Relationships, You & Your Family

Change is more than a feeling or an intent

Change is more than a feeling or an intent

The final exam of a counselling course I teach involves my students analysing and proposing a plan of action for a hypothetical case. In addition to writing an essay to demonstrate their analytical skills, they do a role play.

The scenario involves a couple in their mid-40s, married for 15 years with two young children. After being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, the Husband had to reveal to his Wife the double life he had been living for years. On the surface, he was a loving father, a good provider for the family and an active church member. With the crisis came the revelation of his addiction to pornography which started in his late teens. He also had a habit of visiting massage parlours and paying for sex.

I find it interesting that the same scenario is played out in different ways by the “clients” and the student counsellors. No script is given and the students have full liberty to improvise.

My observation is that the role plays generally fall into three categories, with the prognosis ranging from bleak to potentially positive.

In the first category, the Husbands initially present themselves as rather confused by their pastor’s recommendation to see a marriage counsellor, whom they approached for help when their Wives expressed outrage over the trivial matter. When the Counsellor asks about any other concerns bothering the Wives, they hesitantly disclose the sexual indiscretions. This happens only after the Wives insist on honesty with the Counsellor.

The Husbands typically express surprise at their Wives still being troubled. After all, three months have passed since they last spoke about it and the Wives had ostensibly forgiven them. The Husbands are disappointed and feel judged by their Wives rather than receiving the support and help they want to battle the addiction to pornography and sex. Some of the Wives try to “support” their Husbands by renewing sexual relations, spurred by fear that if the latter’s need for sex is not being met in the marriage, they might fall into temptation again.

Unsurprisingly, the prognosis for such cases tends to be rather negative. The couples, should they remain together, find it hard to rebuild trust and emotional closeness.

The second group of role plays generally have Husbands who admit their mistakes and ask for forgiveness. The Wives are, understandably, still shocked, angry and in varying degrees of disbelief. As in the first group, the Husbands feel judged and upset by the apparently superficial forgiveness of their Wives. Some Wives press their Husbands to explain their behaviour. These are met by accounts of abuse as a child or statements like “I also don’t understand”, “I just cannot help it” or “It’s an addiction”. Needless to say, these explanations do not engender much sympathy nor offer any assurance. Many of those who played the Wives said that they may attempt to forgive but cannot see how they can forget.

The prognosis of this group is uncertain. Factors that can serve as good reasons to persevere—such as the children, a common faith and a fairly good marital relationship—help. Those lacking such “glue” may attempt a reconciliation in the hope that the behaviour does not repeat.

The last category is fairly similar to the second one, where the Husbands neither deny nor minimise their behaviour. Similarly, their Wives exhibit distress. But critical differences are seen that I, as a marital therapist, think bode well for the “couple”.

The Husbands, while understanding that their behaviour may be related to childhood abuse or a long struggle with issues of self-esteem, do not excuse themselves for their actions. These Husbands are also more attentive to the hurts of their Wives. The responses of their “spouses” also help in no small way. Although justly angry, they are not consumed by it and do not continue to hurt either their Husbands or themselves. Neither do they blame themselves for the wayward behaviour of their Husbands. If both continue along this path, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, this last group also receives support and help from others to point them to take concrete steps to change. Change begins when we confess our wrongs and are contrite, which is not just about feeling sorry but also wanting to change. Change therefore happens when awareness is coupled with a desire to do better and is supported by clear steps towards turning over a new leaf. Maybe then, with God’s grace, we get another chance.

Benny Bong has over 40 years of experience as a therapist, counsellor and trainer. He also conducts regular talks and webinars. Benny has helmed the You & Your Family column for more than 16 years and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.