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 themto 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 phase 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.
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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.