Q: I’m in a relatively “new” relationship. We recently moved in together and now my girlfriend’s mother is spending more and more time at our house. Maybe an exaggeration, she lives close by and she’s always here, and there’s been no setting limits. I’ve explained too many times that I want “us” time, I want privacy, to set limits about when and how her mother can be here (we invite her or she calls first!), not to mention isolating during the pandemic without her mom coming and going. When I come downstairs in the morning, her mom is already here having coffee with my girlfriend. We’re now constantly arguing about her mom. It feels really intrusive and disrespectful to me, but she doesn’t see it my way at all. How can I get her 1) to understand this isn’t healthy, and 2) to work with me in setting good boundaries with her mother?

A: Given your girlfriend struggles with establishing boundaries with her mother, it’s possible she’s hard-wired to please as a survival strategy. That means she may have guilt about setting a limit. Try exploring with her what seems to be her fear. Perhaps she can share a painful childhood event that has evoked shame, thus leading her to protect her mom’s parenting faults. Tenderly uncovering the reasons for her collapsed boundaries with her mother will likely expose some overwhelming emotional experiences. It’s possible, as a child, she didn’t feel seen or heard or understood by her mom. By allowing her to always come and go from your home, she may still be looking for her mother’s love, acceptance, hoping to be seen by her mom. Reserve some time to share vulnerably with each other — no judgment or blaming. Instead, be compassionate and kind, validating her need to have mom there frequently. Express your concerns about isolating. Let her know how you experience the intrusion, without criticism. Ask her if she’s willing to brainstorm ways to make this work better, how you can support her in establishing healthy boundaries. If she hears your relationship is the priority, that you value time alone with her, it may help to bring about a more collaborative approach. Consider this a “work in progress.”

Q: My husband had an affair, which he swears was over a few years ago. It’s hard to move on, to believe whenever he goes out or whenever he’s lingering on the computer or his phone a long time, that he’s not communicating with her, or maybe another woman. As much as I try to let go of the betrayal, to trust him again, I can’t get past the deception and how deeply he’s hurt me. We did lots of therapy at first, which I thought was enough to repair what was broken, but I’m finding I still think about my husband with the other woman, even more during the pandemic. Often, when I’m driving or lying awake at night, on a walk, or even in the grocery store, I think she might be someone I unknowingly pass by. Although in some ways, with this virus shutdown, it feels like we’re getting close again, which a friend told me is my denial, that it’s not healthy. How do you forgive?

A: The range of emotions you’re experiencing is pretty normal. During COVID, past trauma and unresolved feelings can resurface, overwhelming those who have deep pain. Being in isolation together brings the relational issues into focus. As much as there are different ways couples reorganize their relationship after an affair, many marriages never get beyond the deep betrayal. In your case, it sounds like you’ve partially healed with “getting close again,” yet the hurt still overshadows your relationship. Affairs can trap partners in self-deprecating turmoil, recycling endless bitterness, shame and blame. That’s a formula for misery. Some post-affair marriages survive by sustaining their foundation of values, religion, family and friends, ultimately believing in their lifelong commitment. It appears your experience could be a different outcome, with the affair providing the possibility to transform your marriage, the “wake up call” to make significant changes to reinvent your marriage. You’re in a powerful role, if you so choose, in assuming the position of moral superiority, repeatedly admonishing your husband for his betrayal, despite his reassurances the affair was over long ago. That won’t help soften the sharp emotional edges.

It’s impossible to forgive quickly, or fully, because healing doesn’t happen all at once. Rather, trust may recover only partially, gradually, as the understanding of your unraveling deepens. Being able to forgive can be deep-rooted, driven by family-of-origin and cultural norms, sometimes from a multi-generational legacy. Affairs happen for a number of reasons, not the least of which are unfulfilled longings, retaliation and, yes, even basic lust. Sometimes partners rebel against rigid relational restrictions, crying out for the intensity of new discovery, liberation. Whatever the reasons, an affair signals the marriage needs to wake up, to pay closer attention to what’s not working. This betrayal can, in fact, provide a healing, a renewal, an opportunity to germinate the seeds of something positive. Trust in yourself to know if it’s time to leave the marriage, or to recommit to full intimacy in your relationship.

Q: I’m trying hard to avoid divorce. We’re constantly at odds with each other, exposing our kids to ongoing conflict. I’ve read your articles about the damage parents fighting does to kids and how to resolve conflict, but being together so much during this isolation time has driven us further apart. As much as we were having problems before, it’s gotten much worse. It reminds me how I used to fight with my siblings growing up, but at least we get along now as adults. I don’t think that will ever be possible with us, because we’re both shut down from each other. My husband says I always have to be right, that our power struggles are always his fault, that I think I know all the answers. I wish we could find a way to work it out.

A: This surreal time has certainly tested relationships, some faring better with having more time together, while others have been strained to the limit. If you truly want to avoid divorce, try asking yourself whether your husband’s description of your behavior is accurate. Be honest with yourself. Is your conflict in large part due to your need to be right, to always win every battle? If so, you have some work to do. Referencing your childhood sibling fights suggests that the frustration and/or indignation you may feel in your marital dynamics have possibly been generations in the making. Your childhood influences your relational integrity, and sharp reactions indicate there is healing needed. One powerful tool is agreeing that when either of you is crabby — increasingly taking jabs at the other — the recipient will draw a firm boundary to disengage from the criticism. Example: You are being a disrespectful, unfair partner. In return your spouse puts up his hand, firmly saying something like, “Stop. I don’t want to be spoken to with that disrespectful tone.” If you don’t stop, your spouse ends the conversation immediately, continuing, “I’m not participating in this conversation until you’re ready to speak to me in a way I can listen.” The bottom line is being clear that you’re willing to engage in any topic of conversation as long as the approach is respectful and collaborative.