The components or requirements for working toward forgiveness or acceptance in recovery from infidelity are relatively straightforward, but often extremely difficult to follow through on. And, they are highly challenging for the therapist to facilitate with the partners. The offended partner may want to and/or agree to forgive the unfaithful partner, but trust has been destroyed or at least corrupted. He or she will hold major distrust and insecurity about the unfaithful partner. His or her emotions will be very activated, complex, and often conflicted. The partner who has been deceived may compulsively scrutinize the unfaithful partner’s every move to make sure he or she does not stray sexually again. This can include investigating online history and usage, tracking down telephone and mobile phone records, checking credit card receipts, bank statements, intercepting and reading mail, hacking online accounts, and otherwise “spying” on the partner. This may be literal in the sense of following the unfaithful partner’s movement about town, hiring a private investigator, or secretly installing a GPS (global positioning system) in the individual’s car, celphone, or notebook computer. The offended partner takes such actions and others to get some sense of being in control and creating security because of the inherent anxiety that infidelity will occur again.
Prior to and through the aftermath of the affair being uncovered, each individual may have uneven skills in communicating effectively. The unfaithful partner’s skills are truly put to the test when trying to explain infidelity and to try to help the offended partner recover and heal from the affair. Strategies that encourage responses with positive emotions tend to be more effective in mitigating the emotional rupture. In general, the unfaithful partner is received more positively when he or she responds in a manner that validates the content of the other person’s communication. Content-validation and other types of supportive strategies: agreement, activity to aid and participate in meeting needs, compromise, conceding to the other’s wishes, and so forth enhance working through deception. Apologies, discussion, soothing behavior, work on the relationship, and prompting relationship understandings and agreements serve supportive processes. Positive behavior has to be genuine and heartfelt, rather than perfunctory because of pressure or some sense of requirement or duty. “To the extent that the target believes that the deceiver refuses to accept responsibility or is minimizing the outcomes of the deception, use of excuses and justifications could be perceived as content-invalidation as well” (Aune et al., 1998, page 679). Invalidating the other person’s expressions, experiences, feelings, thoughts, or other content of communication through denial, avoidance, minimizing, accusations, exaggeration, blaming, and so on causes the offended person to pull away and resist reconciliation, forgiveness or acceptance, and reconnection. One partner’s use of positive affirming behaviors and communications tends to elicit a reciprocal response of similar affirmations.
Over the extended three-year process of recovery and healing with Aidan and Cathy, the therapist could usually get them to overtly validate positive interactions and growth in the relationship. Cathy made a point to recognize and appreciate Aidan’s continual efforts working on the relationship. She noted how more open he was with her and how he would step up with support without her asking in ways he had not done since the very beginnings of their relationship. Aidan praised Cathy’s efforts to manage herself when she was enraged or in the midst of a flashback and seek productive communication and behaviors. He acknowledged how she would deal with her anxiety and anger despite her impatience with his difficulties breaking through his compartmentalized emotions. Aidan especially appreciated her leading questions, guesses, and interpretation that helped him figure himself out. When asked how each of them were able to be more positive and improve their communication and relationship, they both pointed out the other person’s affirmative efforts and improved process. In contrast, the therapist often had to intervene in the toxic dis-affirming communication between Peter and Winona. The first part of most sessions began with complaints by one partner about the other partner had done or said badly the last week. The criticized partner would defend him or herself with accusations about the first partner. Entitled and imperious Chase regularly chastised and discounted Angie’s thoughts, feelings, and even her memories. His narcissistic instinct was to always maintain superiority and keeping Angie always inferior, so invalidating her was immediate and habitual. Peter and Winona engaged in a mutually destructive competition to be “right,” while Chase was always “right” and Angie just plain pathetic. With the last two couples, the therapist worked mightily but not particularly effectively to change their interactions which worsened rather that improved their dynamics.
The couple may already have routines that are rituals of relationship commitment and quality. Repeating or affirming such ceremonial actions or creating new ones may be beneficial. However, such rituals may feel shallow and fake given the offended partner’s sense of deep betrayal and injury. The therapist must take care not to introduce rituals as if they were magical enchantments that substitute for the grueling process of recovery and healing. Winek and Craven (2003, page 258) state that there are five stages of ritual formation for couples healing from adultery. “Each stage presents with a unique ritual formation based on the constellation of the couple and the present circumstances. These five stages are 1) knowing the details, 2) releasing the anger, 3) showing commitment, 4) rebuilding trust, and 5) rebuilding the relationship.” These stages are reflective of the overall process of recovery and healing from an affair. They can be easily seen as consequential of significant work and progress as much as contributing to the work and progress.
They describe a “coming clean” ritual. “As the coming clean ritual is introduced to the couple, their readiness to move past the trauma of the affair and begin to repair the marriage is discussed. For this ritual the instructions for the couple are rather specific and designed specifically to address the destructive cycle… The ‘coming clean’ ritual takes the metaphorical form of an interrogation. It is presented as a one-time-only event. We consider this a micro ritual because it only occurs once, and it is enacted on a limited scale” (page 259). The therapist may find that despite Winek and Craven’s recommendation, the process requires more than one attempt. Perhaps, much more! Or, as they conceive it, there are many sessions setting the groundwork to get to such a session. The process may be formalized with questions the offended partner needs to ask of the unfaithful partner once he or she is ready to respond openly and honestly. There may be significant work to process the ritual afterwards. A major interference with this type of ritual or the therapeutic process of “coming clean” can be an individual’s embedded emotional or psychological reluctance or resistance, or cultural sanctions against such transparency or honesty. Keeping secrets or avoiding revealing oneself may come from internalized survival strategies from the family-of-origin or community. Peter, for example grew up in a family where revealing ones feelings or thoughts made one open game for verbal if not physical assault. Male standards of stoicism along with cultural values may restrain emotional vulnerability as well. Secrecy may have been a fundamental value and practice in the couple that the intervention runs up against. The affair itself is a manifestation of secrecy and deception.
Anger is a natural yet usually disruptive consequence of the uncovering of the affair. At its most intense and erratic stages, it precludes recovery and healing. The couple may benefit from a ritual releasing anger. Some offended partners and couples may intuitively develop or stumble upon an effective anger releasing ritual on their own. Rituals to release anger must incorporate safety for the partners. This tends to be specific to each couple since personalities and circumstances vary a great deal. The process can be very symbolic and include physical acts of destruction. For example, the affair partner’s presents given to the unfaithful partner may be broken and dumped. One or both partners may compose but not send written communications. However, deep wells of rage may be tapped that intrude upon the relationship that rituals are insufficient to address. Narcissistic rage, borderline eruptions, and paranoid self-righteous anger are beyond simple rituals, and often require extensive and deep therapeutic transformation. The therapist has to judge whether some anger or other ritual is suitable to the specific energy and issues of the couple in therapy.
The first commitment of marital vows or of fidelity had not worked, hence the affair. Renewing commitment vows or other symbolic actions, nevertheless may be useful between the partners. This could be a joint project as partners- new wedding rings, or changing jobs for example. The commitment rituals can be simpler and occur daily between the partners. The practice of ceremonial actions and communications (daily phone call, evening tea, and so forth) reaffirm commitment and maintain connection to forestall relationship deterioration. These behaviors serve to re-build trust and can comprise elements of trust rituals. Rituals that include joint financial activities, keeping each other informed of work and other life situations, and regular consultation about important decisions that affect not just the couple or family, but also the individual partner build trust. Therapeutic timing is essential for these rituals or similar interventions. Is the ritual facilitative to recovery and healing or has recovery and healing evolved to the degree that a ritual to confirm progress furthers growth? The therapist needs to make the judgment about timing and also for suitability. Some individuals may be more receptive to rituals while others may find them shallow or too “touchy feely.” The therapist decided establishing rituals would not be recommended for Peter and Winona because they were not in the right frame of mind. It was not the right time. There was too much to be processed before it would be appropriate. Rituals were also not included in therapy for Aidan and Cathy because it did not suit their professional logical belief or culture about how growth occurred.
The rituals or healing processes may lead up to and are progressive foundations for the new relationship. They both comprise part of the new relationship and prompt further development. Winek and Craven (2003, page 264) state that rebuilding the relationship can be very difficult. The relationship, dynamics, and rituals between the partners had become dysfunctional and require restructuring physically and emotionally. “Universally our couples struggle to date each other again. This is often difficult after many years of living as husband and wife and often as mother and father to their children. The couple is educated about what it means to date. We define a date as a social activity with the sole purpose of mutual enjoyment. Given this definition it is important to help the couple establish boundaries. Often the business of the marriage intrudes on the date. It is too easy for the couple to discuss the plans for next week or to discuss some issues having to do with their children.” Focusing on each other and renewing and rebuilding intimacy is a challenge. Their original interactions of dating were about getting to know each other and developing intimacy. However, that had often been set aside, taken for granted, and as a result their intimacy had diminished over time. The partners may need to be coached how to spend time together, how to opportunistically make time, and how to exchange intimacies again. Many if not most of the couples were highly time and energy challenged by daily stresses. They had not worked on their intimacy often for years prior to the affairs. Getting to know one another again was critical to see if they still liked and respected each other. Dating had to be ritualized because there was little practice of this type of intimacy scheduling. They had lost the urgency to find or make time together.
The new relationship cannot be rebuilt without directly addressing the corruption of the old relationship. The unfaithful partner’s willingness to engage in new rituals is welcome only if the offended partner’s sense of who the unfaith partner has been reconciled. Infidelity is a betrayal of the relationship and at the same time, often has shattered the offended partner’s image of who the unfaithful partner was and is. The unfaithful partner often seeks to alter the offended partner’s perception of who and what he or she is. His or her underlying motivation to change how he or she is perceived however can vary. The unfaithful partner’s motivation can be disingenuous or a further attempt to deceive. It may be highly confused from not being sure him or herself, or heart felt but complex. “...impression management could serve prosocial and antisocial functions. In the former, a deceiver may deliberately attempt to present a sympathetic, guilty, or apologetic face, whereas in the latter a deceiver may act in an outraged fashion in an attempt to reframe the situation.” A positive approach to impression management would be to share “information about encounters with the affair partner before being asked; when you come home, you say, ‘I saw him today, and he asked me how we're doing; I said, I. really don't want to discuss it with you.’ That's counterintuitive. People think that talking about it with the spouse will create an upset, and they'll have to go through the whole thing again. But it doesn't. Instead of trying to put the affair in a vault and lock it up, if they're willing to take it out and look at it, then the trust is rebuilt through that intimacy” (Glass, 1998, page 75). This is directly the opposite behavior of secrecy maintained in the affair. The information could easily be withheld, but transparency is honored in a new commitment of full disclosure. On the other hand, the motivation behind impression management may be a further manipulation of the perception of the infidelity. This becomes another deception and betrayal- a re-injuring of a wound that has yet to heal. While the offended partner may be swayed... that is, deceived again, if and when he or she realizes the deception, hurt and the sense of betrayal can be catastrophic to the relationship.
The unfaithful partner may initially accept and tolerate such scrutiny but come to resent it over time. The offended partner may feel a need to persist with intense scrutiny for a short period or continue to do so for an indeterminate time without gaining any real reassurance. The unfaithful partner may get angry that despite being “good”- cooperating without complaint, he or she never gets any credit. The burden of the offended partner’s distrust wears on him or her whether or not he or she has accepted it as a natural consequence of the affair. Once the infidelity has been uncovered, complete transparency about all the circumstances and specifics of the affair may or may not be critical for the recovery or healing process. The offended partner may want all the details, but may nevertheless find that going through all the specifics to be extremely troubling. Not only may the offended partner want the times, places, and circumstances of each sexual meeting, but want to know about foreplay, positions, “pillow talk,” missionary, fellatio, anal, fondling, and every other nuance of sex between the unfaithful partner and his or her affair partner. The offended partner may want to know if sexual behaviors shared with the unfaithful partner had been practiced with the affair partner. Or, if the affair partner had indulged the unfaithful partner in sexual activity, the offended partner had not or refused to try or do together. The offended partner’s need to repeatedly go over the minutia of flirting, intercourse, and aftermath may be trigger crippling hurt, pain, and create trauma for or re-traumatize him or herself. Rather than soothing or relieving the offended partner, he or she may become obsessed with the images in his or her mind. Interaction with the partner and couple therapy may consist primarily of unfulfilling and compulsive reviews of the affair details over and over. The therapist must be vigilant whether going over details becomes a relentless and damaging process rather than a necessary and productive developmental step for recovery and healing.
At some point, the therapist may need to assert that the overall scrutiny about the details of the affair may need to be sufficient. As, when, and if the repeated inquiries increase rather than decrease pain and emotional reactivity, the therapist needs to focus therapy on the symbolic meaning of the details and how they impact the offended partner. Cathy repeatedly and relentless asked the same questions and despite substantial repetition got the same answers from Aidan. Either it was as Aidan said (he was conscientiously candid about what happened) and/or it was all he could recall. Aidan tried to be tolerate Cathy’s anger and be patient with Cathy’s questions. However, there seemed to be no lessening of anger and anxiety. It was far less than productive. It angered and frustrated the both of them. The underlying meanings of what Cathy feared the details indicated needed to be addressed. Did kinky or interesting sexual positions with Tina mean Aidan found her boring sexually? Would Aidan have strayed if Cathy had been willing to do this or that sexually? Did having dinner with Tina at the restaurant Cathy and Aidan visited before mean that there was nothing special or sacred between her and Aidan? Was having a sexual tryst with Tina at the hotel near their house about Aidan being that dismissive about her? If he talked about personal things with Tina, did that mean that there wasn’t anything special and private between her and Aidan? Was answering Tina’s questions about the children because he was critical of her as a mother? If he liked Tina’s breasts, did that mean he thought Cathy ugly, aging, and undesirable? Was that late meeting another tryst with Tina and to avoid being with Cathy? All these and other anxious questions or probing for details came probably from some fear or anxiety within Cathy. They were projections of her understandable insecurities about herself as a wife, woman, mother, and person. The therapist needed to shift therapy to identify Cathy’s anxieties and fears directly rather than allowing her to continue to interrogate Aidan, antagonize him, frustrate herself, and gain nothing to assuage her.
There is not a clear objective clinical boundary about when enough is enough. Or, how much information or detail needs to be revealed or known. The undetermined need for full disclosure may be extended to revealing multiple affairs. It can be arguable that some liaisons or affairs are better not to reveal if they are emotionally insignificant and transitory, especially if there is an admitted pattern of infidelity with multiple one-night stands. These sexual encounters had little or nothing to do with the anonymous partners or casual acquaintances. It has been argued that “informing the unaware spouse of the affair will result in raising the couple's anxiety at the point in treatment where the main purpose is to reduce anxiety” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 64). In addition, the possibility of intimate partner violence (domestic violence) as a result of an infidelity revelation must be considered. If the offended partner has potential to violently react to the unfaithful partner’s affair especially when there are other additional layers of betrayal (sex with a close personal friend), holding secret may be advisable. If married partners are leaning towards or headed to divorce, revelation about other affairs may be brought into legal proceedings about financial and property assignment, division, or support and child custody. A partner with vengeful instincts and desires would be empowered with additional revelations about infidelity but not supported toward positive relationship change.
CONTINUED INFIDELITY & SECRECY
The therapist may consider whether information about a past affair has relevance on current issues and the progress of treatment to guide decisions about revealing it to the other partner. As discussed earlier, an ongoing secretive affair would qualify as needing to be revealed, since it would inevitably affect quality and prognosis of the partners’ relationship. The therapist may require absolute transparency including revealing an ongoing affair. The unfaithful partner may reveal continued infidelity in the intake phone conversation or in an individual session. The therapist may refuse to start or continue couple therapy unless the secret is revealed. This boundary can be enforced before commencing couple therapy. However, it becomes automatically problematic if the therapist learns of an ongoing secret affair after couple therapy has begun. Termination of couple therapy would be met with curiosity and speculation from the unsuspecting offended partner as to the reasons for termination. Scheinkman (2005, page 242) suggests, “When one partner reveals an affair to the therapist in an individual session but is not inclined to reveal it to the partner, the therapeutic process must shift to include a period of individual sessions. Sometimes it makes sense to see both partners individually for a while, and sometimes it is most helpful to work mostly with the one with the dilemma. It all depends on what they are interested in doing and what is pressing. This process of individual work will certainly include sorting out the pros and cons of revelation—figuring out if, when, and how to reveal, or else how to go on without a disclosure.” The offended partner however may however be suspicious (correctly) as to why individual sessions have suddenly become a part of therapy.
Scheinkman recommends against a strict no secrets policy despite the risk of the therapist being triangulated into the couple’s system. The therapist can work with the unfaithful partner around holding the secret. “There is a price that the individual pays in keeping the affair a secret, and a price if the secret is revealed. On the negative side, keeping a secret involves maintaining distance and the burden and tension of not sharing. The one having the affair has to deal with feeling divided, and guilty in having to deceive. The spouse may feel mystified about subtle (or not-so-subtle) cues that something is amiss, without all of the information about it” (page 243). Withholding revealing an ongoing affair may protect the other partner from additional injury, but his or her sense of something being off could harm their dynamics relationship. And there is no certainty that the individual sessions with the unfaithful partner will change his or her desire to keep the ongoing affair still a secret. While Scheinkman recommends flexibility, the therapist may find this situation therapeutically untenable and may be compelled to force the unfaithful partner to make a choice to reveal.
On the other side, for a variety of reasons some individuals would rather not know the full details or prefer to be blissfully or purposely ignorant of any infidelity. The therapist must take care that he or she does not inadvertently collude with the unfaithful partner’s deception. “What sometimes occurs when an affair is uncovered is that the accused attempts to convince his or her spouse that he or she has imagined many of the incidents or misinterpreted the evidence. There is not only an attempt to conceal with regard to ‘gaslighting’ but an attempt to falsify information as well (Gass & Nichols, 1988). Concealment is a simpler process than falsification, and generally occurs at the beginning of the extramarital affair. However, once the spouse begins to ask questions about specific actions, falsifications, and the creation of stories to account for one's time, the deception is likely to ensue (Gass & Nichols, 1988). At this point, the ‘gaslighting’ begins to become destructive, as more and more evidence of the affair is met with more assertions of the spouse's ‘wild imagination.’ A typical reaction usually is one whereby the spouse begins to doubt his or her sanity because he or she ‘knows what was seen or heard, but is unable to have it validated.’” The therapist should assert that regardless of whether or not the unfaithful partner should reveal other affairs, an ongoing affair, or the details of an affair, dishonesty or deception of the partner or in therapy makes it less likely for the relationship will recover and heal. Withholding revelation of an ongoing affair, may be a delaying tactic against inevitable discovery and almost certain explosive consequences once uncovered.
The unfaithful partner often feels tremendous pressure to remember and convey what seems to be irrelevant nuances and nonsensical minutia or suffer the wrath of the offended partner. The unfaithful partner may be very willing to be completely transparent. However, he or she may find that any unnoticed or forgotten detail that is demanded may be beyond his ability to retrieve quickly. This then is considered further evidence of his or her being deceptive. Beyond considered to still be distrustful, inadequate responses are labeled as indicative of the unfaithful partner’s lack of commitment to the process of healing from the affair. The therapist needs to manage this process- especially, helping both partners understand why the offended partner seems to be compulsively seeking tiny obscure details. “For the offending spouse, the demands for information may seem petty and unreasonable, but for the offended spouse knowledge and specific information may be what is needed to gain mastery over the traumatic experience of being betrayed and deceived” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 13). The unfaithful partner must be willing to participate transparently or risk implying that his or her resistance means that he or she does not care about the trauma experienced by the offended partner. While going over details repeated may be onerous and feel unproductive, the unfaithful partner failing to try becomes an additional betrayal to the offended partner. Revealing that the energy underlying an otherwise erratically productive hunt for affair details is driven by trauma can prompt the unfaithful partner’s compassion. It also acknowledges for the offended partner that his or her recovery from trauma is essential to healing the infidelity wounds… and eventually, can lead to the “moving on” that the unfaithful partner wants- that they both want.
HUMANIZING THE AFFAIR PARTNER
Humanizing the affair partner is a difficult but necessary process for the partners when the partners both know him or her. Harano states, “A lot of the anger and the rage the betrayed spouse feels is directed toward the affair partner rather than the marital partner: ‘That person doesn't have any morals;’ ‘That person's a home wrecker.’ To believe that of the marital partner would make it difficult to stay in the relationship” (Glass, 1998, page 74). The unfaithful partner may have difficulty responding since he or she may “still be idealizing the affair partner. The unfaithful spouse perceives the affair partner as an angel, whereas the betrayed person perceives them as an evil person- a demon. Its important at some point in the healing process for the involved person to see some flaws in the affair partner, so that they can partly see what their partner, the betrayed spouse, is telling them. It is also important for the betrayed spouse to see the affair partner not as a cardboard character but as a human being who did some caring things (Glass, 1998, page 74).
Winona saw Peter’s online female friend as an immoral sexual seductress. To Winona, she was a low-life floozy who chased after other women’s husbands. Winona had only a few interactions with her when the woman and her husband and family lived nearby. They had moved away a few years ago. Winona heard about her reputation and escapades from her girlfriends who thought her a cheap skank as well. Peter was not particularly verbally articulate nor was he very introspective or insightful about why he enjoyed communicating with her. As a result, Winona could not see any redeeming qualities about the “other woman.” To Winona, that left the other woman simply a nasty skank. That left Winona seeing Peter as a low-life emotional cheater with a low-life skank. The therapist helped Peter find and explain his attachment anxieties that left him craving attention from the “skank” despite Winona’s anger. Winona began to consider that Peter’s attachment desperation and subsequent gullibility made him vulnerable to be drawn to a flirtatious woman with ulterior motives. Winona began to consider a mixture of motivations in her- for the first time, allowing that the “skank” had been warm and caring to Peter.
With the therapist’s prompting, Aidan and Cathy were able to gather a lot of insight about Tina who they had known for years. Although, Cathy struggled with trying to see things from another’s (Tina’s) perspective rather than judge from her own values, eventually she started to understand Tina’s behavior and motivations. Aidan and Cathy had observed Tina’s prior relationships, including two marriages where she targeted high status men to conquer romantically. They had some sense of her emotional and psychological fallacies that drove her romantic infidelity instincts and actions. They could see how her emotional neediness expressed in her previous manipulations to gain influence over unavailable men. And how it had lead to separation and divorce from her first husband. This process helped divest Aidan of any illusions that he may have had about Tina being without faults. At the same time, Cathy amazed herself that although she kept her anger at Tina for betraying their friendship by having an affair with Aidan, she found some compassion for Tina. Cathy felt sad that Tina could not have a healthy relationship or could be happy within her own marriage because of her distorted psyche. Tina was deeply flawed and highly needy despite her manipulative ways. Cathy hated her a little less.
In keeping close tabs on the unfaithful partner subsequent to uncovering infidelity, the offended partner often insists on detailed descriptions of his or her daily activities, schedule, intended excursions and activities, as well as exactly who is present or will be present. Any derivation from an expressed itinerary, any omission of who is or will be present especially if the person is remotely a candidate for an affair, and any period of unidentified activity may be seen as indicative of additional infidelity. The demand for extensive details in daily activities parallels the offended partner’s demand for every intricate detail of the affair and about the affair partner. Vigilant monitoring is a necessary transitional process that varies in length depending on the partner and couple’s dynamics. During this process, there may be significant rage, hostile words and behaviors, recent and ancient grievances, and jealous reactions intruding on rational or logical problem-solving attempts by the partners and the therapist. The therapist can characterize the emotional intrusions and the monitoring within a necessary framework for reconciliation. Although daily scrutiny is potentially problematic and emotionally disruptive, any resistance by the unfaithful partner against the offended partner’s close monitoring may be interpreted as him or her still being emotionally invested in the affair partner and relationship. The therapist should frame this process with by reminding them, that if the offended partner did not care anymore about the unfaithful partner, then keeping watch of him or her would not be necessary. The offended partner could have disconnected emotionally and behaviorally, if not functionally or legally through separation or divorce. If the offended partner becomes apathetic- that is, does not care what the unfaithful partner is doing “this may mean that the offended spouse has emotionally withdrawn from the marriage and that complete disaffection has taken place” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 13). As opposed to continued monitoring, the offended partner may lose sexual desire for the unfaithful partner. Deeply held intense anger can result in psychic turmoil that results in significant depression expressed, among other ways in a general loss of sexual desire. Despite desirous of reconciliation, the loss of emotional and spiritual intimacy may preclude desire for sexual intimacy. This can lead to another cycle of negative consequences and reactions.