FINDING THE RIGHT THERAPY
I have a lot of couples who come to me after they have worked with another therapist to help heal an affair so I have seen some of the disastrous results of working with a therapist who is inexperienced in affair recovery.
When I speak to other therapists on the topic of infidelity, I always ask, "How many of you were trained in graduate school on how to help couples after an affair?"
Usually, I'm lucky if I get one or two hands raised. This always amazes me as statistics show that 20-40% of heterosexual married men and 20- 25% of heterosexual married women will have an affair during their lifetime.
Any couples therapist knows that affair recovery is one of the most common reasons couples reach out to a therapist. Yet, remarkably, few therapists actually receive specific training on this complex, traumatic breakdown in marriage. This, however, doesn't prevent therapists from working with couples who are struggling with the aftermath of betrayal.
This lack of training is a travesty given all that is at stake. Affairs rock the very foundation upon which marriage is based. Plus, betrayals trigger intense primal emotions that can easily hijack therapy sessions unless the therapist has solid plans about how to handle escalated feelings and interactions.
The therapist should have clear responses to the common questions betrayed and unfaithful spouses ask:
Should I stay married?
How could my spouse do this to me?
Will I ever be able to get over this and feel myself again?
If I share information with you (the therapist), will you tell my spouse?
How can talking about the affair as much as we do be helpful?
Will my spouse ever stop feeling triggered?
Won't it hurt my spouse to share all of the gory details?
When will we ever be able to stop focusing on the past?
I cheated because my marriage wasn't working for me. When can we focus on that?
How will I know that my spouse will never have an affair again?
How will I know if the affair is really over?
Should we tell the kids?
Is it okay to talk to family and friends about what happened?
I've apologized. So, why does my spouse keep focusing on the affair?
How do I stop seeing pictures in my head about the affair when we start having sex?
How long will it take for our marriage to be in a better place?
Even though infidelity takes a real toll on relationships, most couples choose to remain together for a variety of reasons. Staying together usually ends up meaning to "divorce" the old marriage and co-create a new one.
To help couples build "new" marriages after affairs, you must have a detailed road maps about the nature of forgiveness, realistic strategies for working through the pain, concrete steps to rebuild trust, and guidance on reconnecting emotionally and physically.
Without a clear framework, it's easy to feel lost, resulting in couples leaving sessions feeling worse than when you walked in. That's when some couples give up - and also when some couples come to me.
Please remember that the decision to divorce or work things out is one of the most impactful decisions you will ever make. Before taking this step, reach out and get qualified professional help. You and your family deserve it.
Roughly 40% of my couples begin therapy with me as a result of an affair which has brought devastation to their marriage and has thrown their lives into a crisis. Some couples feel completely hopeless and are certain that the relationship is over. Others are willing to try to move forward but have no idea how to do so while dealing with inflamed emotions.
In most cases, my clients describe the experience as a shockingly loud wake-up call. Although painful, they ultimately realize that it has the potential to lead to healing in their lives.
My role in your recovery is to provide a safe structured process to help you move forward. This structure is customized for each couple but usually consists of the following stages:
First Stage: CRISIS MANAGEMENT
1. MANAGING THE EXTREME FEELINGS: This often includes normalizing the extreme feelings that are being expressed, and learning to contain the anger.
2. SUPPORT SYSTEM: You will need a few trustworthy people who you can turn to for support. We will agree up front who should be told about what has happened.
3. BOUNDARIES FOR FEELING SAFE: I help you negotiate safe boundaries for physical space, sleeping arrangements, child care, touch, communication, money, and coordination of responsibilities during the recovery period.
Second Stage: RECOMMITMENT
1. ADDRESS AMBIVALENCE: In the midst of swirling emotions, it is extremely difficult to make a thoughtful decision about your marriage. Choosing your path forward is often based on careful consideration of your beliefs, values, needs and circumstances. As the crisis subsides, if needed, I will work with either partner to help you decide whether to attempt recovery. Often clients are unsure but will try affair-recovery therapy believing it will either heal their marriage or allow them to really learn how to be a better partner for future relationships and behave better in co-parenting.
2. ENDING THE AFFAIR: If the decision is made to recommit to the relationship, recovery must begin by the offending party severing all ties to the affair partner. If the affair continues in any form, the wounding and betrayal only get worse.
3. TRANSPARENCY: Transparency is an essential step in recommitment and in rebuilding trust. If the offending partner is able to offer complete access to cell phone records, emails, and computer accounts, restoration of trust can begin. In any information is hidden, even if innocent, it will slow down the healing process. The pain caused by dishonesty is often worse than the sexual or emotional betrayal.
Third Stage: REINVENTING YOUR MARRIAGE
1. RESTORING COMMUNICATION: After an affair, couples often lose the ability to have a simple conversation. Defensiveness and shame take over and destroy one's ability to listen and respond with compassion. When the betrayed partner expresses feelings with a partner who is unwilling or unable to listen, it heightens the already emotionally-charged feelings. I offer highly structured communication training to help the offending partner avoid the traps of shifting blame, denial of what happened, or withdrawal.
Also, the betrayed partner will receive training from me on how to ask questions in a non-accusatory way. This partner will often have a burning desire to understand how and why the infidelity occurred. These questions can only be answered by the offending partner; however, I work hard to keep the questions from degrading into counter-productive punishment of the betrayed partner.
2. UNDERSTANDING WHAT HAPPENED: An accounting of the affair needs to be discussed before the betrayed partner can believe that trust can be restored. Careful judgment needs to be exercised so that important details are brought to light while avoiding needlessly negative images of the affair which could unnecessarily magnify the trauma.
3. WHY IT HAPPENED / DECIPHERING THE MEANING OF THE AFFAIR: Most couples first assume that an affair was about the sex. It usually isn't. In my experience, there is usually a deeper reason. In therapy, the couple will begin a shared journey of soul-searching in order to develop a full picture of why the affair happened. A step-by-step review of the affair and your marriage will provide a pathway to clues for understanding. We will consider:
- how you may have been wounded by experiences during your childhood and how that is showing up in your current relationship;
- how you may be affected by previous damage (sexual, financial, parenting, or otherwise) by your partner;
- how your partner's qualities that drive you crazy may be ones that you long to have for yourself;
- how stressful events in your lives that occurred prior to the affair may have pushed you off-kilter and contributed to the struggles in the relationship.
To be clear, these problems are not justifications for an affair. Nonetheless, understanding them helps the couple to prevent recurrence.
For example, if the offending partner suffers from low self-esteem that was lifted up by the affair partner, then we will work on healthy ways to build confidence. If there was an anger issue in the relationship that created distance in the marriage, then anger management will be a major focus. If the betrayed partner was emotionally unavailable to the betrayed spouse, we will identify the roots of the unavailability and work toward vulnerability and openness.
In each case, I help you explore these deeper issues in a healing fashion.
4. FEELING THE IMPACT / RELEASING THE EMOTIONAL PAIN: The hurt partner will learn to talk in ways that allow your spouse to hear you and have compassion for your pain. The unfaithful partner will learn to listen in a way that encourages your partner to be vulnerable and open.
5. OWNING THE DECISION: The unfaithful partner will learn how to fully own the decision to have the affair without minimizing it.
6. TRUST-BUILDING EVIDENCE: You will rebuild:
a) Trust that your partner will be faithful. In doing so, you will both learn to recognize and manage your differences so that you can stay committed even at times when you do not feel loved or wanted in the relationship. We will identify specific steps that you will take in these circumstances and thus provide "Trust Building Evidence" (T.B.E) that the betrayal will not happen again.
b) Trust that your partner will address your struggles with the relationship and not cause you to regret your decision to recommit.
7. SEXUAL INTIMACY: Restoration of sexual intimacy is a critical part of the healing process. I support couples as they seek to acknowledge sexual fears and regain trust in the bedroom.
8. FORGIVENESS: Only after all the steps above take place, the gift of forgiveness can be given and a new marriage can begin.
I believe that good people can become lost in a marriage and make costly mistakes. While an affair is a devastating event, there is a path to healing if both partners are willing to be honest and re-commit to the relationship. The goal is never to return to the marriage that was, but to create a RADICALLY NEW marriage that is much more capable of meeting each other's needs - a new marriage that is based on commitment, deep friendship, and passion.
INTENSIVES: Some couples are in complete crisis after the discovery of an affair. If this is the case for you, I offer extended care (more than my regular double session to start) to help you deal with the confusion and extreme emotions. If this is you, please talk to me about an Affair Recovery Intensive.
PERSONAL NOTE: On a personal note from me, working with couples who have gone through an affair is often the most difficult and the most rewarding work that I do. The lows can be painful but the highs and the re-birth of a marriage are glorious. I welcome the opportunity to go through this journey with you.
Books: Not Just Friends, After the Affair / Getting Past the Affair / Torn Asunder (Christian) , You, Him and the Other Woman. These books can help but they will probably not be enough. Personalized support by an experienced therapist is usually key to survive the crisis and rebuild the relationship.