The Road to Recovery After an Affair
Judith E. Rader, MA, LMFT
Bob and Mary sit down for their first therapy session and emotions immediately fly. In tears, and alternating between anger and panic, Mary describes her recent discovery of Bob’s infidelity with a co-worker. Bob appears shell-shocked and ashamed, but quickly lashes out when Mary says how mortified his parents will be when she divulges his unfaithfulness. He wants to tell them in his own time. Then, as Mary shootsquestions at him — “How could you do this to me?” “What were you thinking?” — it quickly becomes apparent that any answer Bob gives will only serve to incur more of Mary’s outrage.
Infidelity is a common issue in couples therapy, but it also is one ofthe most challenging for therapists. Both partners are simultaneously grappling with acute and competing emotions, including a combination of shame, grief, fear, anxiety, and anger. The level of physiological, emotional, and cognitive distress may be so high it threatens to derail any therapeutic effort.
In addition, our cultural ambivalence is often reflected in the clients’ own confusion about what exactly constitutes infidelity. Emotionally unfaithful partners may state “Nothing happened” or “We didn’t do anything,” suggesting that infidelity refers only to physical contact. Equally confused injured partners might voice “I trust that you haven’t done anything, but I don’t like all the phone conversations you share.”
The most useful definition of infidelity encompasses the breaching of an emotional and/or physical relationship boundary. The specific nature of these boundaries varies somewhat from couple to couple. They are derived from the explicit or implicit agreements couples make about what is acceptable and unacceptable in their relationship.
Physical contact that does not progress to genital contact may be infidelity. Consistently sharing more of one’s intimate emotional life with a person, whom one is also turned on by, even if there is no touching, may be infidelity. An intense emotional relationship may progress to a physical relationship over time. Even if it doesn’t, an emotional affaircan damage the marriage bond. A simple “rule of thumb” is whether someone would feel comfortable describing to his/her spouse the conversation or interaction with the “friend,” including the length and/or the frequency of contact.
Therapy is typically a multi-layered process that occurs over many months, and sometimes years. In most cases, each of the issues below must be addressed in order for therapy to help couples remain in an intact and satisfying relationship.
Revelation of an affair is a traumatic event for the injured party regardless of whether the infidelity is discovered or disclosed. The injured partner may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress including flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, racing thoughts, intense anxiety, and difficulty eating, sleeping, and focusing. Flashbacks may be triggered by something as innocuous as being introduced to someone who shares the name of the third party or passing a motel. Hyper-vigilance often takes the form of rifling through the partner’s briefcase, scouring mail or phone bills, or pouring over saved text messages.
The discovery of a betrayal shatters the injured parties’ bedrock assumptions about their marriage, including beliefs about who their partner is as a person and the meaning of their relationship. Their nervous system may go into hyper-drive in an attempt to restore some sense of meaning. Just a few of the agonizing questions and racing thoughts the injured partner grapples with include: How could my partner so calculatingly commit lies of commission and omission to protect an intimate relationship with another? Will there ever be a sense of “we-ness” again? Will I ever be able to trust again? Has our whole marriage been a lie?
Therapists must normalize these post-traumatic symptoms and predict their presence for the foreseeable future. This serves two purposes. It helps decrease shame in the injured partner, who might otherwise feel weak for not “getting over it” as weeks pass. And it affords unfaithful partners a realistic view of the duration of PTSD symptoms, thus helping to stave off the annoyance or impatience they might otherwise demonstrate as months pass and their partner continues to question trust, or otherwise not return to “normalcy.”
Post-traumatic stress symptoms take many months or years to resolve, depending on how emotions are addressed and processed. Paradoxically, the unfaithful partner becomes the healing agent if symptoms are to abate within a continuing couples context.
Symptoms of the Unfaithful Partner
Unfaithful partners are often blind-sided by the depth of crisis that discovery precipitates. The infidelity could only be maintained by using some combination of rationalization, justification, and compartmentalization. The unexpected traumatic responses of their spouse typically obliterate any protective cover that these defenses afforded. Unfaithful partners are suddenly confronted with the breadth and direness of potential consequences such as losing a marriage, losing an intact family, and having their actions exposed to family members and friends. Therapists help them manage and process emerging feelings of fear, guilt, shame, worry, anxiety, and anger. If the affair has been emotionally intense, the unfaithful spouse may need months to mourn the affair, or may attempt to remain in contact with the affair partner. Therapists may intersperse individual sessions amongst regular couple sessions to help each partner process their respective emotions.
Given the acute distress in one or both partners following the discovery of infidelity, therapists may explore using medication to take the edge off debilitating anxiety and/or depression.
Determining Ambivalence or Resolve to Work on the Relationship
The partners’ desire to recommit to and work on their relationship should be gauged throughout therapy. Understandably varying degrees of ambivalence will emerge and recede based on, among other things, the quality of the marital relationship before the infidelity, the injured partner’s ability to process difficult pieces of new information, and the intensity of emotional connection between the unfaithful partner and the affair partner. Normalizing this ambivalence and patiently sticking to helping partners process ever-changing emotions is highly therapeutic at this juncture.
Co-Creating the Story of the Affair
If and when both partners agree to work on the relationship, the task of co-creating the story of the affair begins. Injured partners continue to seek and get answers to any remaining questions. At first glance, this continued attention to clarifying details may seem counterintuitive. How could determining the number of times extra-marital sex occurred possibly help? What benefit could there possibly be in determining whether there was phone contact with the third party during the couple’s anniversary vacation?
Simply put, human nervous systems have less difficulty processing difficult information than remaining in a perpetual state of “not knowing what’s what”. Hence, the obsessive quest for answers to provide relief from the “not knowing”. When injured partners finally know “what it (the extent of the infidelity) was,” they also blessedly know “what it wasn’t.” And then the important grieving process can truly begin.
Research suggests that piecing together the story of a traumatic event is vital to recovery. The reason support groups and debriefing are so helpful is that they satisfy this basic human need to heal by creating a coherent story of traumatic events and thereby gaining mastery over the previously emotionally unmanageable information.
Therapists encourage and coach the injured party to ask troubling questions. If certain answers do not “add up” or seem incomplete, therapists continually reassure the unfaithful partner of the importance of complete truthfulness in order to heal the relationship injury. While some therapists do not encourage focusing on details of the sexual relationship or obsessive ruminations over details of the events, others support the injured partner determining the level of detail needed. Many hold that it is easier for individuals to process grief or anger that might emerge from learning details of the affair than manage the distress that accompanies hyper-vigilant states of not knowing “what is what.” Therapists also encourage complete transparency in current behaviors; for example, allowing the injured partner access to email passwords, cell phone records, etc., until they are able to feel safe enough to let go their vigilance and concern. Because secrets and withholding create barriers and guardedness, the process of collaborating over questions and answers begins to restore intimacy and authenticity to the relationship. As partners co-create the new story, the affair partner loses the “one-up” position he or she assumed by alone being privy to important information about the relationship; and a "we-ness" begins to be re-established.
Therapists also help partners reach agreement on not telling their children details, keeping them out of arguments, and minimizing the amount of information shared with their parents if the spouses want to keep the marriage.
Affair-Proofing the Relationship
Infidelity recovery work is not complete until attention is paid to affair-proofing the relationship. Throughout therapy, partners identify vulnerabilities that rendered their relationship susceptible to an affair (though therapists must support the idea that infidelity is not an acceptable response to those problems). This requires injured parties taking responsibility for their part in the problems, without blaming themselves for the affair. It may take a long time for the partners to get to that place. Communication, relationship enhancement, and conflict resolution skills are taught so that partners can acquire the necessary tools to effectively advocate for unmet needs, address relationship gripes, and work through differences. The goal is to equip partners with the skills necessary to directly confront these naturally occurring relationship issues and upsets, rather than stuffing them or deflecting them through emotional and/or physical infidelity.
Following an infidelity disclosure or discovery, each partner struggles with a complex mix of emotions and competing needs that therapists must skillfully navigate. Important foci of infidelity recovery work include creating emotional safety, normalizing the extent and duration of post-traumatic stress symptoms, modeling acceptance of partner ambivalence toward staying in the relationship, and ultimately coaching the couple through the arduous task of co-creating a narrative that provides a shared meaning of the infidelity. Strengthening the relationship through teaching relationship enhancement and communication skills is a vital adjunct focus of this multi-faceted work.