Therapy for Couples After an Affair
Has your relationship experienced an emotional or sexual affair? Are you feeling confused and conflicted in trying to work out where to begin to recover from such a devastating event?
Let me help you!
Should I stay or should I go?
Following an affair, the betrayed partner experiences a rocking of their world and may be left wondering, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ Although recovering from infidelity poses many hurdles, it does not necessarily mean that a couple’s relationship is doomed.
An affair is a cataclysmic event in a couple’s relationship. For the betrayed partner, the initial shellshock response may include anger, sadness, pain, and humiliation. These symptoms closely mimic post-traumatic stress disorder and can even linger long after the infidelity was discovered. Despite this, it is possible for couples to heal, rebuild and move forward. However, it takes work and recommitment.
What goes wrong that causes infidelity?
Affairs (other than sexual addictions) are typically caused by a cascade of events that begin with eroding trust. First, a person turns away from a partner’s bids for emotional connection and is not there for one’s partner. Over time, trust continues to erode through emotional dismissing. Soon conflict becomes an “absorbing state” of negativity in which repairs fail and conflict discussions are almost always negative and painful. As a result, the couple begins to avoid conflict and disclosing their disappointments and needs with each other. Then there is a gradual process of investing less and less in the relationship and looking for another person to make up for what is allegedly missing in the marriage. There is also an absence of cherishing the partner and feeling grateful for what the partner provides. Instead, the person focuses on resentment for what the partner does not provide. Positive qualities of the partner are minimized, and negative qualities are emphasized. There is no cherishing of the partner, only “trashing” the partner instead. As this continues, eventually there is a blurring of boundaries between self and potential others, until the spouse gives him or herself permission to actually cross boundaries and begin an affair. Deception increases until finally, the affair is discovered.
First Trust Erodes
- Partners avoid fighting, and then they stop sharing their negative feelings and needs with one another. They may do this in the interest of maintaining peace or being considerate. By hiding their feelings and needs, they develop the habit of living with secrets. In this way, small deceptions begin.
- They start to drift apart and look to others to fulfill the needs their partners are not meeting. This is done quite innocently in order to not burden the relationship.
- Because their partner is not there for them when they do have needs, TRUST in their partner erodes. They learn that their partner does not have their back.
- Partners start negotiating for the best arrangements that meet their own needs, instead of trying to meet each other’s needs.
- Partners start making negative comparisons between their spouse and someone else, real or imagined, thinking their spouse is “less than” that other person in a myriad of ways. In other words, they think, “I can do better with someone else.” For example, after an argument a partner may think, “I wish I had a less selfish partner.” They imagine some real or imagined alternative relationship would be better than the one they are in.
- The partners start to become lonely.
- They begin to minimize their partner’s positive qualities and to exaggerate their negative qualities. They mentally “trash” their partner instead of cherishing them.
- They find other individuals to meet some small needs that the relationship is not meeting, such as a light conversation.
- One person in particular seems good at meeting their needs. They seek out more and more contact with that individual.
- They keep secret from their spouse their contact with this individual.
- They share their deeper feelings and needs with that individual, including their marital unhappiness.
- They draw closer to this individual, and thicken the wall between themselves and their spouse, using secrecy and deception to hide their involvement and time spent with the other person.
- Eventually, the betraying spouse crosses marital boundaries, emotionally and/or physically.
We know that many affairs do not follow this slow cascade. Some betrayals are merely a matter of opportunity, poor impulse control, and immorality, for instance, the classic one-night stand. However, most affairs are not about sex at all. They are about finding someone who genuinely likes you in the context of loneliness in a devitalized marriage. So, the cascade process of actual betrayal can be, and mostly is, glacially slow. It can also occur outside the couple’s awareness. This cascade also has important implications for what needs to be reversed in treating infidelity among couples that opt to stay together.
Levels of Infidelity
People have different views of infidelity. Some believe that their partner’s viewing of pornography is cheating or unfaithfulness and may feel inadequate when their partner engages in this behavior.
Many people view sex outside the relationship as infidelity but may not see emotional affairs (attachment to someone else) as cheating.
Cyber affairs committed through sexts and chats online also are considered infidelity by some people. These activities hurt relationships, and an emotional affair may do more harm than a physical affair.
The Gottman Affair Recovery Method
I use the Gottman Affair Recovery Method which is a research-informed three-phase process to help couples heal and recover from infidelity. The three phases in Gottman’s Trust Revival Method are: Atonement, Attunement and Attachment. There is no specific timeframe for completing the process.
The first phase, Atonement, involves helping couples dealing with the rawness of the discovery of the betrayal, the shattering of your secure base, and the turmoil, uncertainty and ambivalent feelings that have destabilized all you believed to be true.
Atonement is about the betrayer acknowledging that they hurt and betrayed their partner, being willing to listen to their partner’s hurt and answer questions about the affair. It’s accountability and transparency. Because the hurt partner may have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive thoughts, intense emotional and psychological distress in reaction to trauma triggers, hyper-vigilance, and negative changes in mood, behavior, and thoughts, it is important to keep the process constructive, differentiating negative emotions from criticism and contempt.
The protective perspective that “this could only happen to other people” now has been exploded and the inquiry must begin. The task here is to help the betrayed partner ask what he/she needs to ask to begin to make sense of this life altering experience. This phase is not about “why” but instead a long, slow, painful process of showing remorse and willingness to make amends, so the couple can emerge with new understanding, acceptance, budding forgiveness, and hope.
In the second phase, Attunement, the couple needs to rebuild from the ashes. With safety and security only tenuously established and forgiveness only tentative, the couple come together to build a new relationship.
Attunement is about learning to recognize your partner’s bids for connection, their feelings, and needs. Here, partners process their past failed bids for connection and regrettable incidents to see where communication went wrong.
Couples that have affairs often engage in avoiding conflict, so the therapist uses exercises to reverse this avoidance and help them address feelings and needs while validating those feelings and needs.
The purpose is to help deepen conversation, deal with gridlocked problems, and arrive at a compromise. Couples learn to listen, express their needs, expressing fondness and admiration, and create everyday connection.
Realizations of where things went wrong in the marriage should not be used to accuse the hurt partner for the affair. The betrayer always had a choice. However, it is good to understand what went wrong, but not to blame. This processing may also lead to more self-disclosure and vulnerability related to deeper needs, as well as more awareness that each partner felt lonely and abandoned.
In the Attachment phase, what was once destroyed is made whole again. It is here, after the couple has gone through the ordeal of processing the betrayal and begun to re-establish a base of connection that they work and build towards re-commitment, loyalty, and cherishing. As we focus on deepening the friendship that has begun to be re-established a real personal bond begins to take root.
In this phase couples talk about their future together. They talk purposefully about what values give their lives meaning, what dreams they have for their future individually and together, and their goals for fulfilling those dreams. This is also the time when I help the couple reverse the betrayal dynamic by helping them to focus on the goodness and beauty of their partner and their relationship.
Finally, couples define what the consequences will be if there is a future sexual or romantic betrayal. This conversation, with defined and agreed-upon consequences, is an incentive to finalize the healing from the betrayal and to change the patterns that preceded it.
What can I expect at the end of therapy?
The marriage that results from this process will not be the same as the marriage before the affair.
Yes, couples can recover from affairs, but the resulting marriage is a new one. The wounds of betrayal may never disappear completely; but there is an opportunity for renewed intimacy, hope, commitment, and trust.