Clark and Cathy called you asking for an emergency meeting. Cathy had just learned that Clark has been having an affair with a co-worker for at least the last 8 months. Fortunately, the kids are with their grandparents this week, but they will be back in 2 days. Neither Cathy nor Clark have any idea what to tell the kids.

The first meeting felt like a whirlwind. Cathy wasn’t sure if she should ask Clark to quit his job, move out, if she should move in with her parents, or try to act like things was normal for the sake of the kids. Clark ebbed and flowed between being tearfully sorry, defensive, offering to do “whatever it takes,” and asking Cathy to “just be reasonable.”

The first meeting was staccato. Some of the story would begin to be told about how the infidelity came to light and then a series of immediate decisions would be thrust to the forefront of the conversation. Then a little more of the marriage history would begin to be told before giving way to a litany of rhetorical questions from Cathy about whether their marriage, the kids, or key events in their marriage meant anything to Clark.

You interjected to try to maintain as much order as you could. You were torn between gathering information about the marriage and helping them think through pressing decisions that will be made in the hours and days ahead. You needed more information to be helpful, but both the information you’re getting and the conversation within which you’re getting it seemed incredibly slippery.

At the end of the first meeting asking more questions seemed like it would only add to the volatility of the situation rather than bringing clarity or direction. You move your calendar around to have a second meeting the next day. For that meeting, you identify three key questions to answer:

(a) whether immediate living arrangements will be changed for either Cathy or Clark,
(b) what Cathy and Clark will tell their children and parents at this juncture, and
(c) whether Cathy has enough information to make more than highly short-term decisions.

You begin the second meeting by recounting as much of the history of the marriage and infidelity as you were able to glean from the first meeting. In the first meeting, it was hard to tell what information was true, felt, or inferred. You use this review process to determine how much solid information you currently have.

  • Both Cathy and Clark attest that their marriage has generally happy for the first 6 years.
  • For much of the marriage Cathy was uneasy with how much time and energy Clark put into his work.
  • Cathy never suspected that Clark would have an affair. She is as shocked as she is angry.
  • About a year ago Clark’s time at the office began to increase. Several new accounts were opening, and the family income was increasing, so Cathy just thought it was a work-family balance issue.
  • Then about 6 months ago “Clark changed.” He traveled more for work, he had to take more private phone calls when he was at home, and he was “absent” more even when they were together.
  • At that time, when Cathy asked, Clark said it was pressure he felt from the bigger deals he was getting at work.
  • For the first time in their relationship, Cathy started feeling insecure and suspicious. Clark vacillated between being caring towards Cathy’s concerns and implying that Cathy was being paranoid.
  • Finally, this week, Clark accidentally left his email open on the home computer. Cathy read and forwarded to herself many emails that made it clear Clark was having an affair. She reminded Clark she has digital and printed copies.
  • When Cathy confronted Clark, he initially denied the affair. Once it was clear he was caught, he accused Cathy of spying on him and being a controlling wife. When neither of these approaches averted her attention, he talked like he was the victim – what would this mean for work, what the kids thought of him, what would he tell her?
  • That’s when they called you. The first meeting was slightly more productive than their circuitous conversations at home, but gave them little hope that either of them would know what they wanted before the children came home, which seemed like a ticking time bomb in the background of the counseling sessions.

After your summary, Cathy interjected a list of questions she wanted answered. Clark made her questions seem unreasonable by implying she was asking for sordid details that would only hurt her and serve to further shame him. Clark threatened to “just leave and never come back” if that is what Cathy wanted. You used that to segue into the other two agenda items of the meeting: short-term living arrangements and what to tell immediate family. That sobered the room again.

Cathy says, “I don’t know enough to make those kinds of decisions. You’ve seen how he responds to my questions. How are we supposed to make decisions when he holds all the information?” Clark retorts, “Information?!? You hold all the power. You can ruin my reputation, make the kids hate me, and sink the business that supports both of us if you pursue a divorce.” The conversation starts to feel slippery again.

You realize that major decisions will begin to be made this afternoon when the grandparents arrive with the children, which is now only a few hours away. You bring this to Cathy and Clark’s attention and say, “The two of you are about to make some of the most influential decisions of your life. You’re going to make them without adequate information and in a heightened emotional state. That is far from ideal. But in a matter of hours, you will be greeting your children. You don’t want to impromptu that interaction. Can we focus on two things? First, what you are going to do about living arrangements and what you will tell the kids. Second, how we can begin ensure both of you are making decisions with adequate information for choices of this significance.”

Clark and Cathy muster enough maturity to embrace the pressing need to prepare for their children’s return. The decision is made that no immediate change will be made in living arrangements, but that Clark will sleep in the guest bedroom. Clark agrees to disclose to his parents what he has done, so that he can go to their house if arguments between he and Cathy become a disruption to the children. They agree they should wait to tell the children anything until they have more decisions themselves, so they can be consistent in how they respond to obvious questions the children are likely to ask.

With this established, you begin to prepare them for the third meeting. You assign homework to Clark to begin the preparation for a full disclosure and to Cathy to prepare for receiving the things she will hear. The second meeting ends with a weighty sense of things being unresolved.

Case Study Discussion

This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar A Case Study on Marriage Counseling After an Affair.” The webinar will be Thursday April 29th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.

These are great events for:

  • Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
  • Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
  • Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
  • Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
  • Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times