Ellyn Bader

Momentum-imageWhen One Partner Keeps Obsessing About the Details of a Partner’s Affair

In today’s world of cell phones, text messages and emails, it has become much easier for partners to unearth infidelity – and to be able to follow the communication trail between lovers.

A couple comes to see you after an affair has been discovered. They are in crisis. You know how to handle the immediate crisis and how to slow them down and discourage them from making rash decisions about their future.

Even though the sessions are painful, progress is being made. Then 6-8 sessions later, momentum slows in a common way.  The betrayed partner can’t stop obsessing about details and wanting to know everything about what occurred.

Sessions revolve around questions like:

  • Where did you sleep with him/her?
  • How many times?
  • What did she/he have that I don’t have?
  • What were you thinking when you wrote this email (or that text)?

The questions become unrelenting and the search for more evidence doesn’t stop.

When this process goes on for too long, it just increases the pain for both partners and leaves you feeling helpless.

For you to keep positive momentum going, it helps a lot to know when  obsessing is valuable and when it’s not.

 

Obsessing and pursuing details can actually be very helpful for betrayed partners to:

  • Know what is lost and what they are grieving.
  • Externalize intrusive thoughts and images and get some reality testing.
  • Get important questions answered directly and honestly.
  • Create shared understanding about what actually happened at confusing times in the past.
  • Start putting a clear boundary back around the primary relationship.

And in some situations, getting the details reveals that the affair took place in the context of a good marriage and actually “was not personal.”

 

However, ongoing obsessing is NOT valuable in other ways:

  • It enables the betrayed partner to remain distant and avoid looking at his/her own issues.
  • The betrayed partner’s vulnerability stays hidden.
  • It may perpetuate the same distance that was a catalyst for the affair.
  • It keeps Persecutor-Victim dynamics going.
  • It may result in the betrayed partner re-traumatizing himself or herself with no relief or repair.

When you are confronted with ongoing obsession, you walk a delicate line. To maintain momentum you must be able to support the positive aspects of uncovering details while discouraging the processes that are destructive.

It takes practice to learn to confront the patterns that maintain regression, while simultaneously supporting the betrayed partner in making a good decision for him or herself about the future.

Act Now

  1. Please comment yes or no if you had thought about the positive value of obsessing about details. Do you see other positives or other negatives?
  2. To learn more about confronting the patterns that maintain regression visit Developmental Model.

This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.

About 

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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  1. What about when the betrayed partner doesn’t seem too affected by the infidelity? There aren’t questions or conversations about it. Just, “I forgive you. Now let’s move on.” The offending partner feels like it should be more than a mere bump in the road, and was hoping that this could be a catalyst for a new direction.

  2. I forget which master family therapist suggested prescribing a set time once a week for the betrayed person to ask all of her obsessive questions and her partner must answer kindly and honestly for one hour a week, After that the subject is taboo until the set time the following week. I found that this method worked to help calm the situation between them during the week and if necessary they brought up concerns that included her questions about the the affair during our sessions.

  3. Ellyn,
    Such excellent points you make! I too have worked with couples in which the obsessing about the affair has been destructive to the repair needed in the marriage. I love your emphasis on recognizing that a therapist must be able to walk a fine line between supporting the betrayed partner and confronting regressive behaviors. This so beautifully engages both partners in the process as opposed to simply blaming one or the other.
    In response to what was written before, while PTSD can be an outcome for some betrayed partners, I do not think that PTSD symptoms accounts for all of the couples we see who obsess after an affair. Especially if it’s been some length of time since the affair occurred. There are some people who have affairs who are genuinely unhappy in their relationships and do not have the strength to confront the issue. This is one of many reasons that a partner can cheat. Being able to repair this trauma requires both parties to feel respected and understood.

  4. I find that often the “obsessing” is a piece of the trauma that was experienced. I have had some success using EMDR for the obsessions that can’t seem to be worked through within the dyad or in therapy.

  5. Thanks Dr. Based for this valuable information. I agree especially with PaPatrice’s point. I think it is very important for the couple to bring out their hard to talk Issues as soon as possible. Couples tend to internalize their feelings and act out impulsively when he or she does not get validated.

  6. Helping couples after the trauma of intimate partner abuse requires clinical attention to the nature of trauma recovery. obsessive/intrusive thouhts are symtpom of trauma and must be treated as such. I have learned so much in recent years and hope our field will catch up soon regarding infidelity recovery.

    When therapists hypothesize that this real PTSD symptom is interfering with couples progress, we miss the first step. assessment. we also contribute to the common falacious cultural narrative “It [The victime’s response] may perpetuate the same distance that was a catalyst for the affair”. This statement shifts blame from the person who deceived and endangered their unsuspecting partner onto the victim.

    We (therapists and patients) want to believe any explanation other than a beloved and trusted partner is secretly endangering a partner who is unable to protect his or herself from STDs, privacy invasion, and potential financial and job/ career risks. and if children are involved, generational trauma transmission.

    Obsessive thoughts about adultery in the betrayed partner are intrusive thoughts. These are normal signs of PTSD after discovery. EMDR or other non traditional approaches are needed to treat this. without treatment, these symptoms can disrupt individual functioning for a very long time. couoles therapy cannot begin or proceed while a person is still in shock.

    With the hundreds of patients i have treated over the years, when such high anxiety is present in the betrayed partner, it has been systems signal that he or she is not safe, and the affair and deceit are continuing. the unfaithful spouse was gaslighting everyone – including therapists.

    Regarding blaming the betrayed partner, e.g. “distance ” in a relationship, or a host of other normal marital challenges that occur across the lifespan of a marriage. There are many ways to address unmet needs and boundaries without deceit and endangering a partner. We need to focus blame where it belongs, and hold the offender accountable. Lengthy affairs and chronic deceit are most often reflective of character disorder, addiction, mood disorder – or all three. these need to be assessed and sucessfully treated in both partners (if present) prior to couples therapy.

    We do a grave disservice to patients when we continue the cultural narrative of blameshifting onto the victime after intimate partner abuse. Intrusive thoughts are just one of the harmful – normal PTSD – consequences to the betrayed partner. in one case i treated, the unsuspected spouse was being followed by the jealous/ unstable boyfriend of her husband’s married adulteress. he harassed her as a way to get back at her husband who “stole his girlfriend” ..and he was married. (not makning this up) i had used a traditional model of couples therapy (unsuccessfully) and i learned the importance of thorough clinical assessment from this case.

    Your developmental model for couples may work for couples prior to infidelity.
    Perhaps the wisest approach to treating post infidelity couoles is:
    1)thorough clinical assessment (MMPI/ other psych testing) keeping in mind infidelity is often indicative of NPD,BPD
    2) treat individual symptoms with individual therapy
    3) begin couples therapy after each individual is stable, transparent, and has freely decided to recommit to a relationship

    Many couples successfully recover from infidelity, many do not. We are responsible for using best practices re: the nature of trauma. Asess and treat..and continue assessing and treating. Intimate partner abuse in the form of adultery requires the gold standard of clinical treatment as we monitor our own assumptions and influence by popular cultural myths about infidelity.

  7. Thank you Ellyn. This is very useful to get an awareness of the different implications of obsessing within the context of gaining and losing momentum in therapy. Following up on your thoughts, I think that obsessing in the aftermath of infidelity is protective when getting in contact with the self is overwhelming and so being obsessed with the details helps the betrayed partner distance her/himself by keeping the focus on the other. This is the preparatory phase before the grieving process can take place. The negative side of ongoing obsessing is that it maintains the status quo and blocks the betrayed from doing the grief work. This may be an indication of an unindividuated person who derives her/his sense of identity primarily from being involved in a relationship.

  8. I believe complete disclosure is vital as not only a genuine indication of repentance but also a personal source of reconciliation with oneself as the betrayer. Lets face it, we have to live with ourselves too.

  9. I find that it is difficult for a spouse to move past the affair unless they are able to ask as many questions as they need in order to gain an understanding…. but once that process is complete, I try to focus on the present interactions of the couple to move them past the affair…

  10. Good morning, Yes I have given some thought to the benefit of repetitive questioning as I had one partner who was Not telling the whole truth and the other senses it. I figured really getting things out on the table would help in the moving on. Still I Had Not thought out the number you have and that is a terrific help. I like the part about putting a solid boundary around the relationship.

    Best regards,

    Patrice Wolters
    Licensed Psychologist

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