THERAPY AFTER AFFAIRS
I have updated this Blog post with some resources…
Many couples are struggling to make sense of the amount of hurt, anxiety and uncertainty right after the ugly truth of one partner having had an affair spilled or trickled out. A first approach often taken by the person betrayed (or both) is to look up on the Internet where to start and what to do. Putting aside the good intentions of many helpers, not all what is suggested is actually helpful and some of these well-intended comments and suggestions may even cause more hurt and anger in a relationship that is already in crisis. I am discussing three of the most common suggestions often provided and I explain where I feel these miss the point.
Some therapists emphasize that the spouse of the partner who had the affair, needs to focus on understanding where this behaviour is coming from to create a better marriage.
Although the majority of what has been published by couple counsellors, sex therapists and those who are perceived by others or themselves as experts, on the topic of Extra Dyadic Sex (EDS) (i.e. sex outside a committed, monogamous relationship) is acceptable and based on common sense and therefore shared knowledge, some statements, are off the mark or straight out hurtful.
The above statement is one of those unhelpful ones. It assumes that something was wrong in the marriage and that the “symptom” of the ill marriage is EDS. It suggests that both equally contributed to a disconnection. Of course, no marriage is perfect, seeking a “solution” outside the marriage has never been a solution.
I do not believe that a person choosing to have EDS does it because of a lack of satisfaction in their marriage. Those who engage in EDS often have not even considered the consequences to the relationship and the long term hurt done to their partner. The fact that most of those who have affairs do not want a separation or divorce highlights that it is not the push, but the perceived pull that has them choosing an affair.
Asking for understanding from a betrayed partner is not leading to anything as the behaviour defies all logic. Trying to understand why a spouse starts an affair by looking at the marriage as a first line approach is a dead end. A more effective approach on analyzing how come a partner starts an affair, is starting right there with that partner and their thinking…and it is this partner who must do most of the initial work whether it helps the marriage to heal or not. After this work, which is crucial, and which involves introspection, a couple need to have serious conversations about the consequences for the relationship and how to rebuild if this is considered an option.
A therapist can be invaluable to assist a cheating spouse who has remorse to do “the work’ which first and foremost requires of the individual to take full responsibility for their behaviour and to be brutally honest with themselves and their therapist.
Advising people to forgive and move on….
Whether a person who has been deeply hurt is ready to forgive is up to them and them only. I have always found that the push from others for forgiveness has something uncomfortable. It comes over as criticizing and judging those who are not forgiving the ones that hurt them.
A second problem I have with the push to forgive is that it is highly personal in many ways; the meaning given to forgiveness and the readiness to go there, or not yet, or only partly, is a personal journey.
There is something as justified anger, and although that does not mean that the anger can be expressed in all sorts of way and all the time, anger has a purpose and can help a person to look deep into themselves to find out where the anger is coming from and integrate these experiences into a process of healing that includes self-respect and confidence building.
A claim frequently found on reconciliation websites: The marriage can be better after the affair.
This statement assumes that marriages that “heal” after an affair are going to be better or stronger marriages as the problem part has been addressed. Some even go as far as to state that only because the affair happened, the couple realizes that the marriage was not healthy or not meeting the needs of one or both partners. The problem with all of this is that the “helpful” therapist is too easily putting aside that affairs are secret. That affairs are “benefiting” the one spouse and that the spouse who engaged in the behaviour used deception and manipulation to keep the secret behaviour going. The one who had the affair placed the physical, sexual and emotional health of their partner at risk. The one who had the affair used couple and family time and resources, as well as work time to interact with an Affair Partner (AP).
Then there are the other losses. Despite wide media coverage and a public that is obsessed with sex and infidelity, no one perceives the role of the betrayed spouse and the betrayer as something sought after. In fact, most people trying to heal, or working on solutions keep the issues for themselves due to the stigma attached to it.
Family members, parents and siblings and close friends often know something is going on, but they are not told the entire story. The reasons are obvious, if a couple wants to heal, it is not helpful to have to face the emotional stuff from others. They rather avoid unwanted advice and comments devoid of empathy.
A betrayed spouse who never had a need to hide the truth, might have to do this. By keeping secret that their spouse had an affair, they have to keep secret a lot of other things as well. It means becoming less genuine and although it is for the right reasons, it is a loss.
Sure, there are stories about partners who did not have a good relationship, but who report to have a better one after the affair. It makes me a bit ill inside as I wonder why an affair was needed for people to start talking. So, are they really telling me when trust is damaged in a relationship, a marriage can be better than before?
One could state that the marriage is better after the affair when communication is better, equality established, and dishonesty no longer tolerated. But this is just looking at the observable here and now behaviours. One is not looking at the pain and hurt on which this “better marriage” is build. It takes a lot out of a betrayed partner to stay, to find a place for all the grief and to have hope again for the future. The relationship after-affair remains fragile as trust building is a long and slow process.
Despite all this….from intense pain some very good things can develop. Insights, openness and a refreshed look at both of your values. Did you take your partner for granted? Are your needs met…Do you meet the needs of your partner? What is important? What is meaningful and what brings you joy? How can you make your relationship a better one?
A good therapist recognizes all the losses as well as the silver lining, and helps couples to find joy and value in the process of healing and re-connecting.
I recommend two books and they need to be read in sequence:
1. Gottman, J., & Silver, N., (2012). What makes love last? A couple healing needs to go through three stages: Atonement, atunement and attachment…
2. Harris, R. (2009). ACT with love. This book might help with the relationship building piece…