One Affair, Many Divorces:
The Cascading Impact of Infidelity
The Red Well Theater Group presented a dramatic reading of Dinner With Friends, by Donald Margulies, at the spring meeting of PCFINE (Psychodynamic Couple and Family Institute of New England) in Boston on May 14, 2016. Dinner With Friends, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service of New York.
The acting ensemble showcased an all-Boston cast, including PCFINE members Barbara Keezell, MSW, Ron Goldman, EdD, Justin Newmark, PhD, and Belinda Friedrich, MSW and our musical colleagues from Boston Musa Duo, Zoya Shereshkova and and Yulia Musayelyan. The discussant was Eleanor Counselman EdD, CGP, LFAGPA. RWTG founding director Robert Schulte, MSW directed the play. RWTG member Rob Williams, MSW served as the narrator consultant to the program.
Many thanks to the PCFINE Program Committee for their guidance and support, including Susan, Rivka, Wendy, Brenda, Debora, Mark and KC, and extra thanks to Co-chair Susan Phillips, who was instrumental in selecting the play and coordinating the committee’s work.
ABOUT THE PLAY
In their fashionable Connecticut home, international food critics Karen and Gabe are giving a dinner for their married best friends Beth and Tom. Beth, however, attends alone. By dessert time it spills out from the devastated Beth that Tom has left her for another woman. Gabe and Karen are heartbroken, having expected “to grow old and fat together, the four of us”.
When a committed couple is impacted by infidelity numerous questions emerge, in search of deeper truths. “Why? Are you in love with him/her? Are you leaving me? What do we tell our children? Our friends?” This program featured a theatrical case study of two married couples coping with the shock of betrayal and its cascading impact on their entwined relationships.
The needs for secure attachment and exploratory excitement are difficult at times to reconcile within committed intimate relationships. It’s instructive to look at how each couple in this play works out their own unique balance between these, sometimes competing dimensions of married life. A companion idea is around the concept of fit. As therapists, we know there are good fits and bad fits. How does this factor predestine a couple’s future? In this play, both couples are challenged to reconsider their mate choices, without a guarantee of how that reappraisal might ultimately impact their lives.
A clinical commentary relevant to couple therapy and an audience discussion followed the play reading. The text of the discussion (as delivered by Eleanor Counselman EdD, CGP, LFAGPA) is presented below.
The late Stephen Mitchell wrote: “The central dynamic struggle throughout life is between the powerful need to establish, maintain and protect intimate bonds with others and various efforts to escape the pain and dangers of those bonds–the sense of vulnerability, the threat of disappointment, engulfment, exploitation and loss.” (“Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis: An Integration,” p. 29).
Or, as the character Tom says more graphically, “How do you keep love alive when you’re shoveling shit all day?” (p. 91)
There are many ways to think about this play and the relationships portrayed. In a way it is like a couples treatment that shows the two sides of dilemma that Mitchell cites. You could even think about the two couples as two sides of one couple relationship: the tension between the comfort but tedium of the familiar and excitement and longing for the new.
The opening scene is like a first couples therapy session. We get a snapshot of the relationships and of the presenting problem. We are engaged by Beth’s distress that her husband is leaving her for another woman. We see Tom through her eyes – a cheating scumbag who has left his wife and two children – the cherubs – for a stewardess. Beth paints him as a man with some kind of midlife crisis, seeking sex from her in a movie theater.
Karen and Gabe’s relationship is not presented as a problem. We are introduced to them as a couple of foodies who playfully describe their recent trip to Italy. But is something a little posed about them? Is there something a little forced about their repartee? Are they trying to look and sound better than they really feel inside? Or are they representative of an intimate and secure relationship?
Later, in Scene 3, we get Tom’s side of things. It turns out that he has been lonely for years and that the physical longing he has had is not merely sexual but for basic affection, for the human touch, that he now has with Nancy, (who he clarifies is a travel agent, not a stewardess.)
So already we are in that familiar couple therapist position of being presented with two perspectives, two stories, about the same relationship.
After our Act I “intake” in Act II we get some history in the scene on Martha’s Vineyard where we learn how Beth and Tom met. Karen and Gabe, already married, have invited Gabe’s good friend Tom to visit, as well as Karen’s friend Beth. We learn that Tom and Beth had met before, at Karen and Gabe’s wedding, and Gabe recalls her as “the woman dancing all by herself on the dance floor doing that weird Kabuki shit.” Is Beth authentic or is this some artistic persona she has? And does her lack of conventionality appeal to the somewhat burned out lawyer, Tom?
When Tom tries to ask her about her art – “what kind of stuff do you do? Expressionistic, neo-psychotic…?” Beth responds rather hostilely: “Who are you to me anyway?” Tom: “You’re right, I’m a nobody.” Is this a harbinger of things to come? Certainly not the best predictor of a loving relationship,.
In the same scene Karen and Gabe talk about being married:
Karen: ”The social pressure that comes with being single is gone.” “What was nebulous and noncommittal is now right out there, in sharp focus: We’re married. We’re a married couple.”
Gabe: “It’s strangely comforting: There’s no way out now, you’ve gone and done it; may as well relax and enjoy yourself.”
This stirs Tom and Beth to talk about how tired they are of being single. Is this what made them get married? After Karen and Beth go out on the deck to watch the sunset Gabe asks Tom what he thinks of Beth. Tom says she is nice, intense, “Better yet, what does she think of me?” When Gabe says he thinks Beth likes Tom, Tom says “Then I like her.” In fact, we see a few other things in this snapshot of their history that don’t bode well. Tom’s sarcastic remarks about Beth’s art, and Beth’s negative comments about how Tom was treating the girlfriend he brought to Karen and Gabe’s wedding.
We don’t know what their courtship – if any – was like but we are seeing a powerful pull to join their friends Karen and Gabe in this seemingly attractive place of being married. In an intake, a couples therapist might ask Tom what drew him to Beth. It would not be very reassuring if all he could say was that Beth liked him.
Now let’s think about Gabe and Karen and their relationship. We initially see the Karen/Gabe relationship as driven by Karen. She is more the warrior woman who makes her husband go fix the kids’ tape and who is so angry on her friend Beth’s behalf that she can’t stand to be in the same room with Tom. Her anger, her outrage – we are very familiar with these reactions to infidelity and a marriage breaking up –eventually soften to a much more vulnerable Karen at the end of the play
In Gabe initially we see a basically good guy who isn’t the most insightful or reflective. But he doesn’t get rattled by Karen’s ferocity, and he tries to be a good friend to Tom in the third scene when Tom comes over to their house. Is he the steady anchor in the relationship with warrior Karen?
Scene 2 shows us a different version of the Beth/Tom marriage, as so often occurs in a couple therapy. After Beth admits that she told Karen and Gabe about their separation, Tom asks ”Did you tell them what you did to me, how you killed my self-confidence?…How I tried to get you to listen to me – for years – but you wouldn’t? Did you tell them that? …I cried out for help, so many times…” This is despair of a man who has felt lonely and shut out for a long time.
The next scene at Karen and Gabe’s is painful. Tom is aware that Karen and Gabe have heard Beth’s side and he fears judgment, which he gets in spades from Karen. He tells Karen she can hug him, “I’m not contagious.” He is speaking to a fear many couples experience when good friends split up; “could this happen to us?” Gabe, ever rational, tries to reason with Tom and offers solutions, “have you tried counseling?” this is just the “heat of the moment – and Tom pleads with Gabe just to listen. “If you were really my friend, you’d just listen.” “I hope you never know the loneliness I’ve known.”
The final scenes of the play occur six months after the opening scene. We see change in all the relationships. Beth and Tom have split. Beth and Karen have lunch and when Beth complains about Tom, Karen can ally with her around Tom’s bad behavior. But then the subject turns to Beth and how she has mostly disappeared from Karen’s life. To Karen’s surprise (and maybe disappointment?), it turns out that she has adjusted quite well and is not in need of Karen’s sympathy. This changes the dance between the two of them. Beth has not only quit her art, admitting “I was never very good” and she has reconnected with David. Here we get wind of an interesting backstory – that she had some kind of relationship with David ten years earlier – and now his marriage has also fallen apart.
Karen still can’t quite comprehend all this and is somewhat patronizing, saying that “it is great that you’re getting your feet wet” and Beth insists it is a lot more than just that. She is clearly having a lot of fun, and Karen doesn’t know what to do. “Boy, that was fast…Tom is barely out the door…you didn’t want to be alone for a while?” Beth says she was alone all twelve years of her marriage so why should she want to be alone any longer? She insists she is in love with David.
Karen says stiffly “I wish you well” and insists she is only thinking of what is best for Beth. Beth pushes back hard, confronting Karen with “I think you love it when I’m a mess…The minute I show any signs of being on an equal footing with you, forget it; you can’t deal with it, you have to knock me over…”
Karen is truly shocked by this confrontation and says that Beth is her chosen family, alluding to having worked hard to get away from her own family. But in a shift that indicates that these two friends will continue some relationship although not as close as before, Beth asks “How are the boys? And you and Gabe?” and Karen replies “We’re good. We’re fine.”
The scene between Tom and Gabe is more painful, and the gap seems wider and more permanent. Tom is so over the top excited about his new life – sex every morning, the weight loss, all the exhilaration of new love. “She saved my life.” But Gabe’s reaction is “You sound like a fucking moonie to me.” Tom found his former life deadening, but Gabe defends it as “the price you pay for having a family.”
Tom insists that he just wants Gabe to be happy for him and then adds “You’re not immune to all this, you know. Even you and Karen.” (Remember how he insisted in the first act that he was not contagious.) Gabe insists that marriages go through rough patches but you just ride them out. Tom derides that and says he is just trying to prevent him from the same painful experience he had. But Gabe comes back with “You don’t get it. I cling to Karen. Imagining a life without her doesn’t excite me; it just makes me anxious.”
Gabe’s hurt moves into sadness as he says “we were supposed to get old and fat together…I thought we were in this together. You know? For life.” As they part, Tom says he’ll call Gabe. Gabe’s response is “Bye.”
So we have seen the dissolution of Beth and Tom’s marriage, the end of the couple to couple relationship, what I would call the reorganizing of Karen and Beth’s friendship, and now most likely the end of Tom and Gabe’s friendship. What about Karen and Gabe?
In the final scene Gabe and Karen are having an intimate talk in bed. Karen shares her dream of being in bed with the other couple, also them, who are bickering and criticizing. Perhaps this dream reflects the inevitable tension in a long intimate relationship – the love and the bickering.
Gabe, who has been pretty articulate about his feelings about Tom, has trouble talking about the dream but finally says that it is “what happens when practical matters…begin to outweigh…abandon.” Karen is clearly touched and asks Gabe if he ever misses her. When he says with great feeling that he does, she ends the play with “How do we not get lost?”
In conclusion, some of the things we might want to think about as couples therapists: how would you help Gabe and Karen not get lost (to use Karen’s word)? What about Tom and Beth? What would you make of their new relationships? Are they better off out of their marriage or are they in a flight into health/honeymoon stage? And can or should a long term marriage sustain “abandon?”