Getting Past Anger After Infidelity

Many couples never move past the pain of infidelity.

Stage 1: shock and disbelief

Stage 2: explosive and seething anger

How do you move beyond stage 2?

It’s a counterintuitive approach. Watch this video and learn the 5 stages of increasing accountability in the unfaithful partner.


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Please comment below. What is it like for you to sit with your clients when they are struggling in the aftermath of infidelity?

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49 responses to "Anger after Infidelity"

  1. I am hearing that the unfaithful needs to spend more time building self awareness of strengths that were lacking to fully take accountability. This will help him get in touch with his compassion to demonstrate it more easily and be more sensitive to triggers. I think I need to dedicate more time to this for greater effect. I like that. For the betrayed, we are emphasizing the process and the that there will be different perspectives that we have to open ourselves up to hearing. Though I do a lot of this, the way you say it makes me think how much more helpful it would be to “sit with this” with each client and see how they are processing this…another words dedicating more time to the preparation for therapy.

  2. Thanks a lot Ellen. It is a big step when the betrayed partner
    notices by himself that differentiation was missing and finds out about his own uniqueness.

    • I am working with the Unfaithful partner helping him work towards full disclosure. I am troubled that he feels bad, but the emotional impact has not changed him. He knows he was wrong but he is resentful at the many years his wife did not want sex and did not care about the impact this had on him. He seems to be more concerned with repairing the relationship with his kids than with his spouse. He realizes they have not differentiated and this process going forward is threatening to him. He seems to be ambivilant about his marriage as he sits with the uncomfortableness of how long it will take his wife to heal and to want to have sex with him again. This can come across as entitlement. He only has 6 months of recovery so I am expecting too much from him too soon. How can I talk to him about my feelings and observations?

  3. Thanks for this, Ellen. Any chance there are transcripts of the video? I find it helpful to have things in print form and I can obviously write it all down but just wanted to check before doing so. Thanks so much.

  4. Ellyn, I just watched this and took notes. Thinking of new clients, a mother and her daughter who “betrayed” her by–very thoughtfully and empathically, with many questions on her mother's desires post-delivery of daughter's first child–unexpectedly needing an emergency C-section and setting boundaries on her chronically intrusive mother's presence, in the hospital and in the months since, in her and her spouse's home. Deep, obviously childhood pain triggered in mother at being excluded; she defended with raging at her groggy post-surgery daughter. Mother also dealing with lots of grief over deaths of her son and her own mother (their relationship had been full of anger) and her husband's worsening Alzheimer's, plus daughter's compassionate but continuing moving beyond what seems to have been a rather enmeshed relationship with her mom. Your framework (along with parts work) will help me a lot in working with them.
    It also adds a dimension to my work with myself around a recurring issue in my own relationship of 3 years–far less severe than infidelity, but distressing to my partner, AND to me in several areas of my life. Thank you as always! for making your work available at so many levels of accessibility.

  5. Thank you for this. Sitting with clients in this state is deeply uncomfortable as I know what they are experiencing. I found your presentation extremely helpful as it gave more structure to the agonising situation we are all presented with

  6. You gave a clear structure to work with couples. I work with unmarried couples who began to live together, some of them have not so long relationships. I've identified problems of defensiveness but this video helped me for a further understanding more a path to go beyond the pain. That's what my practice was needing, another perception. Thanks

  7. I am stuck by how this presentation appears to divide the couple into camps of betrayed and betrayer and how to move from there. Several times I found that the betrayer was betrayed in other ways well before the affair. An example is the husband promised he would have children, an essential need for the wife before entering into a marriage agreement, but once into the marriage reneged, so how does one structure session around the betrayal to compensate for
    the betrayal?

  8. I agree with one of the commenters that this excellent video/process applies well to a relationship where there is lying, esp. in that there is REALLY not truth telling on either side!

  9. Sarah-When there are young kids, the ability of a couple to collaborate and function as a team is crucial. I would pause talking about the affair or about sex for 2-3 sessions and see if there is any motivation to collaborate better in terms of creating a better division of roles and responsibilities to become a more effective family.

  10. Ellen, thank you for your wisdom and helpful framework.
    The challenge I’m having is that the husband is completely defensive of his infidelity because his wife no longer wants to have sex.
    He says he would leave her but wants to be the father to their two young kids.
    The wife is unmotivated to work on her issues with avoidance of physical intimacy because she feels tired and overwhelmed by the demands of mothering.
    They both seem to understand the other person’s feelings and needs but can’t seem to meet them.
    They are filled with negativity towards each other but can’t imagine separating due to the kids. Both are aware that their hostile relationship is hurting the kids but they feel divorce would be worse.
    Feeling stuck. Any thoughts would be appreciated

  11. Thank you for sharing this very helpful approach to dealing with probably one of the major painful issues a couple can experience together. Eager to put it into practice.

  12. Ellen,
    I found this clip very useful and see that it could be applied to even other situations where there is anger and defensiveness. Thanks for doing these-so helpful!

  13. What really struck me in your presentation Ellyn were the closing comments you made about the extraordinary benefits both individually and as a partnership…. Increased self-awareness, empathy, emotional regulation even in highly charged circumstances…. Wow… I don't think many of us often see this profound growth in ourselves or others. I could see the truth in what you were saying and the strength and clarity of the structures and support you designed for the couple's sessions gave me assurance that this expansion and deepening were in fact the potential gifts embedded in the crisis. So little thought, in the therapy profession, seems to go into the beauty of growth and an exploration into what can evolve from working through inner and outer challenges. We may move to something quite beyond “resilience”. The opportunity can be to go to an entirely new enriched realm of relating to ourselves and others. Thank you Ellyn! I have listened to this presentation three times already and sense that I am only scratching the surface of what you are proposing and its implications. Bravo.. Inspiring!

    • Alison-Thank you for delving deeply into this material. You are correct. There is alot in what I am saying. When you internalize this, it will influence many interventions.

  14. A couple I'm working with now in a middle stage of processing his affairs, have made more progress in moving forward in their relationship since she now sees when he tries once again to manipulate her with old behaviors, and calls him on the behaviors and lets him know how that effects her, and how he needs to be more straight forward and honest. He has increasing respect for her, which is important in their relationship. She's definitely working on differentiation, which will definitely change their relationship since she's basically been his shadow for about 35 years,

  15. One of my clients is feeling hurt still after 2 years of marriage about her partner's infidelity before marriage when they were into a live-in. She feels that her partner didn't mean the apology at that time and wants it again.

    • Arva-There is probably something to what she is saying. However, she is probably saying it way too globally. I imagine what she means is something to the effect that his apology did not show evidence of him knowing her well. And she has probably not let herself be known.

  16. Hi – this is Dr. Pete, Ellyn's hubby.
    I appreciate your comments on infidelity. Is there any problem that is more wrenching and complex in a marriage than the betrayal of trust?

    Every affair is different in terms of all the possible variables. Plus the therapist's personal values on affairs.
    Affairs are problems that are outside the medical model approach -assessment, diagnosis, treatment.
    The variable of motivation for individual and relationship growth is such a key factor in the outcome.
    Calcified resentments can thwart the best of interventions, empathy, understanding, interpretations and increased awareness.
    Affairs are problems that challenge the couple as well as therapists.
    I salute those therapists who are willing to tackle these challenges.

    • Hi Pete- a year or two ago the session following the husband admission of guilt of infidelity was very emotional. His wife was very angry and hurt. I allowed her to vent and he listened. They never returned and I never had a chance to work with them after that. She was just done and remarried. You are right when you say it is volatile.

  17. Very helpful thanks. Very relevant for a couple I have currently so thanks for that. This differentiation business certainly has a lot to say for itself.

  18. Thank you, very clearly outlined. I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Have worked as a couples therapist yrs ago & more recently had my own marriage break down due to abuse, infidelity, deceit. We went to couples counselling which was aweful…even tho my partner was “cold, withdrawing, aloof” in the sessions, the aweful thing was what what the counsellor kept saying to me…Oh! You are a counsellor, you should know what this is all about & able fix it ? “your problem is…you have anger issues!!! Well of course I was feeling angry & betrayed, but the psychologist couldn’t legitimise that & help us to process it. So I learnt v quickly that you choose your counsellor…v carefully! It was more the counselling process/failure to support us to safely share, resolve & forgive that broke us up in the end.

  19. Thank you for this helpful video explaining the five stages for helping couples to work through betrayal and the complex layers of a broken relationship. Helping the person who betrayed another is definitely a way to begin to repair and build a sense of trust again especially if there are children involved who need both parents. There are two sides to every betrayal and focusing on both the one betrayed and the accountability for the betrayer is a very helpful step.

  20. In this scenario, it implies one partner is a victim and the other, a perpetrator of pain. What about the unmet need that led to infidelity in the first place? Often, I find that the person who has an affair is not the first person to leave the relationship. e.g. wife doesn't listen to husband, he has no say and no rights in the relationship. In the “affair” he may feel heard and valued by another. Does this not imply a dual responsibility for the affair and how would that affect treatment interventions?

  21. This is a terrific video. I don't currently have a couple with this particular issue, but I think it's a good sort of infrastructure to set up for the couple so the therapist can keep referring to it as one or both partners find it hard to stay on task.

  22. Hello again, I found this video SO helpful. Will send another reply once I've spoken to my couple. I feel very optimistic about how this strategy can positively impact their relationship.

  23. Thinking about this as a differentiation issue is very helpful.The most difficult part of sitting with these couples is when the betrayed has a hard time getting past the anger gets continually triggered, and when the one who had the affair is stuck in “I don't know”. These are frustrating for me because it makes me feel inadequate as a therapist. One thing to add to the video ideas, which are great, is to remember that these cycles may have to be repeated in sessions over time, as we assess how these conversations are going at home. Most of the time, it's not a one time thing. There is growth, regression, and then growth again, etc.

  24. Thank you! I often wonder how important are the details, the betrayed partner may be stuck on wanting to know the sexual details of the affair, but this ends up making them feel worse, and does the betrayer have to reveal all in an attempt to rebuild trust?

    • I believe knowing more about an affair fuels the negative thoughts that become an obsession in the betrayed person. I think it is true that the betrayer falls into the affair because they have no inkling of the consequences and if not strong in the warnings of the Bible before hand can fall into this trap. Affairs are a fantasy time when one immaturely copes with the stress of life. Affairs really don’t have a lot of meaning unless the betrayer decides to then continue life with the new person.

  25. Very helpful. It will help me put more structure to my process with couples around this issue. I especially like having the betrayed one list their issues/questions by priority. It seems like a compliment to Susan Johnson's work on repair.

  26. thank you, the work just got stuck here although there has been improvement, but not trust: the problem is 3.
    1. offender will not disclose $ spent despite requests
    2. Offended will leave if it happens again
    3. offender is unable to find the real reason or say it, but is remorseful and wants things to get back to the way they were. i am stuck..

  27. Having the couples itemized their feelings and thoughts seems to be a very proactive to identify there thoughts, feelings and behaviors. I had not thought about having them engage like this. This is really exciting helping move forward.

  28. Thank you Ellen. The clarity and assurance the therapist presents in “the plan” really facilitates each partner to trust; the therapist and then themselves and perhaps, the partner.Namaste.

  29. Thank you for this helpful summary if this process. What I wonder about is possible continued deception from the affair partner during the stages of answering questions. How does the deceiving partner become a trustworthy truth teller early on in this process and do you access if they are ready to answer truthfully? Deb

  30. Thank you, this is very helpful as …after the affair work is so complex…you are actually helping the couple to become more resilient to weather the next storm in their relationship.

  31. In my work with infidelity, the unfaithful partners have not had a clue as to why they did what they did. Of course this is so very hard for the hurt partners who are longing for some way to get their head around their partners' betrayl. I would love to learn more about helping the unfaithful partners to get more of a grasp on what was behind their actions. I have used the book After the Affair in that I have read from the pages that cover some possible reason for straying. This definitely brought more clarity but often not enough. I have noticed that all of my unfaithful clients are not very connected with themselves and have historically been non-introspective, lacking self-understanding. Eager to receive any helpful comments! Thank you! Amy

  32. It's great to have more of a road map in working with couples whose emotions can be so vola
    tile. Thank you for sharing so generously. Lura, CMHC, RN

  33. Very helpful structurally and empathically. So far I’ve gotten three calls within the past week for couples’ work, so this is especially timely. Many thanks!

  34. A good way to structure the discussion and make it safe for both partners to be heard and gain self and mutual understanding. Thank you!

  35. I appreciate this structure. As with the many others you have so generously shared with us, it will be quite helpful.

    A place where I've gotten stuck recently is with 2 couples, one quite young 19-20, the other in mid-30s, with no connection to each other, but each with husbands who cannot/will not move past the “I don't know” position about their affairs (one each). It feels like a combination of fear about breaking family norms for male behavior (unknown territory) and a digging in, like “I've apologized and groveled and by damn that's all I'm going to do for you!” I've never had guys who came in but stayed so stuck in this position, so it's weird to now have 2 at once.

  36. This is really helpful – the explaining how the work will go up front, and soothing the betrayed partner's anxiety that she/he will never get heard. This is useful for all kinds of betrayals/lies, not just infidelity. Thank you, Ellyn.

  37. Very helpful differentiation. Working with a couple, where the husband discovered his homosexuality. Many more layers coming into that complexity. Do you have experience with this specific situation?

    • I am interested in the first posters question. With my client- the wife had an affair after 21 years of faithfulness with another woman and came out to herself as bisexual. Her husband who had also been faithful their entire relationship prior- had his own affair 6 months after the disclosure. (A woman)
      There is tons of rage and anger on both sides.
      Help relating to affairs related to sexuality?

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