In this month's blog, Denial, a patient explores her inability to face the painful reality of infidelity.
As soon as I open the door I know that a different Rita is waiting for me today. Instead of her usual bubbly, sometimes false cheery self, I see a woman on the verge of tears who looks up at me beseechingly.
Seated in my office, Rita begins. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know I’m not stupid and I know I’m a 52 year old woman, so I don’t know why this is hitting me so hard. But I had no idea, absolutely no idea.”
I first thought Rita was referring to her husband Henry’s infidelity, but since it has been several months since she found out about his long-term affair, I assume she is referring to a more recent event. I wait.
“My parents are getting a divorce. They’re in their seventies! I couldn’t believe it.”
“I can understand being shocked about a decision that came out of the blue.”
“But that’s just it. It didn’t come out of the blue! My mother couldn’t believe I hadn’t known. She told me my father was unfaithful to her their entire marriage, that they fought about it constantly.”
Now it’s my turn to be surprised. Rita had always described her parent’s marriage as idyllic. She said that’s what made Henry’s betrayal even more disturbing. She’d never been personally close to anyone who dealt with infidelity.
“I feel like I’m going crazy. I called my sister – my sister who’s younger than me - and she knew! She said they always fought about it! I asked her why we never talked about it. She said we’d literally put our blankets over our heads and guessed we did that figuratively too, like we didn’t want to think about it.”
“That’s a lot to take in. Maybe we should start with what you find the most disturbing about all these new revelations.”
“I don’t know. All of it. That I had no idea. How did I do that? Did I do that in my marriage too? Was I blind to my husband’s affair? Did he have other affairs I have no idea about? I feel as though I’m going in circles. My head feels like mush.”
“I guess one thing we know is that you have a striking ability to not know, to not see what you don’t want to see.”
“But why? Why can’t I know?”
“I guess it felt too intolerable to know.”
“But I can’t live my life like that! It’s a tremendous handicap. It’s like being divorced from reality.”
“I agree, but I think the question we need to ask ourselves is why you felt the need to deny what was right in front of you. You need to understand, not to beat yourself up.”
She sighs, but remains silent, looking dazed and confused.
I think about denial as a defense. It works as long as it works, but when it breaks, reality smacks you in the face, hard.
“What do you feel about your Dad’s infidelity now? How do you feel about them divorcing?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet.”
“Okay, so tell me where you have gotten.”
“Trying to remember the past. Trying to remember them arguing, trying to remember putting my head under the covers.”
“What would you have felt if your parents divorced then, when you were a child?”
“That wasn’t possible! It’s couldn’t happen!”
“So let’s assume for a moment it was possible. What would you have felt?”
Rita stares at me wide-eyed, shaking her head, repeating, “It couldn’t happen, it couldn’t happen.”
“Rita, see if you can find your feelings,” I say gently.
She continues to stare at me until she starts sobbing. Then she buries her face in her hands.
“No, no,” she moans. “I’m all alone, left. I won’t make it. I can’t make it.”
I remain silent, respectful of her feelings as the scared, vulnerable child.
“A family, a unit,” she says between her sobs. “We were one or nothing. Lost, adrift, floating, nothing.”
“Sounds pretty scary. I can certainly understand not wanting to know something that would lead to such catastophe.”
“But it’s not rational,” she says, quickly shaking her head as if trying to wake from a nightmare.
“No, it’s not rational, but that doesn’t mean it’s not how you felt and it’s how you felt that matters.”
“I suddenly started thinking of my husband. Do I feel the same way about him? Do I feel there’d be nothing if I left him? Is that why I’m not leaving him?”
“Those are really good questions and I’m sure we’ll return to them next hour and for some time to come,” I reply, while thinking of the power of the unconscious, about Rita choosing a womanizer like her father without even consciously remembering that he was a womanizer.