Ellyn Bader

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.

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. Hi Ellyn

    I’m not sure if you’ve covered this before and I’ve missed it, but I was wondering if I could get your feedback on a recent client I had?

    She’s a 30+ woman who came in on Monday and reported that she had over the weekend attempted suicide by swallowing a number of sleeping pills after a fight with her husband, but he discovered her in the act. She made the attempt as she could no longer cope with her jealousy of her husband enjoying his various sexual relationships in their open marriage. They have committed to swinging and have some rules about getting consent, but sometimes he doesnt and lies to her. She’s been spying on him and bottling it all up. She doesnt believe she can be happy with anyone else coz he’s such a great guy, though there has been one swinging partner who has showered her with affection and admiration which she was happy with as she never gets it from her husband. To which he’s commented that just like he never interfered with her relationship with that chap, she shouldnt interfere when he finds the one for him.

    She appears to have some dependency traits and him some narcissistic traits. A year ago she had been to a psychiatrist for a short course of anti-depressants and had approached a counsellor but didnt continue with sessions as she was recommended to take a break from her husband to think things through. This was the first time she was revealing to anyone that she was in an open marriage. Her family live in another state and are conservative, she has small set of friends, none of whom are living in the country. Her husband is in a sulk over her attempt (how could she do that to him?) and is insisting she either file for divorce/ continue as a “roommate”- he doesnt want to come for counselling and she wants to save her marriage.

    Any inputs would be helpful 🙂

  2. Lauren tried to post this comment and had trouble-so I am posting it for her
    My, oh my, oh my. I just watched this DVD from the first session after the affair. You can find it here: https://www.couplesinstitute.com/first-sessions-after-an-affair/

    It was absolutely fantastic! Not only do we get to see the first session after the affair in its entirety, but the second hour is Ellyn and Pete explaining what they are doing and why.

    Let me be very clear. I believe with every fiber of my being that every couples therapist in the world needs to see this video.

    In addition to working with couples who have had an affair, there are countless other interventions modeled, such as those strengthening differentiation and 2-chair work.

    It’s quite a privilege to be in this training and in the audience of that session and the discussion thereby related.

    Ellyn, if you could pass along some of my thoughts to Pete as well, I would greatly appreciate that.

    I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into making a video like that. Having said that, there is a huge part of me that hopes there will be more down the road.

    There is some sort of heart-shaped picture in your office, Ellyn, that is behind Pete’s shoulder. I can’t tell exactly what it is and whether it is a nice image that I was drawn to or whether it is actually used as a therapeutic or teaching tool. When you have a moment, could you shed some light on that?

    Thank you so very much.

  3. Does the DVD series addresses how to identify and address sex and love addiction as multiple affairs and repeated affairs is often a sign of it? Thank you.

    • Elizabeth-This dvd does not directly address sex addiction. It does deal with identifying the trauma that is connected to multiple affairs.

  4. Sadly the situation you describe leaves the other partner with a tough choice. Do they stay or do they leave-why or why not?
    As a therapist we can support that partner as they wrestle with the tough choice. If the affair partner is coming in, we can explain how it usually takes two to successfully resolve the aftermath of a deceptive affair.

  5. Hi Ellyn,
    Thank you for the e-mail. I’d like to ask a question. What happens when the partner who has perhaps commited infidelity does not want accountability or continues the deceit. What does the other partner do with this ‘impasse’? This seems to arrest this partner in uncertainty and a stuck and dead-end situation.

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