Healing After a Marital Affair

In the wake of an affair

There are few events in the life of a couple more catastrophic than the revelation of an extramarital affair by one of the partners.  Surviving and healing from this predicament is a daunting task – most couples need therapeutic assistance, and even with this support the process is painful and uncertain in outcome.

What goes on within relationships where affairs happen is complex and variable, but most of the time the relationship itself has been troubled long before the affair. Sometimes part of that trouble is that one of the partners is not aware of how damaged the relationship has become in the eyes of the other. It is easy for people to slide into ways of being with each other that are unsatisfying and destroy the connection between them. Once that happens, it can become even easier for a partner to find someone else who appears to offer what is missing in the marriage.

When an affair becomes known, the sense of betrayal that is experienced by the partner who was cheated on is usually overwhelming and catastrophic, and must be validated and addressed at the very beginning of therapy. At the same time, the therapist must also bring compassionate understanding to the factors and process by which the person who cheated came to enact that betrayal. In this way we begin to explore whether and how the couple may heal their relationship and perhaps become happy together.

How the Gottman approach helps

In the past few years I have been working with a large number of couples in this difficult circumstance, and have found John Gottman’s book, Making Love Last, an extraordinarily useful addition to the materials and interventions that are part of the Gottman method. It is the book that I ask both members of my couples to read when there has been an affair, as it provides a sense of the general structure of how our work will proceed, as well as specific interventions along the way. It even has a checklist procedure to help betrayed partners evaluate whether to give the betrayer a second chance by working on the relationship.

At a large structural scale, the work of healing is likely to move through stages Gottman calls “Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment”. As much as couples — particularly the betraying partner — would like to know how long these stages last, there is no way to know ahead of time.

In the Atonement stage, Gottman says, “Rebuilding cannot begin without the cheater’s continual expression of remorse, even in the face of the partner’s profound skepticism. Throughout this phase, the betrayer must remain patient and nondefensive.” This is difficult to do without therapeutic support, because the betrayed partner is so hurt and angry that the betrayer inevitably responds with a great deal of defensiveness. Containing this emotionality in a reasonably safe environment is essential to the healing process.

Gottman describes one of the many paradoxes that apply to this situation: even as we know that affairs take place within the context of troubled relationships, “Atonement cannot occur if the cheater insists that the victim take partial blame for the affair…. If a partner strayed in the midst of difficult circumstances, it may seem unfair for him or her to take all of the blame. But he or she must. Healing requires that the cheater listen to and understand the other’s pain”. It is only this kind of responsibility-taking that demonstrates sufficient desire to heal the damage caused by the betrayer’s actions.

On the other hand, Gottman says that in order for there to be a chance for the relationship, “the betrayed partner needs to work at not shutting the door on forgiveness. If he or she gets stuck in a position of inconsolable hurt and anger, the couple will not be able to resolve conflicts. The wounded partner must agree to cooperate as long as the betrayer is making the same effort.”

In the Atonement phase, there are a number of sub-tasks that must be carried out within the safety of the therapy office. (This safety is created by the therapist’s ability to understand what each partner is going through, even when the other partner cannot.) These sub-tasks include confessions about the lover, how the affair began, and how it was carried out – over time, all of the betrayed partner’s many questions must be answered, with the exception of sexual details.

The betrayer must make ongoing behavior changes to provide greater transparency and verification of his or her commitment to be faithful in the future. There are discussions to explore and understand the details of what went wrong in the marriage, and about the cheater’s reasons for returning to work on the marriage. There is an agreement that “any future infidelity will mean the permanent end of the relationship.” The last subtask of the phase is that the injured partner “begins to forgive”, meaning that “the deceived partner is willing to cooperate and trust, even in the face of uncertainty” and inevitable triggering of memories about the affair that occur in the ongoing life of the couple.

Although it is unpredictable how long these Atonement tasks will take to accomplish, I have usually seen couples gradually progress into phase two, “Attunement”. “After the couple emerge from the atonement stage with tentative forgiveness, they come together to build a new relationship. First, they acknowledge that the old one didn’t meet both of their needs. The victim should not be blamed for this past deficiency, but he or she must cooperate in constructing a new approach.” The communication techniques and therapeutic interventions brought into this sub-phase resemble the ones that Gottman therapists utilize with all couples, though there is a special emphasis on the rebuilding of trust and prioritizing the couple relationship over competing demands.

The “Attachment” phase includes work on rebuilding the couple’s sexual relationship, which is likely to have been severely damaged by the revelation of the betrayal. Making Love Last has useful guides for discussions about sex, and effective interventions for helping partners communicate about their availability for romance. In general, the book is quite helpful as a workbook and cookbook for healing.

What I bring to this work

I have been working with couples about affairs for 40 years, and have seen most of the possible variations of this extraordinarily difficult – and extraordinarily human – situation. Having lived through cultural periods such as the 1960’s — when there was dramatic relationship and sexual experimentation — I have a mostly non-judgmental attitude toward what arises in relationships, balanced by a deep appreciation of the suffering that is created by infidelity and lying, and a strong commitment to supporting faithfulness in marriages.

As a male therapist, I’ve usually had success at connecting with male clients who are nervous or reluctant about entering couples therapy, and in conveying an understanding of the biological and social pressures that impact men.  On the other hand, I’ve been a committed feminist since the mid 60’s, and a staunch advocate for women to stand up for themselves in relationships, as well as in societal roles.

Eight years of working with Child Protective Services, and my role as a father with three children, insure that I stay aware of the impact of parental relationships upon children in the family. Forty-five years of mindfulness training, and intensive training in DBT emotional regulation skills, helps me bring a calming influence to the intensely heated emotional moments that frequently occur between partners after an affair has been revealed.

One way in which my work is different from standard Gottman protocol involves couples in which the partner having an affair has not broken off contact with the other member of that affair. The Gottman rule is to not start treatment with such a couple until the betraying partner breaks off all contact with that other member. There is validity to this position, because it is very difficult for a couple to make progress on healing their relationship until the breakup of the affair is accomplished.

However, I have found it beneficial in some cases to work with couples even thought the other relationship is still occurring. I have sometimes been able to provid couples with a safe place to discuss what has happened to them, helping the betraying partner make a decision about whether to end the affair or the marriage, while also supporting the betrayed spouse with the additionally painful uncertainty of this situation. In some cases, betrayed spouses who have been willing to wait for some agreed period of time while the affair relationship went through its developmental process, have found their partner willing to break it off and recommit to the original relationship in a strong enough way that healing could occur. Of course, this approach is not right for everyone, and some betrayed spouses have benefited from making an immediate ultimatum that their partner must end the other relationship.

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