Ellyn Bader

Few situations are as painful for a couple, and as difficult for a couples’ therapist to work through as the experience of infidelity.

The bottom-line questions you’ll inevitably be working with include:

  • What is trust?
  • Can it be restored?
  • If so, how is it going to be restored?
  • Who gets to define trust, and how does all of this happen?

As I’ve worked with couples around this issue, I’ve seen several specific challenges that typically come up. I thought it could be useful to you in your work if I outlined some of the important steps that are involved after infidelity is revealed.

Stage 1: Stabilize the Conflict

For many partners, betrayal is likely one of the worst experiences they encounter. It’s humiliating. Often, the partner who has been betrayed will have a lot of anger. Frequently, they have PTSD symptoms including nightmares, obsessive rumination and unexpected moments of grief. All of this is understandable and predictable.

So, it’s extremely important to stabilize the conflict. I’ve found it useful to ask couples to develop a contract that defines what will be acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior when there is conflict and to save some of the most conflictual issues for our time together.

Having said that, it can often take multiple sessions to reach that type of agreement, especially if a couple is disorganized or there is a lot of hostility. However, I’ve found that conflicts tend to become more contained once you’ve put this kind of firm structure in place.

Stage 2: Review the Roles of the Initiator-Inquirer

Here’s where you move to deeper work. You can describe the Initiator-Inquirer process, starting with explaining the roles each partner will play. You’ll want to let the couple know that, throughout this process, you’ll be asking each of them to stretch beyond where they are developmentally.

It’s important to emphasize that the process you’ll be using isn’t designed to solve immediate specific problems. Instead, you’ll be working together to address developmental challenges that contributed to the infidelity. You need to communicate that, without recognizing and working through those issues, it’s likely that the infidelity could happen again.

In my experience, couples who are conflict avoidant typically have difficulty expressing painful emotions and hearing difficult things. So, rather than focusing on issues that contributed to the infidelity, for the conflict avoidant couple, there’s always a temptation that they’ll try to avoid and return to a particular argument – maybe around a recent purchase or unwillingness to help around the house.

A really common pattern I’ve seen when working with infidelity is that the partner who's upset and angry doesn't see or isn’t interested in seeing the unfaithful partner wrestling with what it was in themselves that led to the deception. So, they stay angry, not realizing that learning how to confront their partner more calmly is what will push them to start dealing with the relevant issues.

Here, I like to emphasize that both partners come to the relationship with their own history. For example, if it was a male partner who cheated, I might say, “While I don't know enough about his history yet, I do know that, some part of him learned early on to protect himself by not being direct with women. While I don't know yet where that comes from, I do know that it's been scary for him to be direct with you. And unless we can create the space in this room to find out what that's about, why it's scary and you learn how to hear things that are hard for him to say, you guys will keep repeating the same pattern. Sometimes you have to go through really hard things to prevent what would be even worse.”

Identify Issues around Deception

When there's been infidelity in a relationship, I really want to understand how somebody made it okay with themselves to lie. I’m going to take a very different approach if I’m dealing with somebody who learned to lie to an angry controlling mother than I would with somebody who basically doesn’t have any internal discomfort about lying. In the first case, I’m likely dealing with someone who is conflict avoidant and that, in the long run is easier to work with than with somebody who is more on the narcissistic or character disorder continuum.

So as a therapist, I want to dig deeply into what it was like for the client to lie and get a sense for how important it is to them to change that. Did it affect him? Did it impact her in a significant way?

Stage 3: Create a New and Different Experience

Working with a couple who has experienced infidelity requires slow and steady work. It’s like taking each partner by the hand and walking them through developmental phases where each learns they have the right to have feelings and express them calmly.

Along the way, it’s important to recognize small changes in each partner and embellish them in significant ways.

My goal is to help strengthen the couple as a team to create something that is new and different from what they’re used to doing. It's exactly this kind of new and different that's going to make a real difference in rebuilding the trust that was lost through infidelity.

I’ll be sharing two more blog posts on infidelity in the weeks ahead.


Take Action Now

Please comment below. Share any small changes that have helped your clients open up to each other after infidelity. Tell us what you have seen help to rebuild trust.


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."

    Find more about me on:
  • googleplus

Tags: , Forward to a Colleague
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Some believers couples find solace in rebuilding spirituality, others in finding the conscious and unconscious meaning of infidelity, and others being aware of they are acting out reaction to family experience and following mainstream behavior related to their social class.

Beverly Jasmine Moultrie-Fierro
Beverly Jasmine Moultrie-Fierro
11 months ago

So as I was absorbing and reflecting on your information about the “angry mother” situation and a possible lack of a viable emotional bank connected to lying without conscience, I wondered about projective identification in both cases where in either situation the “initiator” (?) projects the behavior, then acts out the behavior he/she initiated based on how the “inquirer (?) responds/reacts? Just piqued my curiosity and collection of themes and patterns. Thoughts?

Selma Fields
Selma Fields
11 months ago

Really well put; I like the turning toward oneself as a source of information. I liked to take a history of the emotional patterns experienced by each in their families of origin or early experience. While one is discussing the other can listen and gain in understanding of who this person is and how and hopefully why they differ in communication and needs. There were a lot of surprises…and it became less confrontive. Taking the longer view, it can encourage discussion of how I/thee/we would like the relationship to be.

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.