As a marriage and family therapist working with couples in crisis, I see a fair percentage of clients who come to therapy because one of the partners has had an affair. The Gottman Institute reports 10-15% of women and 15-43% of men have been unfaithful, and while COVID-19 certainly complicated social engagement around the world, adultery survived.
The Trauma of Betrayal May Create Symptoms Similar to PTSD
Trying to reconcile feelings for a mate who has done the unsayable often leaves the betrayed partner frozen in a pattern of shock, disbelief, and fury. Betrayed clients nearly always report severe distress, as they cycle through piercing feelings of anguish, hurt, disgust, confusion, and the like. Experts on the topic of affairs compare the betrayed partner’s experience to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), replete with flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, trouble regulating emotion, sadness and diminished joy in daily activities including work and parenting.
For real healing to begin, both the betrayer and betrayed need to understand how the trauma of the affair has affected the betrayed, and how reactivity may be triggered in often unpredictable ways until trust is firmly re-established. This requires time, patience and a delicate balance of openness and safety. Working with a counselor trained not only in relationships, but also in trauma, may prove beneficial. While the couple remains the focus of the therapist’s attention, individual sessions are often provided to assist the client work through the difficult symptoms, and to show the partner how to respond effectively, not defensively.
Good therapy carefully paces what details of the affair are disclosed, and how, to avoid re-traumatization of injured clients, while ensuring they receive sufficient information to assess the facts, in an effort to restore trust. To help clients cope, I often integrate therapeutic journaling (what l call “mindfulness with a pen”) — a demonstrated way to help clients clarify thoughts, reduce stress and create new narratives as they pick up the pieces of shattered trust. The journal never tires of hearing the story and also never says “enough.” It can also aid a therapist working with the couple, detailing progress and setbacks between sessions.
Phase 1: Atonement.
As a therapist trained in Levels I and II of the Gottman Method, I lead couples through three important phases of recovery from an affair: Atonement, Attunement and Attachment.
The first phase of recovery, Atonement, asks the betrayer to atone for the breaches of trust. It begins with a commitment that the betraying partner has cut off all contact with the affair partner, and a negotiated agreement as to how the couple wants to handle any attempts at communication by the affair partner from whom the betrayed has separated.
In individual sessions with each partner, we outline what they perceive is needed to repair the betrayal wound. I discuss transparency and the efforts taken so far to expose the factual background of the affair. I encourage the parties to read Shirley Glass’s NOT Just friends: Rebuilding trust and recovering your sanity after infidelity, or otherwise discuss her guidance for safe, but not unbounded disclosure. Other good reads include The state of affairs by Esther Perel and (when the affair breaks the relationship or marriage) Coming apart by Daphne Rose Kingma.
I provide other books or articles of interest, as this often has a normalizing and soothing effect on the betrayed. Although nobody can say precisely how long, or exactly what it takes for trust to be revived after an affair, Glass found in her own clinical sample that couples who stayed in therapy more than 10 sessions had a much better chance of staying together than couples who terminated earlier.
How Far Into the Affair Details Do We Go? And Can We Get There Alone?
Research suggests couples wait far too long to seek help from a relationship specialist, and that many people think talking about the affair will only make matters worse. But as Glass notes, “Trying to recover without discussing the betrayal is like waxing a dirty floor.”
Disclosure of the affair during Atonement usually involves sharing data and access to phones, computers, applications, social media, credit card purchases and other methods of external proof needed to soothe the suspicions of the betrayed. I have some partners who search meticulously for every cue of indiscretion since their relationship began, while others drop the investigation much sooner, finding it robs them of too much energy or dysregulates them in ways they prefer not to experience. Each couple is unique and can establish what works for them. However, my sobering advice to the betraying partner is “Come clean, when asked” as transparency seems to work. According to research by Dr. John Gottman, when the betrayer agreed to answer questions and opened up to disclosure, the couple stayed together 86% of the time.
Therapists working with couples need to be comfortable tracking and monitoring, but not stifling, the betrayed partner’s need-to-know, while also guiding the parties to fight fairly and avoid the understandable desire to attack or punish the betrayer. The therapist must be careful not to overlook needs of the betraying partner, who is often flustered and frustrated, impatient to move on but unable to do so without a willing partner. Like it or not, even cheaters suffer as they face the music, often times without the support of family and friends siding with the betrayed.
I sometimes say that “Even the dog in the doghouse has rights,” encouraging betrayed spouses to avoid explosions of emotion, saving the most difficult or contentious disclosures for the therapy session. Otherwise, I hear lamentable stories about late-night arguments leaving both parties exhausted for the kids and work the next day. This makes both parties more vulnerable to flooding and over-reacting to daily stressors.
At this critical juncture, trained professionals can help the couple sort through the pain and emotional chaos with helpful communication tools and tips. Personally, I start with simple worksheets that I call the “classics.” In my experience, couples that integrate skills are better able to foster re-connection. The aim is to have each person accept the influence of, and be soothed by, their partner, instead of turning away from the relationship at this acute stage.
Phase 2: Attunement
In the Attunement phase, the couple addresses whether and how they can “be there” for each other. They begin to rebuild trust, piece by piece. The process of attunement includes:
A – Awareness of your partner’s negative emotion
T – Turning toward the partner
T – Tolerance
U – Understanding
N – Non-defensive responding
E – Empathy
At this stage, the betraying partner is encouraged to maintain a steady stream of honest disclosure. They must also avoid backsliding into secrecy or contact with the affair partner. I remind clients that no matter their progress to date, earnest apologies and repair attempts still need reinforcement. I ask them to set aside concerns that no matter what they do, the betrayed will discount the effort. “Buy the flowers anyway,” I say, but be mindful. Taking your partner to celebrate somewhere you took the affair partner may backfire and attempts to re-establish contact with the affair partner (or someone new) are a recipe for ejection from the home and relationship, permanently.
To foster attunement, we utilize Gottman’s Sound Relationship House Model, where renovations are in order to rebuild friendship, fondness and admiration, connection (turning towards each other), positivity, conflict management, dream-making and shared meaning in life. While deficiencies in the pre-affair relationship are important to address at this stage of therapy, they do not vindicate cheating nor justify blaming the betrayed partner. Instead, attunement aims to rebuild friendship and transform negative events of the past into opportunities for connection.
In What makes love last: How to build trust and avoid betrayal, Gottman and his co-author Nan Silver recommend the couple “go public,” sharing their renewed commitment with safe, close allies who may support the couple’s recovery efforts. For couples who choose not to share the rupture, I invite them to revisit rituals that first brought them together, be it nature walks, the beach or grilling outdoors. The key here is for the couple to solidify their bond and present as a unified whole again.
Phase 3: Attach
Risking physical intimacy after an affair can be quite vulnerable, but without sexual intimacy, the couple’s Sound Relationship House may remain vacant. If the couple’s sex life has screeched to a halt, we begin re-exploring their needs and desires and openly negotiating boundaries and preferences, while taking cues from the injured partner on timing. A steady dose of intimate conversations is often a good first step to rekindle the couple’s passion, but each circumstance differs. A healthy dose of patience cannot be underestimated, particularly where the affair was lengthy or involved multiple partners over many years.
Like recovery from an accident, a surgery or a pandemic, recovery from an affair can take time and require diligence, patience and protective measures. The process also benefits from the input of trained professionals, preferably a relationship specialist also trained in trauma. I integrate my training in Trauma Incidence Reduction, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Journaling to provide comprehensive service for my clients.
Many couples wait too long to mend their wounds, when early intervention can make a difference in the outcome of your future. I invite you not to wait. For some tools I may integrate into the stages of recovery, see the Toolkit Below.
If you and your partner need help navigating from betrayal to new beginnings, I provide free 15-minute consultations, in both Spanish and English, and welcome the opportunity to answer your questions and be of service. You can reach me at 954/247-8120 or by contacting me through my website, www.TheIntegralTherapist.com.