“Then he should be able to help you,” Rob commented.
“How so?” Ana pretended not to get the unflattering innuendo. “I’ve already broken up with Michael.”
“Yeah, but if he comes to get you, which he still might since I don’t think we’ve heard the last of him yet, I’m not sure that you won’t leave me for him again. Besides, there’s so much damage this affair’s done to our marriage. We don’t really know how to fix it. If left to our own devices, we’ll just go back to ignoring each other.”
Ana directed him a skeptical glance: “And you really believe that paying a shrink two hundred bucks an hour to tell us that we’re in love with our parents will fix all our problems?”
Rob took Ana’s cool hand into his. For the first time since she could remember, he chivalrously helped her out of the car. “This isn’t just about us.” His gaze shifted nervously. “I can’t even look my own parents and colleagues in the eye, given what you’ve done to me. At least now I’ll be able to tell them that we’re making some genuine effort to work on our marriage with a professional therapist. Otherwise, I’ll look like a chump who doesn’t have the guts to break up with his two-timing wife.”
Ana contemplated her husband’s statement as they climbed down the staircase that led them out of the garage. “I didn’t think you cared so much about appearances,” she said, without masking her disappointment.
“Yeah, well, you’d care more too if you had gone through the humiliation I have. But you’re incapable of putting yourself in my shoes,” Rob reproached her.
“It’s not like your colleagues necessarily have more empathy than I do,” Ana countered. “And I feel terrible about what I did. That’s part of why I changed my mind. But, frankly, I don’t care about what your colleagues and their secretaries think,” she stuck to her original point. “Ultimately, it’s our lives, not theirs. We’d be the ones to suffer had we separated. And we’ll be the ones to suffer if we stay together and our marriage is unhappy.”
“That’s the whole point of therapy,” Rob took her argument in the opposite direction. “I don’t want to stay in an unhappy marriage. And obviously neither do you. We need to work together to improve our relationship.”
“I agree,” Ana replied looking directly into her husband’s eyes as she squeezed his hand in solidarity. “But I seriously doubt that a shrink can help us,” she reverted like a spring to her initial prejudice.
“Dr. Emmert is an experienced marriage counselor, not just any therapist,” Rob defended the psychiatrist, who had been highly recommended by two of his colleagues at Ford Motor Company. “We’re here,” he opened the gilded front door of a tall, posh-looking building.
Ana stepped in first. “This is like a mini skyscraper. For Ann Arbor, at least,” she remarked, being easily impressed by the air of opulence.
“His office is on the fifth floor,” Rob pressed the elevator button.
“Promise me that if we don’t get anything out of this session, we won’t schedule another one,” Ana whispered into her husband’s ear once they stepped out into the hallway. She paused before the mirror outside the psychiatrist’s office to adjust her hair.
“I promise,” Rob agreed, since he wasn’t a proponent of throwing money out the window either. “And you, in turn, promise me that you won’t try to seduce him,” he said, noticing that his wife was applying a fresh layer of lipstick.
“When do I ever?”
“Don’t get me started on that!” Rob warned her. “I’ve seen how you behave with clients at your gallery. You always try to draw men into your orbit.”
“That’s not …” Ana was about to object, but she didn’t get the chance to finish her sentence since the therapist opened the door.
“Please come in,” Dr. Emmert invited the couple into his office. Ana noticed that he was tall, younger than she had anticipated and, somehow, less German looking. Stereotyping psychotherapists, she had envisioned a Freud look-alike with a white beard. Not only was the therapist more handsome than her mental picture, but also he had these large, expressive brown eyes that, ironically, reminded her of Michael.
“Hi, I’m Rob,” her husband shook hands with the psychiatrist. “And this is my wife, Ana,” he introduced her.
“Nice to meet you,” she smiled at him.
“Please make yourselves comfortable,” Dr. Emmert gestured towards the two chairs facing his desk. “So how can I be of help?”
Rob gazed briefly at his wife, to see if she wanted to begin. But Ana didn’t give any such sign. She was busy visually inspecting the room, to see what she could tell about the psychiatrist based upon the objects in his office. Not much, she decided after a brief examination. Dr. Emmert’s office was sparsely furnished: two wooden bookshelves filled with books on developmental and child psychology; a chair that didn’t look particularly imperial; no fancy Persian rugs like she had expected; a computer and no ornaments on his desk whatsoever. One of these days I’ll have to bring him a couple of Moldavian vases to spruce up the place a little, Ana made a mental note, as if the psychiatrist were an old friend.
“We’re here because my wife almost left me for another man,” Rob began.
Dr. Emmert nodded, encouraging him to go on. He had heard that story dozens of times before although, in all fairness to Ana, usually it was the men who cheated.
“Basically,” Rob continued, “A few weeks ago my wife informed me that she’s been having an affair. She told me that she’s in love with a man named Michael and that they want to marry. She asked for a divorce.” Rob spoke quickly as if to get the unpleasant business over with. He paused briefly, to gather the strength to continue. “At first, I was unbelievably hurt by this news. Not just for my sake, but for the whole family, especially our kids, Michelle and Allen, who are eight and nine. But after awhile,” Rob went on, “I got used to the idea of divorce. In fact, I even looked forward to having a spouse who’d treat me better than Ana did, which, I figured, wasn’t setting the bar that high. And that’s precisely when she changed her mind and told me that she wants to leave her lover and stay with me,” he pursued. “Initially, I was almost as devastated by her change of heart as by the news that she wanted to leave me. Because I wanted to start a new life with someone who wouldn’t hurt me the way she did.” He took a deep breath before completing his statement. “But I still love Ana and she claims she still loves me. We’re here because we’d like to save our marriage,” he concluded his summary.
“Okay,” the psychiatrist replied. He had listened carefully to Rob, then switched his attention to Ana, to hear her side of the story.
“Part of the problem we’re facing right now is that it will be difficult for Rob to trust me again,” she took the cue. “And even before, our marriage had serious problems. Also, emotionally speaking, I’m still not completely over my lover. He’s probably not given up on me yet either, even though we’ve broken up.”
Dr. Emmert shook his head, as if something didn’t quite mesh in these two complementary descriptions: “What’s the point of even trying to work on your marriage if you’re still in love with another man?” he asked Ana, then turned his attention once again to her husband, to observe his reaction.
“That’s what I can’t figure out either!” Rob concurred. “Frankly, I never understood why Ana changed her mind. And how do I know that she won’t change it again?”
“Can you try to answer this question?” Dr. Emmert looked directly into Ana’s eyes with his calm, penetrating gaze.
“The answer’s simple, but Rob doesn’t believe me,” she replied. “It’s because, ultimately, I still love him. It hurt too much when I tried to leave him. Plus I didn’t want to see the kids much less, since he and I would be sharing custody. I was crying every day about that,” her voice started to crack with emotion just from the recollection of those trying weeks.
“Those seemed like crocodile tears to me,” Rob remarked flatly.
“They weren’t!” she protested.
“Ana’s reasoning struck me as similar to that of the Nazi doctors,” her husband elaborated. “Some of them may have had genuine empathy for their victims, but they continued inflicting the damage. She complained every day about leaving me, but she was still going through with that decision anyway.”
“Yes, but the fact remains that I didn’t,” Ana insisted. “I couldn’t. My suffering wasn’t innocent, obviously, because I was the one causing it. Yet it was real, in that I genuinely felt it.”
“Sorry, but it was tough to feel any sympathy for you under the circumstances,” Rob retorted.
“Then why did you reconcile with her?” Dr. Emmert asked him. “Many husbands wouldn’t have, under the circumstances.”
Rob shrugged as if unsure, even though he had been contemplating this question for days. “I don’t know. Part of me believes that it’s because I have no backbone. Another part of me believes that it’s because I have this idealized image of the nuclear family.” He took a furtive look at his wife, then directed his comment to the psychiatrist. “But another part of me believes that it’s because I still love Ana. We have over ten years of history together. I also think I wanted to save her from a man I considered very dangerous for her.” As he said this, Rob enveloped his wife in a protective glance, his own pain momentarily eclipsed by a concern for her wellbeing. “I realize that I’m biased given my position as a jilted husband. But I honestly thought that she was making the biggest mistake of her life.”
“He thinks that Michael’s a horrible person.” Ana’s tone reflected skepticism rather than agreement.
“And you don’t?” Dr. Emmert asked her.
Ana shrugged. “I’m ambivalent about him. During most of our relationship, Michael treated me better than any other man. But towards the end he acted pretty badly. I couldn’t even recognize him anymore.”
“Then why didn’t you go through with your decision to leave your husband?” the psychiatrist pursued, beginning to pick at the thread of her narrative.
“Mainly because I love my family. I couldn’t build my happiness upon its destruction. Even though Rob was getting used to the idea of divorce, it still broke his heart,” she said, looking at her husband. “And mine too,” she turned again to the psychiatrist. “Our children were also pretty devastated. They’re old enough to realize what was happening and to suffer because of it. We had worked out a divorce settlement that stipulated joint custody. But kids don’t particularly enjoy being shuttled back and forth between parents.”
“How come these concerns didn’t prevent you from having the affair and asking for a divorce in the first place?” Dr. Emmert pursued.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Rob chimed in.
“Because I didn’t have them at the time,” Ana replied in all honesty. “When I first started seeing Michael, I focused mostly on what was lacking in our marriage,” she launched into the main topic of discussion she had been having with her husband. “For many years, I’ve been feeling that our marriage was sterile.” She noticed that the psychiatrist didn’t seem particularly sympathetic to her characterization. “Don’t get me wrong, Rob’s a good man and a great father,” she qualified, not wishing to seem unfair. “But as a couple, we didn’t have that much intimacy left in our marriage. I mean, for a number of years, we haven’t even slept in the same bed anymore. We also didn’t talk much, except about practical matters and the kids. For quite some time, Rob and I have been estranged. And I, for one, felt pretty hopeless about it.”
“That didn’t justify you cheating on me and leaving me for another man!” Rob interjected, his anger aroused all over again by what sounded to him like a self-serving rationalization. “Our estrangement was mutual, but I didn’t deal with it as selfishly and dishonestly as you did.”
Ana nodded. “I realize that,” she said calmly. “And I’m not trying to justify my actions. I’m just answering Dr. Emmert’s question by explaining why I was susceptible to Michael’s advances.” She hoped the psychiatrist would see that every marital crisis had two sides, even if they weren’t always equal. “For almost a year, Michael showered me with attention and affection. I mean, it’s rare to find someone who cares about you, your dreams and frustrations to the point where he wants to hear about them,” she emphasized, leaning slightly forward in her chair. Then she relaxed again, feeling deflated. “With Rob, I often had the impression that telling him about what’s on my mind was kind of like pulling teeth. And when he does communicate with me, it’s mostly out of duty. He rarely seems to enjoy it.”
“I think Ana’s exaggerating,” Rob objected, also addressing Dr. Emmert, as if they found themselves before a judge in court. “We don’t have such horrible communication, as she claims. We do talk. But I have a full time job so I can support my wife and kids. Ana has the luxury of focusing full-time on her art. When I come home tired from work, I prefer to unwind on the computer or watch a game. I don’t feel like engaging in some heavy duty conversation about her frustrated ambitions or our marital problems or God knows what.”
“…or about movies or literature or art or anything at all,” Ana supplemented his sentence.
“What leads you to believe that such ample communication would have lasted with Michael once the two of you moved in together?” Dr. Emmert asked Ana.
Ana had a flashback to the fight she and Michael had had at the Chinese restaurant, recalling how little they had to say to one another during the last few weeks of their relationship. But she felt put on the defensive by both her husband and the psychiatrist, as if they were ganging up against her and her former lover. “Because we genuinely shared the same interests—in art, movies and literature—and didn’t have to force ourselves to communicate. Everything came effortlessly with Michael,” she focused on everything except the end.
Upon hearing this, Rob got up. “Listen, I didn’t come here to listen to you sing praises to your lover!”
“Come on, Rob! I’m just trying to explain,” Ana tugged at his hand, attempting to get him to sit down again.
Rob pulled his hand away. “Of course you are!” he said, but sat down anyway, determined to find in the therapy session a resolution to his ambivalence. “She talks as if this guy walked on water,” he addressed the psychiatrist. “If you only knew how devious and selfish he is! I haven’t personally met him, yet from everything Ana’s told me about him, even when she tries to praise him, he sounds like a horrible human being. The lowest of the low.”
Dr. Emmert nodded to him sympathetically. “It would be interesting to know how his fiancée would describe him,” he sought another angle to reach Ana, since the direct approach didn’t seem to work. “Would she describe him in negative terms, like Rob just did, or glowing terms, the way you did?’ he asked Ana.
“You’re referring to Karen, his fiancée?” Ana corrected him. “Probably not. But they didn’t have as much in common as we did.”
“Or so he told you…” the therapist said skeptically.
“She bought into everything that guy told her to get laid!” Rob heatedly declared.
“There’s no need to be crass…” Ana replied.
“I’m being crass? What about your actions?”
“My actions were wrong,” she admitted. “But my motivations weren’t what you think they were.”
“Sure they were. They were completely selfish.”
“And perhaps also based upon false assumptions,” Dr. Emmert added. “Apparently, you assumed that the honeymoon phase with Michael could have continued forever.”
“Are you saying that my relationship with him would have eventually turned into his relationship with Karen?” Ana asked him.
“I don’t know,” the therapist replied in a detached, nonjudgmental manner. “But it seems to me like it wasn’t just your love for your husband and children that made you change your mind,” he looked probingly into Ana’s eyes. She averted her gaze, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. “I’m sure that had a lot to do with it,” he added, to put her at ease. “I certainly don’t wish to minimize that. But I suspect you had other compelling reasons. I’m a big believer in the unconscious. Somewhere in the back of your mind you must have realized that the honeymoon period with this man would be pretty short-lived. Something must have scared you away from him.” He observed closely her reaction, as she nervously fidgeted with her bracelet.
Ana felt obliged to nuance her claim: “I hoped that Michael and I wouldn’t tire of one another,” she said quietly. “Because our relationship wasn’t just about mutual pleasure, as Rob and Karen seemed to think. Our compatibility was on all levels—intellectual, emotional and psychological--not just sexual.”
“For you maybe. Not for him,” Rob emphasized.
“Do you think that mutual pleasure and compatibility are sufficient to form a lasting bond between two people?” Dr. Emmert came to his aid by reverting to the Socratic approach, which had brought some of Ana’s misgivings to the surface.
“No. You also need principles,” she responded.
“And where do you believe principles come from?” the psychiatrist pursued his line of questioning.
“Ethics,” Ana replied tautologically, feeling confused.
“I suspect that empathy might also have something to do with it,” Dr. Emmert suggested. “Scruples are inseparable from love. They depend on caring enough about another person to put yourself in their shoes. Given his attitude and behavior, do you think Michael would have been capable of empathy? I mean, over time?”
“Not a chance!” Rob answered on his wife’s behalf.
“Well, up until the last few weeks together, Michael was very supportive of me,” Ana found her husband’s statement too harsh. “How can I put it? At first, he showered me with love and attention. When I was upset about getting thrown out of my gallery, unlike Rob,” she directed her husband a reproachful glance, “he comforted me and helped me find other galleries.”
Rob turned to his wife. “Are you completely blind? He didn’t live with you, Ana. He wasn’t supporting you and the kids. It didn’t cost him much energy or time to sound supportive to you. But the point is that I actually was supporting you, in every way that counts! Because of me you could afford to be an artist, full-time, and do what you wished.”
“That’s true,” Ana was obliged to acknowledge. She would have liked to add that Michael had promised to support her too, without ever reproaching her for being an artist, even when the market for art waned. But it occurred to her that any defense of Michael was pointless in this context. It only incensed Rob, while the psychiatrist deliberately asked her leading questions that went against the grain of her replies.
As if confirming her impression, Dr. Emmert inquired: “And when did Michael express interest in making a serious commitment to you?”
Ana paused for a moment, thinking that his question was somewhat of a non-sequitor. “Almost immediately,” she said. “We fell in love pretty fast. But it wasn’t love at first sight. It went deeper than that. A total compatibility. ‘The whole package,’ as Michael liked to say.”
Rob felt like getting up to leave again. “The only package that guy cared about was the one in his pants,” he commented.
“How soon did he want the package in question delivered to his front door by wrapping up the divorce?” Dr. Emmert indulged in a little play on words of his own.
“Within a few weeks, a month at most,” Ana estimated, thinking that the therapist was evidently on Rob’s side, as the wronged spouse. But, in spite of that, she liked him. At least he hadn’t told Rob that she’s a lost cause, even if he may have thought it. “Michael tried to persuade me that our love was special and that we belonged together. He argued that our passion couldn’t be shared. He wanted us to become a normal couple. By that he meant living together, not hiding ‘like prisoners’, as he put it.”
“Did you agree with him?”
“In principle, yes. If I hadn’t already been married with kids. But our circumstances, particularly mine, changed everything.”
“It didn’t change much at all!” Rob objected. “You jumped into bed with him anyway and destroyed our marriage.”
“Did you find it strange that Michael was pushing for commitment so soon? I mean, when the two of you barely knew each other?” Dr. Emmert asked her, more diplomatically.
Ana hesitated. “Yes and no. No, because, like I said, we fell madly in love from the start. I suppose I did find it a little strange that he didn’t want to wait for our compatibility to be confirmed over time. But I interpreted it a sign of love, which is how he presented the whole thing to me.”
“How could you possibly imagine that a guy who pressures you to destroy your family would want what’s good for you, Ana?” her husband asked her. “And don’t you think that a guy who wants to have sex with you right away is likely to behave that way with other women too?” he pursued.
“I think Rob’s right about that. It seems to me that Michael’s impatience should have been a warning signal,” the therapist concurred. “Because normal, healthy relationships take a long time to develop,” he elaborated. Most people don’t make such a serious commitment right off the bat, when there’s so much at stake. Especially given the fact that, as you pointed out to him, you’re a married woman with kids. Such a decision would have impacted the lives of your entire family.”
“But why would falling madly in love be a warning signal?” Ana objected. “Sometimes it can be a positive sign. It means that you’re right for each other.”
“It makes me sick to hear the phrase ‘madly in love’ applied to that jerk,” Rob said.
“Sometimes relationships that begin with love at first sight, as they say, end up with a less exciting but deeper attachment,” Dr. Emmert sought to remain objective. “But based on my clinical experience, a rapid warm up, coupled with the demand for instant commitment, tends to be a very bad sign. It usually means that the person has shallow emotions. Which means that they’re likely to detach from you as quickly as they attached.”
Ana wasn’t prepared to accept such a negative conclusion. In her mind, that was like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Clearly, she told herself, Dr. Emmert, like Rob, didn’t understand much about the mysterious workings of passion. But she decided to focus on finding common ground rather than engaging in a futile debate about the nature of love. “I didn’t want to commit in the way Michael asked me to because I felt attached to my family. He and I argued quite a bit about this issue.”
Rob shook his head. “You proved to us that your attachment to your family was trivial, if you left us for him.”
“I wasn’t going to abandon my kids!” Ana objected.
“But you abandoned me.”
Ana didn’t know what to say in response. Rob was right. She was planning to leave him, even if she felt ambivalent about that decision.
“So why did you give in to Michael’s pressure?” Dr. Emmert asked her.
She didn’t reply immediately. This was a question she had asked herself repeatedly during the course of her affair. She still didn’t have a clear answer to it. “It’s not that Michael ever forced me to do things I didn’t want to do. I mean, he didn’t order me around or give me any ultimatums,” she gestured, struggling with the vagueness of the information she was trying to convey. “He could have easily blackmailed me about moving to Phoenix with his fiancée. But he never did that, at least not explicitly. Yet, somehow, it was an undercurrent between us, like an implicit threat or something. Whenever I didn’t go along with his wishes, I sensed that he withdrew from me. It was as if our mutual affection and all the good times we shared were instantly erased from his mind, like they never existed,” she recalled the emotional vacuum she felt whenever she and her former lover disagreed.
“And how did that make you feel?”
“Horrible,” Ana began unburdening herself of some of the negative recollections. “I mean, with a more normal man, the difference between closeness and detachment doesn’t feel that big. In most relationships, you just go from lukewarm to cool,” she measured a miniscule distance between her thumb and index finger. “But with Michael, the difference was staggering,” she extended her arms wide open. “Whenever we disagreed, we’d go from boiling hot to ice cold within a matter of seconds. And I dreaded the coldness. So I almost always gave in to his wishes. Because I didn’t want to lose him.”
“All this is very flattering to our marriage!” Rob exclaimed, stung by the fact that his wife had referred to their marriage as ‘lukewarm.’
“I think I understand what she’s trying to say,” the therapist intervened on Ana’s behalf, to attenuate, once again, the tension between husband and wife. “Michael didn’t behave like a normal man. He lavished upon you an inordinate amount of attention and compliments, right?” Ana nodded in confirmation. “But only if and when you did what he wanted,” Dr. Emmert pursued. “Which, I presume, was most of the time since you claim that he treated you well.”
“That’s right,” she agreed.
“He pretended to treat her well!” Rob emphasized. “I treated her well, with genuine love and respect. I showed it through my actions, not just empty words,” he addressed the therapist.
“It seems to me that Rob’s bringing up another good point. Michael treated you well in a manner of speaking,” the psychiatrist qualified. “Because people like him push the envelope. The more you give in, the more they claim as rightfully theirs. Apparently, when you disagreed with him, Michael withdrew his approval. It was a form of Pavlovian conditioning. The carrot and stick.”
“Except for the fact that, for the most part, the stick was merely the absence of the carrot and the carrot was always so sweet,” Ana reworked the analogy, to give it a more positive spin. “Rob called Michael domineering. But, actually, up until our last days together, he never behaved that way with me.”
“Michael’s carrot was covered in shit,” Rob encapsulated his personal opinion of his rival. “But you were so smitten with this guy, and he filled your head with so many lies and empty promises, that when he told you it was candy, you believed him and even thought it tasted sweet.”
Dr. Emmert smiled, appreciating the Freudian slip. He decided to lead Ana to this unpalatable conclusion more gently, however, by reexamining her own experiences. “You keep on saying, ‘until the last days,’ or ‘up until the end,’” he observed. “Did Michael change his pattern of behavior with you?”
“Yes. During our last few weeks together, right after we told our partners about the affair,” she recounted, “he become much colder and bossy with me. But that’s in part because I also became moody, since it hurt me to hurt my family. We all went through a difficult time during those last few weeks, for obvious reasons,” she didn’t want to target her lover in particular.
“The reasons are obvious!” Rob concurred. “When real life hit you, your boyfriend showed his true colors.”
“I’m sure that the difficulties you experienced with your family affected Michael’s change of attitude towards you,” Dr. Emmert commented, attempting to steer a middle course despite his sympathy for Rob, as the wronged spouse. “But I suspect that was only an accelerant.” Ana stared at him blankly. “By that I mean that the stick would have probably come in due time, once you were more fully under his control. Because manipulative and controlling behavior, which is what you’ve described so far, tends to increase in severity over time.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to explain to her,” Rob responded. “The guy’s a bully.”
Ana reflex was to refute his claim. But, this time, she resisted that instinct. “Possibly,” she breathed out, more of a sigh than a statement. “I know that if I had continued to refuse to marry him, I feared that Michael would leave me. He often told me that I was irreplaceable to him and that our love was special. But I still felt like if I did something that displeased him, the punishment would be disproportionate to the crime, so to speak.”
“This sense of entitlement is the foundation of emotional abuse,” Dr. Emmert said, jotting down some notes. “Controlling individuals always want to be the ones in charge. Their demands are sometimes disguised as polite requests. But, ultimately, they aren’t requests, because when you don’t do what they ask, they retaliate.” He paused for a moment then added, to jog Ana’s memory, “By lying, cheating on you, or doing something else to hurt you.”
“Not that you’re incapable of behaving that way yourself,” Rob turned the tables on his wife.
“I realize that I’m no angel either,” she readily conceded. “But what I’m trying to describe is somewhat different and…” she looked to the side, searching for the right word, “… more general.” The therapist’s explanation made perfect sense to her. “As Dr. Emmert said, Michael had a sense of entitlement towards everyone and everything. He lived life according to his own rules, which he made up as he went along,” she imperceptibly began to switch sides. She paused to glance out the window, at the light gray haze of that overcast spring day, which seemed to capture the nebulous nature of her misgivings, then turned back to the psychiatrist: “Even in the beginning, when he acted so nice to me, something about Michael’s behavior led me to believe that his affection was entirely conditional.”
“… upon you doing everything he wanted,” her husband completed her sentence.
“Or nearly,” Ana cautiously agreed. “He definitely wanted to get his way on pretty much everything. He even tried to prescribe the clothes I wore around him. It always had to be short skirts or mini-dresses. Never pants or jeans, not even when it was cold outside.” Ana felt ashamed, as soon as she voiced the idea out loud, that a grown woman would take instructions on what to wear from a man. But during the months when Michael was wooing her, she recalled, she rarely felt like she was being pressured to do anything against her will. She felt like a spoiled girlfriend indulging her lover with little favors intended to please and excite them both.
“Then you see,” Dr. Emmert responded, “This form of positive conditioning can be even more powerful than overt domination.”
“I guess when his controlling behavior came in the form of niceness and affection, it was hard for me to recognize it as a form of abuse,” Ana replied.
“Sure. But you did everything Michael wanted for as long as he acted nice to you,” the therapist pointed out. “And when you didn’t, I presume, you saw his true colors. The man behind the mask, so to speak.”
“There was no mask!” Ana protested. “Michael was really in love with me.”
“I don’t doubt it,” the therapist conceded. “In his own way...”
Ana looked at him, intrigued by this qualifier, which she had been tempted to use herself on a number of occasions. “What do you mean?”
Dr. Emmert leaned forward in his chair and gazed probingly into her eyes: “Have you ever wanted a piece of jewelry really badly?” he asked her. When Ana came in, he had noticed that she wore a diamond ring as well as a pair of aquamarine earrings and a matching pendant.
“She wants jewelry all the time,” her husband commented. “For every special occasion—Christmas, her birthday, Valentine’s Day, our anniversary, you name it. She always asks for jewelry,” Rob observed, his hand moving defensively towards his wallet.
“Guilty as charged!” Ana admitted with a smile. “What can I say? I know what I like.”
“But if you like each piece of jewelry that much, then why do you keep on wanting more?” the psychiatrist pursued.
“Because I like each new piece even better.”
“Well, that’s exactly how Michael desires women. As possessions. His need to possess you was quite genuine but shallow. Without any real consideration for your wellbeing. In a few days, weeks or months after you moved in with him, he’d have become obsessed with someone new. Of course, since I don’t personally know this guy, I can’t make a firm diagnosis. But from what you, yourself, have told me about him, Michael seems to have emotional intensity without depth,” the psychiatrist observed.
This explanation oversimplifies everything, Ana attempted to protect the integrity of her pleasant memories. “I’m not sure I entirely agree with your jewelry analogy. While we were together, Michael only had eyes for me. All of his attention was focused on our relationship.”
Dr. Emmert smiled knowingly. “Sure. That fits with the psychological picture I was sketching. Or at least, it doesn’t contradict it. People like Michael have a kind of predatory hunger for what they want. Lately, that happened to be you. They have an uncanny ability to focus on that person or goal to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. And this powerful obsession generally lasts for as long as they don’t yet possess what they want. But once their target is within their grasp, they get bored. Once they lose interest they move on to someone—or something--else.”
Ana considered his statement. She recalled that Michael acted like he loved her during the entire year together. He changed only after she too became more difficult. “I sometimes tell myself that if I hadn’t become so moody and impatient with Michael at the end, he’d also have behaved differently towards me,” she said, thinking out loud.
“So you’re saying that you regret staying with me?” Rob asked her, stung.
“Not at all,” Ana replied, obliged to go on the defensive again. It occurred to her that it was difficult to strike the right balance in this session. She couldn’t be completely honest with the therapist while also remaining tactful towards her husband. She opted for erring on the side of honesty. Without it, she sensed, the therapy would be meaningless. But antagonizing Rob didn’t help matters either. It defeated the whole purpose of couples’ counseling. “It’s just that Michael’s change in behavior towards the end really puzzled me. And sometimes I blame myself for it.”
“Why so?” Dr. Emmert asked her.
Ana shook her head, as if to dissipate the haze. “I feel guilty towards everyone. Rob, the kids and even Michael.”
Rob couldn’t believe his ears. “Towards Michael? He’s the one that manipulated and hurt everyone, including you!”
“I hate to say this so often, but in this case I think Rob’s right. I can understand why you’d feel guilty towards your family,” Dr. Emmert commented calmly, to diffuse the tension. “But it seems to me that feeling guilty towards Michael is a distortion of your conscience.”
“He reproached me that I’m the one who bailed out on our relationship.”
The therapist nodded. “And why did you?”
“Because I love my family. And because I became frightened by Michael’s behavior,” she admitted more openly. “Ultimately, I couldn’t place my trust in him.”
“What were you afraid of?”
Ana gesticulated vaguely. “Towards the end, I became afraid of everything.” Thinking of how to describe that fear most succinctly, she recalled something her lover had told her early on in their relationship. “His first girlfriend called him a snake,” she said out loud, as if that epithet were particularly relevant.
“She was quite perceptive,” Rob commented.
“Michael told me that she’s the one who left him. Which made me wonder why she called him a snake…”
“Why do you think?” Dr. Emmert threw the question back at her.
Ana looked out the window trying to think of a way of formulating her intuition. “Because what I’ve come to realize is that with Michael you never know when he’ll turn around and bite you.”
“Then why do you blame yourself for leaving him? Especially given everything at stake for you and your family?” the therapist inquired.
“I don’t know,” she sank once again into ambivalence.
“The reason is clear,” Rob stated. “She was completely brainwashed by that guy.”
“I’m nobody’s puppet,” Ana protested.
“Do you feel that if you had behaved differently at the end, he’d have been good to you?” the therapist pursued, steering the dialogue away from mutual insults.
“That’s what I hoped. I thought that if I treated Michael right, loved him with all my heart and did my best to make him happy, he’d never hurt me.”
“Love can’t solve everything. Especially if it doesn’t exist in the first place,” Dr. Emmert commented. “But the metaphor you used is quite helpful. Just look at Michael as a pet snake. No matter how nice and loving you are to him, he won’t grow fur and become a puppy. Sooner or later, he’ll attack you.” He stole a glance at Rob, who from the very start had intuitively struck him as a decent fellow. “If you became Michael’s partner, you’d have seen the difference between the dominance bond he established with you and real love.”
“His fiancée didn’t see it. She still loves him,” was the only defense Ana could muster.
Dr. Emmert shrugged. “Women who stay with such men generally suffer from low self-esteem or have some kind of martyr complex.”
“That’s Karen alright!” Ana whole-heartedly agreed. “She does everything she can to please him. Everything,” she emphasized.
“And look how he nicely he’s rewarded her for her efforts,” Rob said.
“But Rob, Karen’s not exactly perfect either,” Ana objected. She recalled Michael’s explanation, during one of their early encounters when they had confided in each another like old friends. He had told her that no matter how hard he worked on their relationship, Karen remained reserved towards him. “She’s cold and distant.”
“Or so he claims…” Dr. Emmert supplemented her sentence. “At the same time, you said that she does everything to please him,” he pointed out the contradiction.
“That much is true,” Ana shrugged, as if there was nothing she could do to resolve this apparent paradox. “She does everything within her powers. But the fact remains, she’s not all that powerful. Like Michael said, Karen lacks the qualities to make him happy,” she concluded. “No matter how hard she tries, she’s not warm, sexy or interesting enough for him.”
Rob shook his head. “When you say things like this, Ana, I don’t even recognize the smart woman I fell in love with. Most men who cheat say that about their wives to their lovers. It’s just words. Ready-made, cheap excuses.”
Dr. Emmert smiled cynically. “To pursue Rob’s point in a slightly different direction, don’t you think that if you had become his partner you would have eventually run up against the same wall?” he asked Ana.
“Maybe…” she hesitated, instinctively placing her fingers to her forehead, to sort through a painful recollection. “Our relationship became so confusing and stressful at the end that I couldn’t tell who was to blame for what anymore,” she attempted to soften the picture.
Seeing her stubbornness resurface, Dr. Emmert folded his hands. “Just out of curiosity. Why is it that you believed everything this man told you? Why did you accept his side of the story about Karen? Did Michael ever give you any compelling reason to trust him?” he reverted to the Socratic approach, which seemed to yield most progress.
Ana leaned slightly forward in her chair. “It’s not just about what he said to me,” she explained. “It’s more about how he said it. He spoke in this calm, soothing voice and looked straight into my eyes. It was really hypnotic. At any rate, he seemed very sincere. There was no fidgeting, no looking away, no nervousness whatsoever, like when people lie to you.”
“My point exactly! The fact this guy could lie as easily as normal people breathe should have made you run away from him as fast as possible,” Rob remarked.
“It sounds to me like Michael’s slick style obscured your reason,” the psychiatrist concurred. “You were so distracted by this guy’s smooth manner that you didn’t pay enough attention to the content of his words. Because if he had, indeed, concluded that Karen wasn’t compatible with him and that he didn’t love her, then why didn’t he leave her?”
“I asked him this very question on a number of occasions.”
“He never really gave me a satisfactory answer.”
“That’s because he couldn’t admit right off the bat that he wanted to string along both of you, plus several more women on the side,” Rob said, running out of patience with his wife’s inexplicable naiveté, which, he felt, bordered on stupidity. That’s not the Ana I knew, he thought, once again having the eerie sensation that his wife had become a different person, a stranger, as a result of this experience.
“What did he tell you?” Dr. Emmert asked her.
“He said that it’s because he didn’t want to be left all alone,” Ana replied mechanically, as if citing an answer in a foreign tongue that she didn’t fully comprehend.
The therapist smiled knowingly. “I see. And, given that he already had you and thus wasn’t all alone, that explanation didn’t ring false to your ears?”
“Sure it did,” Ana admitted. “I never quite understood why Michael wanted to hold on to a woman that he didn’t love anymore.”
“Maybe that’s because he always needs to have someone to control and manipulate,” Dr. Emmert offered his own hypothesis. “Sexual conquests may not be sufficiently stimulating for him.”
Ana considered his reply, then her eyes lit up with a recollection of a more generous interpretation. Given how all of the therapist’s explanations were systematically unsympathetic towards her lover, she felt like she needed to point out the other side of the coin. “Early on, Michael gave me an answer that kind of made sense to me at the time. He said that he was a hopeless romantic, like me. That’s why he never lost hope on the relationship with Karen. I guess he was still trying to make it work,” she half-heartedly suggested, since this answer no longer rang convincing to her.
“By cheating and lying to her?” Dr. Emmert asked, raising an eyebrow. “Did his answer seem even remotely plausible to you?”
“It sure did, since that’s exactly how Ana worked on our relationship!” Rob sullenly interjected.
Ana had no reply. She couldn’t defend Michael’s behavior. She couldn’t even defend her own, for that matter.
Dr. Emmert sensed they had reached an impasse. “It seems to me like you’re engaged in a few denial strategies of your own,” the psychiatrist observed, gazing in passing at his watch. He needed to bring the session to a close in the few minutes they had left. “Unfortunately, for some reason, and only you can tell us why, you’re still struggling to hold on to an idealized image of Michael and of your relationship with him. This will make it practically impossible for you and your husband to work on your marriage in good faith.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling her and why I persuaded her we needed therapy,” Rob commented. But the session hadn’t been as helpful as he had hoped. He felt ignored yet also validated during this therapy session, which had revolved around Ana and her former lover rather than their marriage.
“For as long as you believe that Michael’s the perfect standard by which to judge all other men, including your husband,” Dr. Emmert pursued, “you can’t focus on improving your relationship with Rob.” The psychiatrist’s gaze passed back and forth from husband to wife. “So if you guys are interested in having another meeting with me, I’d like to suggest the following exercise: think about what was missing from your marriage that you’d like to accomplish together. Also,” he addressed Ana in particular, “ask yourself what was missing in Michael as a partner. In other words, continue to de-idealize this fantasy you’ve constructed of the perfect love story. Because, as you’re no doubt beginning to see, your relationship with him wasn’t nearly as perfect as you initially believed. In fact, in many respects it was the opposite of what it seemed to be.”
Once again, Ana felt like the psychiatrist, her husband and probably anybody who hadn’t lived through a similar experience couldn’t really comprehend it. “You’re implying that I was blind for not seeing through Michael. And in some ways I was. But things aren’t so simple when you actually live through them. I mean, when a man gives you so much affection and support for months on end, it’s hard to see him as selfish and malicious.”
“I’m not saying that you were blind,” Dr. Emmert calmly responded. “I’m just suggesting that you ignored the red flags that revealed early on Michael’s core self-centeredness and insensitivity.” The therapist seemed lost in thought for a moment. “In fact, the more I hear about him, the more convinced I become that Michael’s a textbook example,” he concluded.
Ana meant to ask him a textbook example of what, but Dr. Emmert continued, sounding somewhat rushed, “Listen, our time’s almost over,” he informed the couple, to wrap up the session. “But from what you’ve been telling me about him,” he took a quick glance at his notes, “Michael seems to be seriously lacking the two qualities that are essential to love: the capacity to form emotional bonds with others and empathy. Without forming genuine emotional bonds, people have no compelling reason to stay together over time. They don’t need each other when they’re together and they don’t miss each other when they’re apart. And without empathy, or the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and care about their feelings, they lie, cheat, con and manipulate people easily, for profit and fun,” the psychiatrist observed, examining Ana’s reaction to his statements. She seemed to be contemplating his statements. “I’d like to suggest that you take a look at a few psychology books,” he extended her a note on which he had jotted down three titles. “You don’t have to read them from cover to cover. Just browse through the parts that seem most relevant to you. These studies will help you recognize some of Michael’s personality traits. After reading this material, it will be even harder for you to see him as an ideal partner.”
“Thanks,” she took the note and slipped it into her coat pocket: ironically, exactly where she had placed Michael’s phone number on the day they met.
“Would you be interested in setting up another meeting with me?” Dr. Emmert asked the couple.
Rob looked uncomfortable. He didn’t think he could suffer through more blow-by-blow analyses of his wife’s affair with another man.
“We have to decide if it wouldn’t be more useful for me to have a few individual sessions with you,” Ana replied, after exchanging a quick look with her husband, who seemed hesitant. “It looks like before Rob and I can work on our marriage, I have to get Michael out of my system.”
“And I’d rather not be a part of that process,” Rob hastened to add. “I’ve heard more than I ever care to find out about that guy.”
“Alright, then how about you figure out together which configuration you prefer and get back in touch with me to schedule an appointment?” Dr. Emmert proposed.
“Sounds good,” Ana agreed.
Once they were alone in the elevator, she burst out: “He’s straightforward and has a lot of common sense!” She was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that sometimes her prejudices, not just her idealizations, turned out to be mistaken.
“Yeah, he’s good. But I thought he was going to help us work on our marriage, not rehash your sordid affair,” Rob responded somewhat less enthusiastically.
“Like the Dr. Emmert said, we can’t do one without the other,” his wife reminded him.
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