Thomas King, MSW, M.Ed., is an author, coach, and therapist in private practice in Minnesota. He works with couples and adults to help them become the best of who they are. He is president and co-founder of Emerging Leaders Association, which is dedicated to executive coaching and leadership development. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and is the proud father of two daughters who are married and a grandfather of five wonderful kids. Thomas finds it very rewarding to help couples stop blaming each other, understand the real issues, and learn how to create the conditions in which love and intimacy can flourish.
1. Can share a story about a couple you’ve coached?
Let me give you an example of a man I worked with recently who was having a very hard time getting past the fact that his wife had an affair. The interesting thing is the affair happened 20 years ago when they were young and they have been able to stay happily married for the most part. He had dealt with this over the years by putting it out of his mind and trying to just accept it. This worked pretty well until his wife got into therapy a few months ago and started talking about her regrets. He then realized he never processed the affair and he started getting depressed and angry. It only took a few sessions to help him work through this issue and move forward again.
The key was helping him change the meaning he had attached to his wife’s infidelity. In his mind this was an unforgivable act because it violated a hard and fast rule and it felt like she had done it to betray him. As he thought about it more he came to understand that she had been unfaithful for her own reasons, at a time in her life when she was struggling, not with the intent to hurt him. He also reflected on her pain and remorse and guilt that she has carried with her. It was then he could see that forgiveness was the key that could free them both. Because they love each other he was able and willing to do this finally. I suggested finding a meaningful and symbolic way to express his forgiveness and release her from her guilt. I don’t know the end of the story but I’m confident he followed through because he cares deeply about her.
2. Can you talk more about how to recover from infidelity?
I think it is different for each couple but there are a few common factors as illustrated in the story above. One factor is the overall quality of the relationship. Did the affair happen because the relationship is filled with anger, contempt, neglect, or some kind of abuse? Or is there a foundation of love and caring but the couple has drifted apart? Sometimes affairs happen in moments of weakness when opportunity presents itself. Sometimes one person or the other is vulnerable because of a personal struggle, say depression or unresolved issues from childhood. The point is, strong and loving relationships have a better chance of surviving infidelity and there may be any number of reasons why it happened.
An affair is often a wakeup call that something needs to be addressed, on an individual level and a relationship level. Couples need to talk about the meaning of the behavior and the impact it has on them. The offending partner needs to take responsibility and try to make amends. The offended partner needs time and room to express and work through his or her thoughts and feelings. Ultimately couples need to decide if they will stay and work it through and be willing to forgive and become stronger through the process. Then the focus often becomes rebuilding trust which requires consistent demonstration of trust-worthiness, love and respect over time.
3. If you have written any books, tell us more about them.
As a coach I often found myself gathering various worksheets and exercises for couples to work on between sessions. I decided this past year to pull all of these resources together and write a book to serve as a manual for couples to use to improve the quality of their communication and consequently their relationship. The book is called Date Night Conversations: Recapture the Magic with Great Couple’s Communication Tools. Essentially this book provides structure for couples so they have some guidelines on the important topics every couple should discuss and how to talk about those things. I drew from not only my personal experience in a long-term marriage and from working with hundreds of couples, but also from various, well-respected experts in the field.
For example, in my book you will find chapters on understanding the hidden dynamics of relationships and the personal back-story each person brings into a marriage, how to understand the most important needs of each person, how to talk about sex and intimacy, and finding a way to effectively work through conflicts and problems.
4. Who is your favorite fellow relationship expert?
One of the researchers on marriage I talk about in my book is Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Her work emphasizes the deep need people have for emotional connection or what she calls attachment. When we feel securely connected to one another we are willing and able to be open and vulnerable with each other. When that connection is threatened, we react in defensive and self-protective ways that tend to further break down connection and trust.
One specific technique I have adapted from Dr. Johnson is how to genuinely forgive someone when they have wounded you. Forgiveness is critical to re-establishing trust and connection with your partner but sometimes it is very hard for people. In my book I have mapped out a specific process to work through to get to a place of forgiveness.
5. If you could give one piece of advice to couples, what would it be?
Fiercely guard the quality of your relationship. Happily married couples usually stay happy because they are good friends. It’s not that they don’t have disagreements or conflicts; it’s that they find ways to work them out without hurting their friendship. Think about how you treat a good friend with affection and respect, and how you enjoy hanging out together. You don’t blame a friend for your troubles or treat a friend with contempt so why would you do that to your spouse?
Marriage gets more complicated because we expect and demand more from our partners, such as meeting our needs for intimacy. None the less, remembering to nurture a friendship with your spouse will help you get through the harder times in life together. As you get older it is this warm, respectful, loving way of relating that holds you together. I am actually in the process of writing another book for couples over 50 who are facing the challenges and new opportunities of the next stage of life. I want to inspire these couples to restore the connection and passion in their marriage, build on what they have shared, and imagine new possibilities for their future.