just the way it is going to be and don't you dare come through this wall. You have no right to, so step back." That's how it went every single time.

Greg: If you remember the first time Caitlin came to a couples' session, I was promising to be open to her and in the present whether she needed me or not. Those were the two things that I realized were missing: I wasn't open and I was quick to my response, " ok, you got what you want, now leave me alone." I wasn't in the present moment with her because she would have a 5 minute conversation with me and I would retain two or three words. That was the hard part: if we were truly going to be partners, then I couldn't fall into a self protected, withdrawn mode. I didn't need protection, I needed to be in the present with her. I am working on this. It is still not perfect but I will continue to work on that because I know that that is what is needed.

Caitlin: When he walked in the door after that first session with you, it was like that coat of armor had cracked and fallen open and he came out.

Lynne: What direction are you both going now? What does the future hold?

Greg: It is certainly a vigilance to keep an open communication. I have enough experience to know that we are not going to spend the next thirty years agreeing on everything. She is going to do things that irritate me. I'm going to do things that irritate her. But now we are in this together so what you do affects me, and me, you. Now we are committed to sitting down and talking about it. She was always better at this than me but I am getting there.

Caitlin: Right. I am no longer on my island, by myself.

Greg: And you never will be.

Caitlin: We just seem to be able to communicate better. He doesn't just walk out into the other room. He doesn't do that anymore.

Lynne: Just a couple more questions. What were the aspects of couple's therapy that really made a difference?

Greg: To me it was the explanation of the tennis match analogy. She would serve up something that I would take as a criticism and I would back off and push back at her. Her reaction to the isolation was to fight back and to resist my withdrawing, but we were only getting further and further apart. I found that we need to stop assuming what the other person is saying. We need to sit down and really hear each other.

Caitlin: You were assuming I was saying something that I really wasn't saying, right? But also for me it was the analogy of my needing to be more open to things. It takes two. I needed to change how I approach things.

Greg: But you couldn't change until you were trusting that I was open to you.

Caitlin: Right. But when I knew that that was happening, then I learned to approach him more softly. It is not about attacking or reprimanding him. It's about talking with your partner.

Greg: It is not about winning. It is not about "I'm right; you're wrong".

Lynne: What would you want a couple in your situation to know?

Greg: What I would want them to know is that it is not easy. It is a leap of faith that you can admit to your errors but if there is forgiveness, it makes all the difference in the world. This allows you to be more open, which in turn allows your spouse to know that she is important. Being ‘right" is no longer important.

Lynne: Are you talking about your own self forgiveness first?

Greg: No, I couldn't have felt self forgiveness without her forgiving me because of what I had seen on her face and the pain that I had caused her. She in turn, opened up and had hope in spite of what I had done, which I didn't feel like I deserved. I needed to own it, to open up and admit that I had hurt you and that I deeply apologize for this. Her forgiveness and softening caused me to open up even more so. When the armor fell off, that was a slight opening. But her continuing to open and forgive was like a nuclear reaction.

Caitlin: I am not going to lie about it being all sunshine and roses when the armor fell off. I felt sadness for the time that has been lost. And I felt frustrated that all my efforts to fix it didn't fix it after all those years. I felt robbed of such a huge portion of my life with him so I went through some mourning. I never felt: "see I was right." I just feel relief because it is not about being right or wrong. You would think I would feel that but I don't and that is a good thing.

Greg: She was locked into that approach as long as I was doing my part (of the dance).

Lynne: Greg is talking about not winning the war. It is not about being right. It's about being connected. The trump card for you is that connection with Greg, that openness, is so much sweeter now than being right.

Caitlin: yes, definitely. And that I attribute to your help and not allowing us to even travel down that road.

Lynne: any final comments?

Caitlin to Greg: I have to say that you are seriously changing.

Greg: It took me a while to grow up.

Caitlin: You are trying every single day.

Greg: I never realized so much of the work is inner rather than outer. You can't put a broken part in a machine and expect it to work well.

Lynne: Is there anything else?

Greg: We will come back to see you if we hit any roadblocks. But it is safe to say that we have not been this close, maybe forever.

Caitlin: that's right, maybe forever.

Greg: this is clearly the way we want to ride off into the sunset.

Your feedback and ideas are welcome.

Contact Lynne Foote

Phone: 303-447-2987


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