A Couples Therapy Session After Infidelity: Transcript of a Role-play

Infidelity can be devastating to a couple’s relationship.Even before we walk into the room and learn anything about the couple, we can be sure the crisis has them deeply unsettled.

In my last blog post, I gave an overview of some of the issues you are likely to confront when working with a case like this. If you missed it, you can find it right here.

Many times, a couple will want to rush you, or you may want to rush yourself to move faster than a couple is ready. So, in your work, it’s crucial to slow things down. One way to slow things down is to use the Initiator-Inquirer process with them.

The Initiator-Inquirer is a powerful exercise that gives partners specific skills to learn and apply so they can manage their own emotional volatility during tense discussions.

For the therapist, watching partners in the exercise provides a very explicit window into each partner's level of differentiation and allows you to fine-tune your interventions based on each partner's level of development. In case you are unfamiliar with it, you can read about the Initiator-Inquirer Process here.

Today, I thought it would be useful for me to share a role-play demonstrating how I might address some of the challenges that can typically come up.

We’ll call this couple Logan and Marta. I’m going to walk you through how I would work with Marta in the Initiator role after discovering her partner, Logan, had cheated on her

There's two parts to it. I feel like I need to monitor you and detect what's “off” and be on the lookout for anything that says you're cheating, and not just that you're unhappy. And the second aspect is the pressure of feeling like this is all reactive due to problems in our relationship. Like this is partially my fault, and it wasn't. There are problems that were going on before, but those choices that you made were your choices.

Logan: You feel that there's an unjust burden on you to monitor me and try to see if I'm just unhappy or if there's something going on. That's not a burden that you should have and, given a previous incident – or partly because of issues in our relationship, that makes you feel responsible, which you know is not the case. But that feeling is still there.

There isn't enough trust that I would come forward if something were to happen, and it makes you feel like you need to be digging for things to be sure it's not happening. That is unfair because it's not your responsibility to do detective work.

Ellyn:(to Logan) You've just said a lot here. You're recognizing responsibility to be a good partner. You're saying, “Yeah, I need to be. I want to be a good partner.”

Ellyn:(to Marta) And you're recognizing that you don't really want to be monitoring Logan in the future. The fact that you currently feel like you have to is part of the challenge for you in
moving beyond the infidelity .

MartaI want to correct that. I don't feel responsible at all. I feel like our issues are significant and valid, but the response to any of those issues is not go out and cheat and lie about it. And it makes me feel like there's pressure on me to be on the lookout for that kind of behavior again, or if it happens again that it's my fault.

Ellyn: So, I really love what you're saying here and what you're bringing up because you're really starting to get into the intricacy and the complexity of getting out of this conundrum of being the one who's monitoring him. And you're really starting to say essentially, “I don't want his choice to cheat to be my responsibility in any way. I don’t want to be “on duty”– looking for hints that he’s been cheating again.”

Marta:Yes, absolutely.

Ellyn: And I think it's really hard for you to know how to say to him, “I want you to deal with the part that's on your side, and I'm going to take responsibility for what's on my side. But I really want you to take responsibility for monitoring yourself. I want it to matter to you that you don’t lie.

Logan: I think you've said that a lot of times.

Ellyn:(to Marta) I think you've said it at times of anger. But, I haven't heard the two of you be able to really talk about it in a meaningful way yet.

Marta:That's probably true.

Ellyn: And I'm seeing you do some really good work today, where you're starting to tip toe into what I would call, at this point, a gentle confrontation of him. You're really saying, “This position that I'm in is too painful for me. And are you going to face yourself? Are you going to get yourself to a place where you won't lie to me?”

Marta: I would love it if you would do that.

Ellyn: I'm sure you would, I'm sure you would. And so, can you just for a minute say to him, “I really hope that the two of us can get to a place where you know you won't lie to me anymore?”
Marta:Okay. Yeah. (To Logan) I really want to get to a place where you don't lie to me anymore and I know that.

Ellyn: (to Marta) And what do you feel when you say that so directly?

Marta:I feel like crying.

Ellyn:>Take your time. It's fine. It's okay to cry. And let yourself know what those tears are saying. When you say that directly to him and you start to cry, what are those tears saying?

Marta: It feels like a weight coming off my shoulders.

Ellyn: See if you can put that into a few more words like, what is that weight that's being lifted?

Marta: Well, ever since the day I found out that he cheated, and even more since the second time, I've just been carrying this around like I have to keep track of him. And even if I do that, I might still not know, and I might get blindsided again. It hurts so much, and I need to protect myself.

Ellyn: The protection is understandable and the weight is understandable. I think you haven't really known how to say, “It's important to me, I feel scared. It's really important to me that you deal with your side so that you won't lie to me again.”

Marta: I guess I haven't been able to believe that anything he could say or do would make me believe that.

Ellyn: Well, it's too soon to believe that. You have not seen him confronting his own values yet and the two of you have not processed enough between you yet. You're working on it, and you're moving ahead, but you haven't gotten there yet.

This is the art of the Initiator-Inquirer, and every time you're in the room with a couple where there's actually good work happening, the re are going to be choice points. In fact, the more good work each partner is doing, the more choice points you as a therapist will begin to recognize.

What I'm always looking for is, where is the developmental progress? And where can the next stretch occur? And when progress is there, I want to support and underline it. Or can I help the couple recognize their own progress?

In my next blog post, I’ll give you more of this role-play,demonstrating how I would support Logan in his role as the Inquirer.

But for now, I’m interested in hearing from you. How do you address this issue when the betrayed partner becomes hypervigilant looking for more deception? Are there any ideas in this role-play that might help your work? Please comment in the section below.

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Thank you, Ellyn! Obsessing about and monitoring an unfaithful partner’s actions after discovering their infidelity is quite normal. To help them avoid obsessing about it so much, I approach their behaviors as symptoms of PTSD. For example, hypervigilance about a spouse coming home later than promised, or being easily triggered by a grocery store where it is known the infidelity all got started, lead the betrayed partner to a constant flow of negative thoughts and emotions. The partner tries to make sense of what’s going on by either confronting their partner about it aggressively and rampantly, or trying to avoid thinking and talking about it altogether. Both approaches frustrate the couple’s relationship. The partner needs to desensitize their automatic reactions to these upsetting and familiar reminders of the infidelity, and respond more assertively. I bring clients’ attention to what is going on inside them, and help them use healthy tools to internally manage the triggers, and externally communicate what is going on to their partner so that their partner knows how deeply impactful their actions have been, and so the partner can know what behaviors to improve on to avoid re-triggering their partner.

Dr. Ellyn Bader
Dr. Ellyn Bader

Thank you Ryan. I think many readers would be interested in what you do to accomplish this-The partner needs to desensitize their automatic reactions to these upsetting and familiar reminders of the infidelity


I like to educate the client on how our Behaviors affect our thoughts and feelings. We typically only engage in these “checking” and “fact finding” behaviors when we are feeling disconnected from our partner. But those behaviors actually make us turn away from our partners and feel LESS connected to them and therefore we feel even MORE anxious. It is also frequently upsetting to our partner, who then acts in ways that makes us feel even more disconnected. So I like to encourage my clients to recognize when that anxious feeling of disconnection comes up, and to then turn Towards their partner instead, and do some behavior that helps them feel more connected to them (reach out and touch them, share a favorite memory with them, engage in heartfelt communication…) to break that negative cycle of disconnection.

Lea Boriskin
Lea Boriskin

You describe the internal emotional experience so precisely and eloquently to the couple. Reading your work has given me so much more confidence to be bold in the office and these methods have made my clients progress leaps and bounds compared to before I learned them. My work with couples is much more enjoyable now that I have taken your course because it is effective at resolving the tension.

Laurena M Lyons
Laurena M Lyons

I appreciate that you are willing to share this; however, it would be more helpful if it could be printed in full. It can’t. I tried both the first and second. It’s not my computer, since I’ve been printing things for the past half and hour, without a problem. Thanks anyway.


This is a tough one. I typically ask the betrayed partner what they need to see from the cheating partner that would help reassure them and help rebuild trust. Then, if there is a soecific behavior identified, I ask the betrayed person to ask one who cheated whether s(he) can do that. In subsequent sessions we follow through to see if the new behavior is occurring and whether it is helping rebuild trust. The tough part is that usually the betrayed partner says their partner is doing what s(he) committed to, but that s(he) still feels scared and unable to trust. This frustrates the cheating partner, and I have to emphasize that this isn’t a quick fix and encourage him to keep trying to earn back trust.

Reply to  Doug

I also discuss the emotional triggers in PTSD terms, and explain a little of the neuroscience to help normalize how hard it is to just put the infidelity behind them.

Helen Mounsey
Helen Mounsey

Thank you for this Ellyn. I value reading that you are going slowly, taking the process with the couple slowly. I sometimes normalize the need to check and recheck /monitor when there has been a betrayal (trauma akin to an assault)- but in the end ask Who is it helping? How does it help?
I am also aware I can make the mistake of hoping for/looking for insights or awareness on the part of the affair-er, before fully uncovering the fears. I need to be bolder – I like your tenacity and holding to that in the session.


Ellyn, I love it that both partners appear to be making personal efforts to change. My couples often get stuck in angry, hurt, attack, defending dynamics that make it very hard to move on. I have one couple right now and they’re stuck in accusing – defending and neither of them are able to look at themselves and assume any commitment to making changes. The wife especially blames her spouse 100 % and makes demands and gets very angry with me when I ask her any type of questions or make comments about efforts she may be willing to make, I think they are an angry-hostile dependant couple and I haven´t been successful at all. I like the way you feedback and validate whatever small progress she has made.

Nuala Kavanagh
Nuala Kavanagh

I hope I would tty to validate their actions, tell them how normal and natural it is to be vigilant and on edge and then I would ask them if it’s helpful? I would try to appeal to that part of them that wants to move forward and see if they can speak from that part…However, I think they need to be tired of being on high alert to hear me.

Rosario Fraga
Rosario Fraga

I found the initiator-researcher process in infidelity consultations to be very interesting, especially how it focuses on the development and progress of the couple after the event and seeks different conversations so that they can better understand each other in a meaningful way. In my practice I usually provide them with a safe space to talk with a particular form of conversation where both can listen to each other until the end without being interrupted. I think there is a false belief that with infidelity only one part of the couple suffers and feels bad, listening to each other both can realize that this is not the case and how much disorder the situation has brought to both members of the couple. in the complexity of this issue. I liked Ellyn’s capacity and ability to make Marta express all the feelings and emotions that are under her detective action and to embody her feelings in language. I liked being aware of her progress in development and verbalizing it as part of the couple’s progress.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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