Managing First Sessions After an Affair

Couples therapy with one partner who is stuck.

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.

You May Also Like:

Discover the Last Relationship Training You'll Ever Need

Have something to say?

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

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.


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.


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.

Reply to  Elizabeth

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


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:

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.


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 🙂


“i am also listening to understand whether primary reasons for the affair are a reflection of one partner’s individual dynamics” This is completely hurtful and not rooted in updated research. An affair is an intimacy issue of the one who broke their vows. It has nothing to do with the dynamics of a marriage. Nothing. I am also a therapist and I really hope you are not retraumatizing the betrayed by picking them apart. Please research betrayal trauma and never ever treat the betrayed as if they did something to create the affair. It is soley on the unfaithful, regardless of circumstance.

Reply to  Amanda

As a person currently experiencing betrayal trauma, I am grateful my therapist, his therapist, as well as our marriage therapist all agree with what you said, and not blaming the victim right out of the gates.

Reply to  Amanda

Hi Amanda. You’re comment here was so refreshing to hear thank you for posting it. I have been betrayed by my husband. 18 years later finding out innocently of his so called “just friends” when I say innocently is because I trusted him I never snooped. After his denial when confronted and repetiitive significantly deceitful lies. I dug more and found it to be multiple emotional affairs. He claims to me he never had sex with any of them because that was his line not to go over because is heart was with me. He Says it was just talk, well just talk doesn’t include sexual explicit things as well as saying you love someone else, when you made a commitment to your marriage. He tells me he knew it was wrong but it felt so right. We have been to 4 marriage counselors so far and clearly they have no clue how to handle infidelity/affairs. Clearly they can’t help with addressing whether he is a sex addict, or has compulsive sexual disorder or if he has intimacy anorexia. It’s been 3 years post DDay for me and I’m no closer to having full discourse or true remorse for him to take accountability for his actions.
He says he is sorry but not sorry he got caught. He is a very broken and lost soul. They wear a mask and never want to address anything just defensiveness. It’s the deceitfulness, lies, selfishness and the unwillingness to let me in after keeping me in th dark that is keeping us stuck. The wayward spouse has to let go of the secrets in order for whom they betrayed to start to move forward. Cheatingg is a choice not a mistake. Cheating is of their own moral character issues it is never a marriage issue. I feel marriage counseling will never work as it isn’t working for us until the cheater gets some individual counseling to figure out why they did and what they will do now to rebuild trust, the marriage foundation and boundaries. I have a wonderful individual counselor who has helped we tremdously more than the marriage counseling and she has said as well we are getting no where until he is willing to seek individual help to address these issues. It’s heartbreaking because we have children and built a life together. I never knew he was unhappy he never expressed it to me just found he choose other woman to tell everything to. He starved our marriage of intimacy and gave it to other woman. He continues to blame me and our marriage for his choices/actions when he has/had other options. I just feel retraumatized over and over in marriage counseling. Our counselor works with him on the marriage and me with the infidelity and never addresses things together she is blunt when speaking to us separately but vague when we are in session together. The betrayed should never have to feel like this. Cheaters are good at lies and manipulation and need clear constant clarification otherwise they use it. Their is always a symptom of the real problem, their is always a root and that is in the cheater to address. Thank you for listening have a good day.

Elaine Wells
Elaine Wells

Ellyn, I always appreciate your brilliant analysis and kind manner with couples. It would be very helpful for me if you would give brief examples when you make a general statement like “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.” That sentence alone encompasses an entire graduate level course, so please give us a hint about what each reason looks like in behaviors or comments.

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."
You May Also Like:

Discover the Last Relationship Training You'll Ever Need

Read Other Popular Articles