Zoe Laidlaw

Couples therapy with one partner who is stuck.For this blog, I’d like to address a common challenge in couples therapy:  how to confront a betrayed partner who remains in a victim position long after infidelity has been revealed.

This situation is hard for therapists because the client seems to be a “legitimate victim” of outrageous behavior, when the spouse has had a long-term affair or lied in destructive ways.

When I’ve surveyed therapists about stuck infidelity cases, they  expressed it like this.

  • How do I help each partner recognize their role in the dynamic that contributed to the deception?
  • How do I deal with the deceived person possibly “using the betrayal for leverage or punishment”?
  • How do I manage the justified hurt and anger that keeps the deceived partner locked up, unchanging and making movement impossible?

Let’s take the situation where sessions often begin with the betrayed spouse complaining about lack of change. You’ve worked with the couple long enough to see changes and real commitment from the partner who lied and had the affair.

What you have not seen yet is any movement in the partner who was betrayed. They remain upset, defensive and attacking.

A session might begin like this, with the betrayed husband saying, “We've been coming to see you for a long time and I’m still mad. Suzie isn’t changing. She’s not doting on me, she’s not showing her love enough, and she doesn’t understand how wronged I was. I don't think we're getting anywhere.”

I’m going to present a transcript that demonstrates a series of interventions that you might use to begin confronting the “wronged” partner. All of these are addressed to that partner on a day when you’ve decided it’s time to begin confronting their resistance to focusing on themselves.

Ellyn:  So when you think about the state of your marriage it's painful. And you feel a lot of emotions including anger, fear, and despair. It really feels to you that your wife isn't putting in any substantial effort.

Husband:  I've been trying and I don't see the effort on her part.

Ellyn:  What I'd like to do today is talk some more about your part, and I know that's going to be especially hard because right now you want me to be talking about Suzie's part.

Husband:  Yes. I feel like I've done everything I can and I feel like I'm not even the one that should change.

Ellyn:  So let me ask you this. What are the biggest changes that you've made since we started working together?

Husband:  (avoids the question)

Ellyn:  You mentioned your loyalty, but what about changes in yourself that you've actually made?

Husband:  (Avoids the question again and complains about his wife)

Ellyn:  Well, I have a really, really, really tough question for you. How open are you today to talking about what I see you doing that's getting in your way?

Husband:  I'm very open.

Ellyn:  So let’s put this on a 1 to 10 scale. Where are you, with 10 being you're super open and 1 being not open at all?

Husband: Well, I want my marriage to work, so I'm about a 5 and higher if you ask Suzie the same question.

Ellyn:  I will because the fact that Suzie could lie to you for so long tells us that she’s got more work to do. There's no question about that.  However, I want to find a way that we can spend one session focusing on you and your side. It's often a lot harder for the person in your shoes to see what's on your side.
So given that you're about a 5, I have a feeling that I won’t get very far. When I start talking about your part you will probably say, “But, what about her? She did the bigger wrong.”  To really get through this, we need to find a way for me to describe your role without having you feel like you have to defend yourself and remind me and Suzie what she did wrong.

Husband:  That isn’t going to be easy without me getting testy.

Ellyn:  You can get a little testy, but when you get to the place of being too testy or you're shutting down or you're not listening or not able to hear what I'm saying, it's not going to be valuable. So will you put your hand up and alert me when you start feeling too testy?

Husband:  Okay.

Ellyn:  Okay, great. Thank you. Take a deep breath and let me know when you are ready to hear something that may be hard for you to hear.

Husband:  Okay. I am ready.

Ellyn:  One of the things that I notice is that it is hard sometimes for me to know who you are. You talk a lot about your wife and are always vigilant about her behavior. It’s actually like you are  inside her skin a lot more of the time than inside your own skin. Do you know what I mean by that?

Husband:  (Getting a little agitated) Well, what do you mean I'm in her skin all the time?

Ellyn:  Are you still with me? Do I need to slow down?

Husband:  I’m okay for a little longer.

Ellyn:  What I mean is that it is hard to know you. You focus so much on your wife, always on pursuing her, going after her, talking about her lack of change. And there is very little sense that you live inside your own skin, that you live in your own boundaries. I’m not sure how much you know your own wishes, and your own desires as a person separate from how you want your wife to be.
I understand why you do it. You got really, really badly hurt and so you're vigilant around whether she going to lie again and whether she is going to hurt you again. Your focus is so much on her that you're losing connection with yourself.

Husband:  Possibly.

Ellyn:  How's the level of testiness right now, are you doing okay or not?

Husband:  Both. I feel defensive but you're making me think.

Ellyn:  Okay. Stay with your thoughts and tell me one of your thoughts.

Husband:  Well, you say that I'm too into her world, into her skin, but it's for me. It's for my healing.

Ellyn:  Yet you rarely allow her or me to know you beyond this wound. I’d like to know more about who you are, what you care about, how you want to spend your time. You rarely talk from your own passions.  

Husband:  I want my wife to love me more.

Ellyn:  I know you do.

Husband:  Like she loved him. Like I saw evidence. I saw the evidence.

Ellyn:  I know you saw some hot texts going back and forth and that's lust, that's not love.

Husband:  Well, she said love.

Ellyn:  We’ve probably gone about as far as we can today on this. I’d like to sum up though.
It feels like love when somebody has an affair, and it's got all the intensity that comes with secrecy and newness. There are lots of ways that it feels like love, but it isn’t love. Love is something that deepens over time. It's something that happens between two people when they build a life together. It's something that happens when two people get to know each other on a deeper level. That’s exactly why I am talking to you about helping you know yourself better, about you getting back into your own skin.

Husband:  I guess it's hard for me because what I saw in that email is what I want from her.

Ellyn:  Sure, absolutely. I hear the sadness in your voice as you say that. You want it really, really badly. And it’s hard to trust that it will ever happen if you take the focus off your pursuit for that.

I am hoping when you go home this week you will allow yourself to focus on what I said. I am not saying this to make you wrong, but to give you a different path to the outcome you are seeking.

Comments
Please comment below and share your thoughts on any of these questions.

  1. What is your assessment of the couples developmental stage?
  2. Why am I saying what I said to the husband?
  3. What interventions enabled you to learn about beginning confrontation?
  4. How do you confront the same problem?


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  1. The words of the husband were stolen straight out of my very own mouth, as I’m going thru something similar. This helped validate my own feelings, when my wife doesn’t understand them. I mostly look at my wife with love, but these feelings of “I’m a victim, it was unjust” keep coming up.. and I try to find closure for them that does not seem to exist. Distraction/Keeping Busy helps for awhile, but boring/silent or times where we fight make me remember it. This post helped me to validate the appropriate treatment, which I have also been ignoring: focus on ME, independent of her. The first thought of mine is “I need more me time.. but maybe that is what caused the damage.” However, when I take space (at work, or a single night out), it helps me center myself enough to focus on the positives about her & our relationship. She gets defensive easy when I talk calmly about anything related to her, so I’m having to change the tactic to focusing on myself. I notice that as I act more compassionate/loving, so does she. As I act more confident, she is more attracted to me. As I am more fun, she has more fun. When I’m grateful, she’s grateful. When I have faith, she has faith. I won’t lie – I want her to be strong enough to hold up her end independently of me.. she is strong when I support her, but I need her support also after feeling broken. Independently taking time to focus on “What do I want out of life, how do I want to act”, instead of “How do I want to act, so she wants me again”, should help build confidence and independence, which is attractive to women (including my wife). It’s so difficult, when you feel broken… it’s why the “she cheated on me, so I broke up with her” method is so easy to heal & feel justified in. Much more difficult to recover from, “she cheated on me, so I forgave her and asked her to stay… even when she wasn’t sure if she wanted to.” I’m glad I did, as it helped her realize she wants to stay, but that time is past.. and I need to focus on myself again. It feels selfish & the opposite of what’s good for giving yourself to your spouse… but I’m not giving her my whole self, if I don’t heal myself first. Also, it will hopefully inspire change in her as she sees me being confident.

    Thank you!

  2. Thank you Ellyn, It was so helpful for me.
    I think they did not have a joyful symbiosis and looking for it. You tried to pass the resistance and it was successful. I have a question about repair method. Is it happen during the developmental stage or it is separately? If he comes back next session and tells he is inside her skin, what should we say?

  3. Hi, I find it interesting how you name the resistance before it comes up. I love this and see how effective it is to make it explicit and to honor in such a clear way that you will stop when the he gets “testy”. You are really supporting him so well in this regard. Developmental stage would be undifferentiated. (symbiotic?)..I think that is a stage although I am new to this model so possibly not? And you are saying what you said to get him to reflect on himself and to come out of the obsessive thinking that characterizes partners who have been betrayed? I like how you symbolize this in terms of getting back into himself and into his own skin to become a separate person…differentiated from his wife and from the traumatic loss of her love. You did it in a way that validated his feelings while also asking him to grow just a little bit, to consider coming back into himself and to remember that he is a separate person-perhaps this is something that has always been a struggle for him and led to the affair, or it began after? I don’t think I usually confront this problem as I get hung up on feeling that I would be blaming the victim for lack of a better term-although I don’t really mean that exactly. It’s just the very real trauma of sexual betrayal that usually keeps me coddling the betrayed partner for too long. I think that it would be crucial to only challenge after the guilty spouse has come clean, disclosed the affair and demonstrated both the desire and ability to be faithful for a long period, otherwise I am asking the betrayed spouse to feel safe and calm when their is no reason to feel safe (viewing the obsessing as a sign of anxiety and lack of safety in the relationship). Great example! Thank you.

  4. All has been said in the above comments. I agree the interventions are brilliant.
    I would only would have emphasized the relationship between love and passion.
    Being a man he wants passion as well as love. Maybe he could be motívated to work on his part if he had the ilusion of recovering the passion if he gave more space to her focusing on himself.

  5. “Yet you rarely allow her or me to know you beyond this wound. I’d like to know more about who you are, what you care about, how you want to spend your time. You rarely talk from your own passions. ”

    This is brilliant.

    I am wondering, in the first sentence of the article, what counts as “long after”? Months? Years?

  6. Thanks so much for this Ellyn. I recently had a couple where the husband would not forgive the wife, and I spent too long being puzzled about the dynamics between them to be of any assistance.
    What is your assessment of the couples developmental stage?
    I think the husband in this relationship is still in the bonding stage of the relationship. He would like his wife to merge with him as she merged with the affair partner. I’m not sure about the wife but I would guess that she is in the differentiation stage.
    Why am I saying what I said to the husband?
    You are inviting him to differentiate himself from his wife, to enter the next stage of development. What are his hopes and dreams?
    What interventions enabled you to learn about beginning confrontation?
    1. Firstly, you had a plan for the session. You knew that you had worked long enough with the wife, and now wanted challenge the husband’s resistance to getting in touch with his own self. You only challenged his resistance, and didn’t push to the next step of actually getting in touch with himself because that was too much for him to tolerate.
    2. You warned him you wanted to talk about his part, and that this could be hard.
    3. You persist with the question, rephrasing it each time. You don’t get bogged down with his concerns.
    4. Ask a scaling question to enable him to understand his resistance.
    5. Make overt what is covert in his 5/10 answer. ‘Testy’ is his word for the resistance you are trying to confront.
    6. Validate his concerns, get him to self soothe with a deep breath, yet still persist.
    7. Explain clearly what you want him to understand.
    8. Checking in, helping him to keep calm.
    9. Stop the confrontation when he had the seed of the challenge to his resistance. You didn’t push further, which would have increased his resistance.
    10. Challenge him to think about it at home.
    How do you confront the same problem?
    I fumble around a bit, challenging sometimes but not persisting.
    I’m wondering if he has a bit of post traumatic stress from seeing the hot texts. I might want to have a session with him on his own to deal with his emotional reaction.

    Thanks Ellyn. This has been a very useful exercise.

  7. I focus on “accountability” as different from shame or blame. Also on remorse and regret and repair replacing blaming and shaming. I like Sara Alexander’s approach of there being only hurt individuals longing for connection and love, fearing betrayal or rejection while wanting acceptance and love. I take turns creating space for each to process emotion and be an ally in healing the other. Then I move to new agreements and skills acquisition so as not to repeat pushing each other away instead of welcoming each other back.

  8. When the betrayal is so obvious, the client whom has been betrayed does not always see or accept that they have a part. I encourage clients to ask themselves what is holding them back and what they might be doing to keep the betrayer in the villain role and most importantly why. If there is a victim – there is also a villain. Difficult stances within a marriage / committed like relationship. Sometimes holding on to the fault holds the relationship in limbo but also gives the betrayer a sense of perceived power over the others actions. Where the betrayed partner then hold the partner in the Villain role always having to “do more” ” try harder” “be better”. In the role play segement it was great to see the soft confrontation and checking in to navigate this stance and shine a flashlight into all corners of the relationship to see where the breakdown began.

  9. 1 . I don’t know what language you use for the stage when each person is focussed on the other person rather than themselves. Merged?
    2. I think each person in a couple (and in life!) is at their ‘own movie’, and your interacting with the husband made him start to describe his ‘own movie’ about what happened with his wife betrayed him. I think there are many different ways in couple’s therapy to get people to focus on themselves but that seems totally essential to make for a better conversation. AND in order to focus on oneself you have to get into the ‘no bad person’ territory i.e. “I am not a bad person for feeling hurt and jealous” and, in your own way, you started to move him towards that a little bit.
    3. I liked how you got the conversation to externalize his defensiveness.
    4. I do , with couples, overt ‘education’ sometimes. I’ll say things like: If you want to change the conversation between you and your partner there are several ideas that help that happen. I don’t introduce all the ideas all at once. But one of them I call the “no fault” or “shared fault” idea. (which includes the “no bad person” idea. We are all doing our best even when our best is hurtful. That most hurt is not intentional but out of unconsciousness. I might have talked about “What if there is no bad person here – not to condone what your partner did – and that includes yourself”. I also talk about the idea that The Affair is About The Marriage: That it is useful to be able to learn from the affair about what the partner (and you) were not getting from the marriage …that led to it happening.

    I might have empathized more with how painful it must have been for him to see his wife ‘loving’ someone else.

  10. Repeatedly checking in with the male client, as a female therapist, is excellent as the client may be experiencing hypervigilance related to favoritism or transference onto the therapist. i.e. “You’re taking her side!”

  11. This is a good example of making the covert overt, and helping the husband to tolerate for a moment how to see his part in it. I like the way she went slowly, checked in wit him, and let him set the pace. I also like how she let it go, and didn’t try to force him to “get it”, but gently acknowledged her curiosity about who his is if not wounded.

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