Treating couples in the aftermath of an affair is one of the most important challenges you will face. Other problems gradually weaken a relationship, but infidelity, once it is discovered, rips it apart abruptly and violently.
So much is at stake.
You have two partners who are hurting for very different reasons.
They both want the pain to stop.
You enter the couple’s world at this time of turmoil, rage, despair – and at a time when the meaning of the affair is fuzzy. Even though it may be presented to you as if there is one perpetrator and one victim, it’s not so conveniently black and white.
How you position yourself and what you accomplish in that first session matters a lot. It’s important that you know how to move the couple forward if they are going to repair the damage.
These are the goals I have in mind when I start a crisis session. I hope to:
- Connect with each partner;
- Create a memorable experience;
- Change their conversation away from blame, hostility and shame to something that includes a deeper understanding of what went wrong;
- Prevent premature and impulsive decision-making.
When an affair is revealed, each partner is confronted with painful choices they would prefer to avoid.
Questions are circling and exploding in their heads:
- Should I leave or should I stay?
- Am I trapped?
- How did this happen to me?
- What does this betrayal mean?
I know my work will be an intricate balance between support and confrontation. I ask myself:
- How do I best manage the immediate crisis?
- Who will I have to confront?
- What types of lies/deception have taken place, and is the truth being revealed now?
In the initial session I work hard to make space for each partner to express their pain without judgment from me. While they are doing that, I am listening for how the development of their relationship played into what occurred. I then begin to connect the behaviors that led to the affair with impasses one or both partners experienced in the relationship. I am also listening to understand whether primary reasons for the affair are a reflection of one partner’s individual dynamics, a reflection of new aspects of sexuality unfolding or whether the affair is a reflection of arrested development in one stage of the relationship.
In asking questions to make sense of what happened, I am also assessing each partner’s readiness to be accountable for their own issues.
Over the years I’ve learned that the more I can illuminate new meaning for the couple – and especially meaning that makes sense to both of them – the easier it is to slow them down, manage the crisis and prevent impulsive decision making.
As always, I welcome your comments about what’s on your mind during these intense first sessions.
In my next blog post I’ll describe the benefits that come from a betrayed partner obsessing about the details of an affair.