Three-Stage Resolution of an Affair

Without a doubt, infidelity is one of the most perplexing challenges that many therapists face during their careers. Frequently couples arrive in your office reeling in the aftermath of an affair. One partner may feel intensely angry and believe they were betrayed, while the other is in a hurry to get the affair behind them. How you structure the therapy and what you attend to in sessions can prove to be stressful when each partner has a different agenda.
A therapist in one of my training groups posed the question this way, “ What do you suggest when a partner who had an affair proclaims that they’ll never do it again? And the spouse wants to believe it, but they don’t. Your intuition says you aren’t sure you believe it, either. It seems way too fast. One partner wants a quick resolution and the other wants to discuss the affair a lot. Under these conditions what is the best focus for treatment?” I frame it to myself and to my clients this way: successful resolution of an affair involves three stages:
  1.  Crisis management
  2.  Accountability and growth
  3.  Recommitment
Many partners have a reflexive desire to avoid a comprehensive repair. They want to rush through the crisis. The most common reasons for this are:
  • They may still be lying and hiding significant information and don’t want the truth to surface.
  • It is difficult for them to acknowledge the positive growth attained or some unexposed positive aspects of themselves that were elicited in the new relationship.
  • They are conflict avoidant and don’t want to go through the intense emotional process involved in resolving the affair.
  • They are afraid the marriage will end – or are afraid of retribution.
  • They don’t want to develop themselves and be accountable for the deception and especially for facing shame.
Partners like this believe they can put the affair behind them and everything will return to “normal.” However, successful resolution of an affair involves much more than crisis management. The first stage of therapy does mean managing the immediate threat. It requires slowing the process down and confronting the urge to make impulsive premature decisions. It is important to clarify whether the couple will continue to live together, whether the affair is ongoing or terminated and whether both partners want to engage in therapy. However, the partner who says, “Everything is OK and it will never happen again,” usually wants to skip the second stage. And the second stage of therapy is where there is a lot of self-confrontation and accountability – facing shame or limitations of self. This can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. How do you communicate to a couple in a productive, non-moralistic way the value of engaging in repair and self-confrontation? Ideally you want to make a decision with both partners about whether they are choosing to engage in a significant therapeutic process with you. Here is one effective analogy: When the partner who had the affair starts to downplay the affair or minimize its effect, you can use the parallel of partners in a start-up company. Partners in a company talk about their dreams, what they want to create and do, and how they want to be as a company. They invest a lot. As time passes and the company starts to struggle, if one partner discovers the other has been embezzling, that throws everything into question and turmoil. And if the person who has been embezzling takes precious time and energy and invests it into a rival start-up, that makes the pain even worse and the decisions that must be made even harder. And it takes a long time to regain trust. Everything that happens – even things intended as support and goodwill – get put under the microscope of suspicion. What are they really trying to tell me? Can I really go on a vacation and trust you? The disruption of an affair is the violation of dreams, goals and decisions. The interdependency, family, teamwork and partnership are all potentially lost. What was once secure or seemed to be secure is no longer secure. The issue with an affair is not primarily sexual. One partner has made a unilateral choice to put an end to what was previously an equilateral decision and team commitment. The new decision has disrupted the attachment and the question, “Will it happen again?” is a substantial one. Or, “Will there be other unilateral decisions that affect me deeply in which I will not have a say?” Without successful resolution of this issue, other events will be unnecessarily charged. Recently, a wife who had previously had an affair, said to her husband during a fight, “I’m not going to discuss my sister with you ever again.” He became extremely agitated, not so much because he couldn’t handle her saying “I’m not going to discuss this with you,” but because it brought into the air again how many other unilateral decisions she would make. And would they be made impulsively? The challenge for you is to ask the couple, “How do you want to use the therapy and what are we going to do here? Is our work about re-establishing any kind of secure boundary or clear commitment with each other, and what is it going to take on each side?” It is crucial for you to find a way to discuss this with the couple without moral indignation. The essential goal is to help both partners participate actively in Stage 2 – the portion of therapy where individual growth and personal accountability take place. This will pave the way for recommitment that is real and not a quick “flight back to normalcy.” If you aren't familiar with our downloadable one-hour training session on working with couples about an affair, click here to learn more about managing the stress of infidelity cases. Or read Tell Me No Lies for strategies to minimize the likelihood of infidelity. We help couples struggling with cheating partners in Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, San Jose, Campbell and the surrounding areas.
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Margie Ulbrick
Margie Ulbrick

Another challenging situation is when the partner who didn’t have the affair is the one who wants to “return to normalcy” as quickly as possible. Their is a repression of anger and of affect that is potentially likely to come out as passive aggression. The question also arises as to what is the co-created contribution to the secrecy and deception when the “receiving end” partner does not want to know more about the partnership dynamic. The pull for symbiosis is strong and this makes it easy to settle for a “quick fix” which does not last and is only a superficial solution. There may be an initial reconnection where both partners feel relieved to be “back together” again but although there may be a strong assertion that “it will never happen again”, the underlying dynamics and what led to the affair in the first place never really come to light. A shallow and somewhat idyllic intimacy provides short-term relief from the anxiety and pain generated by the affair, but unless both partners face openly the developmental growth needed and avoid the “quick-fix” glossing over what has happened they can never really sustain a growing nurturing relationship which supports their differentiation. It is in the interests of both partners to do the work to heal, to take it slowly and to ensure that they maximise the potential for real growth in their relationship.

Susan Berger
Susan Berger

An affair rips apart the foundation of a marriage, fidelity. Both partners are traumatized by the revelation. In my experience most couples present with the husband having had the affair. Frequently, this man has been unable to establish or maintain emotional intimacy with his wife. All of a sudden he has no choice, get with the program (marriage counseling, i.e, engage in emotional intimacy) or lose her. However, we also now know, thanks to John Gottman, how panicked men can become at the slightest sign of emotional conflict. They feel that they MUST do something immediately to make the pain go away, and have been raised to feel that they are supposed to be powerful, right, and always in control. (Remember Male Answer Syndrome?). If they fail at this they can experience intense shame because they feel unmanly. Doing what it takes to work through the affair is terrifying for these men. They frequently manage their panic by trying to appear just the opposite… and this is where they become defensive, grandiose and seemingly uncaring. I have found it so important to keep coming back to the intense underlying vulnerability that these men experience when confronted with the havoc they have caused, when they are exposed as liars, morally corrupt, callous, etc. and the powerless position they are now in to immediately fix it. So the concept of delayed as opposed to immediate emotional gratification, of process, takes time to develop. For me, this time period involves a lot of emotional holding of the couple, and being the bridge between them until they can both really start to work on constructing their own.

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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."
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