When a couple comes to see you in the aftermath of infidelity, there are always tough decisions for each partner and also for you, their therapist. In today’s blog, I’ll focus on one type of difficult confrontation you may need to make early in therapy.
Consider the situation where each partner has a different agenda. Let me set the scene for you. An unmarried couple in their late thirties are sitting in your office. Chuck called and scheduled the appointment. He very recently discovered that Nicole has been having an affair for the entire two years they’ve been together. She desperately wants to ‘work on things’ and will you please take them on as a couple and help them rebuild trust.
Chuck’s agenda is very different. He is seriously considering ending their relationship. At best, he wants to make a decision about what will happen now. His pain is raw. He is not ready for repair.
You will not have a lot of time to set a direction that they both agree on.
As you listen to them describe what happened, it becomes increasingly clear that some tough confrontations may be needed. You see Nicole being evasive. Her responses are somewhat slippery. She almost makes her affair his fault. She responds to his pain with rationalizations and justifications.
Are you wondering, “What do I do? Do I let it go because it is a first session?”
Are you worried about her reaction? Do you think you can’t make a strong confrontation when you have no relationship with her? Do you try to handle it with kid gloves? Or do you confront her strongly with the reality that she refuses to recognize?
Today I’d like to highlight the importance of tough confrontations even when they are stressful for you. Perhaps you feel anxious, panicked, and uneasy. You want to say bluntly, “Of course, he doesn't believe you. Your answers aren't good enough. You’ve been lying to him for two years and he just found out two weeks ago!” But how is she going to respond?
As you listen longer, Nicole seems to insist, “I’m being radically honest, and he doesn’t believe me. I really want to move on with our plans to get married.”
You realize she’s trying to slip out of any significant accountability as quickly as possible. You ask yourself, “Does this represent fear, a developmental impasse, or some character issue?”
You might start by seeing if you can connect with her around the fear that she has that this relationship is going to fall apart. You might say, “It sounds like you're not sure, and he's not sure if he's going to continue the relationship, and that's creating a lot of anxiety for you.”
Remember I am focusing on it becoming clear that a very tough confrontation is needed. She responds by ignoring your attempt to connect with her fear and instead says, “Well, I don’t think he is being very sensitive to me. He seems to be moving into a punitive place, and that doesn't work for me. I can't heal in that space. I'm not asking for forgiveness. I just want to move forward.”
A moment like this is highly diagnostic. You see her shifting away from both her own emotions and any self-accountability. You might start by gently saying, “This is a complex situation. It seems difficult for you to acknowledge your part in what’s wrong.”
When you make a confrontation like this, you want to see not only what's going to happen with it, but to have some idea inside yourself how far you're willing to take it.
You can test the level of confrontation by saying to her something like, “There are a lot of levels to honesty. Maybe you’ve just started to hear the depth of honesty Chuck wants.” And then see what she can do with that.
In Chuck and Nicole’s session, it got worse. She responded by saying, “He just wants to punish me. I am always honest to the best of my ability.”
She continues, “What about how he hurt me, and doesn’t listen to me or ignores me?”
Her response shows she's not getting him at all, and you say to yourself, “Okay. It's time for me to increase the intensity of my confrontation.” Here’s how that might look as you move forward with your session.
Therapist: You know, when you mention that, you're talking about old history. And there's a time for that. But right now we're talking about the revelations that have come out in the last two weeks, and how much that has devastated your partner.
Nicole: Right, but he made me feel so alone and isolated.
Therapist: Are you telling me that because you felt alone and isolated, it's okay to lie and hide for two years?
Nicole: No, it's just the context from which I was coming. I mean, I want him to get my context.
Therapist: So, I know you want him to understand the importance of your context. I'm going to say something tough in a minute. Can you get ready to hear something tough I'm going to say?
Therapist: You may not have time left with him to insist on talking about the past. There might be time for that later but now is not the time.
Nicole: What do you mean?
Therapist: He's nearly done. He's about to end the relationship. It seems really, really hard for you to respond to him. You seem to duck your responsibility.
Nicole: Well, he is responsible too.
Therapist: So much of what you said today is about you and your experience, and while that matters, and it matters a lot, if you two are going to move forward now, it's going to mean you taking a real deep look at how you did what you did for the last two years.
Nicole: But I feel like you're asking me to do that without acknowledging how bad he made me feel, and how I didn't even know if he wanted to be with me.
Therapist: You’re right. I am asking you to do that. That is where I am asking you to start.
Nicole: But how are we going to heal if we're not looking at what happened to me?
Therapist: Well, the healing between you will come after the willingness to look at yourself first. It's too soon for the healing between you. This has only been out in the open for two weeks, something that went on for two years.
Nicole: I just don't know what kind of therapy this is, but I don't know how to move forward without dealing with the entire picture. For me to heal, I can't heal alone. I need to know he's there. I need to have some connection.
Therapist: It's scary not to have that connection, and right now you don't have it. That's the reality. He is doing his own soul searching.
Nicole: But I can't heal without it. I know I'm just not going to heal without it. I cannot do this work without it.
Therapist: So, you are very panicky. Maybe you are in a position where you need to say, “I need some time away with my own support system to figure myself out.”
Nicole: I don't want to lose him, though. He's the best thing that ever happened to me, and I screwed it up, and I can't believe I did this.
Therapist: And to work on it and maybe preserve it, you are going to have to rise to a higher self than you have before if you're going to heal it. I can help and your individual therapist can help, but the starting place will be you understanding how you could look him in the eyes and lie for such a long time.
You are a firm guiding post. If this client is unable to get back into her own skin, if she cannot look at what she did, why she did it, how she could do it, how she could lie to him, how she could lie to herself… If she can't get herself into a position of really looking at that, and not having her energy focused on pulling on him, pulling on you, their therapist, this relationship is going to end.
The confrontation is kind, firm, and designed to create some anxiety. Confronting a client like this may induce that pit of your stomach unease, but not doing it will help no one. It won’t help Chuck realize the validity of his upset. It won’t help Nicole realize that some significant effort is needed from her. She must address why she did what she did and actually see the impact her actions had on her partner and the relationship. And not confronting her most definitely won’t help you set the stage for productive work with them.
Learning to make skillful confrontations is hard, but without them, your clients won’t progress, and you won’t have deep feelings of accomplishment when very challenging situations arise.
What reactions do you have to this confrontation? Was I too tough or too gentle? Or tell me about a situation where you knew a stronger confrontation would be helpful. I welcome your comments and look forward to reading them.
I like how you have framed our responsibilities as therapist Ellyn. I have found through many years that this compassionate confrontation is very important. And mostly it is respected and couples will realise there is a lot of deep work to do for both. Both have agendas led by pain and desperation. and may want as priorities because of their fears. And it’s important to balance and validate both. Thank you for your example and articulation of a very common scenario. judi
Very good use of the skill of confrontation.
Really helpful. Makes a lot of sense to me. Having worked with various couples where the one cheated on felt the pressure by the other to move forward. Trust was broken and can not just snap back. I like how you were firm and direct.
Definitely Tough in a very skilled respectful and firm way Excellent work
I feel your approach was totally warranted. Nichol seemed to focus on her needs only. What about her boyfriend who she cheated on. He has needs too and did not cheat on her. Communicating is key in a relationship.
I love that confrontation. It gives her the opportunity to become accountable for her actions, and the effect of her actions on the relationship. It does not give her much wiggle room to escape from looking inside herself even if she chooses not to show up.
I have a client who has cheated for most of their relationship on her boyfriend by texting and flirting with 2 ex boyfriends. After the discovery, she is very remorseful and wants to save the relationship. I find it challenging to balance confronting her when she seems so remorseful and beats on herself up for what she has done. I am a bit confused as to why she was able to do it for so long if she is so remorseful.
This is a wonderful example. No, I don’t think it was too tough nor were you too gentle. If Nicole walks out of your office, then Chuck has his answer. If Nicole stays and feels able to recognize/take responsibility for her choices, then Chuck and Nicole have a jumping off point from which to work from.
I’ve copied this blog and will practice these confrontation methods. Thank you!
Wow! Despite this being a transcript, I could sense the intensity of this confrontation! So well done and timely for me in my own practice! Thank you for such a well documented case of compassionate yet strong confrontation! So important! Hoping the one I need to do next week goes as well!
Great support, Ellen. Thanks!
A brilliant approach. I agree wholeheartedly + have done the same (or similar) numerous times as a clinician. Tara x