8. Initial Stages of Affair & Therapy - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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8. Initial Stages of Affair & Therapy

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

Sorry is not Enough, Infidelity and Betrayal in Couples and Couple Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Couple therapy usually starts with getting information about the partners’ history of the relationship.  In particular, the therapist elicits the circumstances, specific actions and events, and each partner’s experience prior to the initiation of the affair.  A similar exploration looks at the period immediately before the infidelity was discovered or revealed.  How the offended partner found out about the affair and the circumstances around discovery and the aftermath are discussed.  The therapist explores how each partner and the couple, as well as the family as may be relevant are handling the revelation.  Positive attributes or strengths and negative characteristics or weakness and their impact on how they are functioning are examined.  The therapist needs to assess the volatility of the relationship.  The discovery or revelation of infidelity committed by the unfaithful partner has usually thrown the relationship into turmoil.  Otherwise potentially productive therapeutic strategies and interventions may not be appropriate or effective if there is too much instability between the partners.

“The therapist attempts to reduce the level of emotional crisis, engage both partners through validation, and build trust with both partners while maintaining a neutral stance (which may require helping one partner become more engaged and bringing one partner’s level of emotional intensity down).  Typically, it appears that the participating partner is withdrawn while the injured partner exhibits high levels of emotional intensity” (Dupree et al., 2007, page 335).  The offended partner finds him or herself swirling with intense emotions upon discovery of the affair.  He or she feels violated and betrayed and/or be in shock or denial.  “In clinical samples of clients' reactions to learning of their spouse's extramarital affair, the most common negative emotion experienced by husbands was anger (38%), followed by shock (19%). Wives ranked shock first (45%) and anger second (35%) (Humphrey, 1985b).  It was also noted that 8% of husbands and 7% of wives first reacted to their spouse's affair with denial.  None of the wives reacted first with calm acceptance, while 3% of husbands did so” (Atwood and Seifer, 1997, page 60).  Anxiety, fear, and despair may alternate with depression, hurt, jealousy, and emotional numbing.

Mixed into these feelings may be a sense of confirmation that his or her instincts about the unfaithful partner’s fidelity have proved disastrously accurate.  The offended partner may feel relieved that their unspoken tension over relationship problems has finally been revealed.  After hiding the infidelity for weeks, months, or years, the unfaithful partner may feel deeply shamed and guilt-ridden.  At the same time, he or she may feel highly vulnerable from being uncovered.  Anxiety and fear over unpredictable consequences to come may ignite anger, aggression or violence, and acting out, including alcohol or substance abuse or other self-destructive behavior.  As a result, the partners often “need assistance in containing the emotional turmoil and destructive exchanges that often characterize initial responses to the disclosure or discovery of an affair.  Partners frequently need assistance in communicating feelings in a constructive manner and reaching intermediate decisions about how to set boundaries regarding involvement with the outside affair person, how much information to share with children or extended family, and how to interact with each other” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 377).

A couple may arrive in therapy years past the affair or its discovery.  The partners may enter couple therapy to resolve other family issues around children, extended family, or finances for example, to try to repair the relationship, or are considering ending the relationship.  The initial turmoil that followed uncovering the affair may have been very painful and chaotic, but the partners may have “resolved” it or gotten “past” it somehow.  Often, that meant the partners after the initial emotional eruption, accusations, and apologies continued the relationship without examining what lead up to the affair or how the affair affected each partner and the relationship.  After the rage and shame, Winona and Peter got “past” his prior emotional infidelities by not talking about them.  They continued dealing with the practical demands of a household, children, and finances without dealing with what, how, and why Peter violated boundaries.  Nor did they examine how his sexual encounter when he and Winona were on a “break” was an issue for her.  Each time Peter replicated betraying the relationship expectations, seething anger and eventually ever accruing resentment followed discovery and eruption.  The emotional challenge in therapy was not so much managing high emotional reactivity, but dealing with deep calcified bitterness and resentment.  Talking about the old affair would re-ignite the wounds, but instead of continuing to flare intensely, Winona and Peter often resettled into stone cold rage.  It is arguable whether intense reactivity versus deep set bitterness is more difficult to manage in couple therapy.

Baucom et al. (2006, page379) states that “the first stage of therapy has five basic components: (1) boundary setting, (2) self-care techniques, (3) time-out and venting techniques, (4) emotional expressiveness skills and discussion of the impact of the affair, and (5) coping with flashbacks.”  Areas in the relationship that had not been previously impacted by the infidelity can become problematic during the turmoil of recent discovery.  Parenting that had been co-operative and effective can become a problem with the partners acting out in front of children.  Financial self-discipline may falter under the stress.  Controlled social drinking may get out of hand as ones emotions are chemically self-soothed.  The likelihood of arguments and other negative interactions increase during this early period.  Discussions may become repetitious arguments that harm rather than improve their dynamics.  The therapist may need to help partners negotiate how and when they can discuss the affair, including which aspects of the affair.  Some aspects may need to be discussed only in couple therapy with the therapist’s assistance.

Some of the boundaries that the partners negotiate may not be necessary later in the process, but may be critical at this time.  Extensive and intense emotional reactivity and potential for words and actions that can further damage the relationship need to be managed in this period.  Otherwise, they can destroy any possibility of getting to later stages to further recovery and healing.  One or both partners may sense the frailty of the relationship and be too intimidated to speak honestly.  At the same time, the offended partner in particular may feel a tremendous urgency to express hurt, loss, or anger.  Setting up boundaries including specific times and limited discourse serve balancing the partners’ fears and urgencies.  The therapy itself creates a place and facilitator- the therapist to make it safe enough to proceed.  The unfaithful partner’s willingness to negotiate, accept, and participate becomes indicative of his or her commitment to the relationship and of taking responsibility for the affair.

The therapist may find that communicating and working out boundaries of the recovery and healing process is compromised by the partners’ lack of skills and willingness.  Infidelity may have been significantly influenced by the partners’ complicity in avoiding talking about and working through boundaries issues- that is, avoidance of conflict.  A problematic boundary for a partner cannot be renegotiated unless he or she is willing to bring it up to the other partner.  This involves confronting the issue or behavior by presenting it for consideration by the other partner.  Each individual has his or her personal and formative experiences with confrontation.  Negative experience where confrontation among family members in the family-of-origin became contentious and toxic conflict arose dispossesses many individuals from negotiating boundaries.  Confrontation and inevitable conflict either experienced or witnessed may have been highly traumatizing.  It would not be surprising if the therapist finds that “avoidance of conflict to be a major relationship characteristic associated with the development of an affair.  Not surprisingly, this same general reluctance to address conflict often continues after the discovery of the affair.  Such couples might easily agree to forgive each other, particularly if the affair has ended, without addressing the critical issues” (Baucom et al, 2006, page 384).

Initiating therapy may have been delayed- sometimes significantly after the uncovering of infidelity.  Couple therapy may be weeks, months, or even years after the affair with the couple a presenting issue or triggering event that can mislead the therapist.  Communication problems, job changes, financial problems, or parenting is identified as the reason for therapy.  In reality, such issues developed from the gradual and ancient corruption from months or years past that the couple had avoided dealing with.  The bitterness and resentment discussed earlier may be intrinsically related to individual characteristics that will also challenge the therapeutic process.  The therapist may need to explore for each partner, the family-of-origin and/or cultural models about confrontation and conflict.  Personal aversion to conflict may have been highly influential to the infidelity, a root to accrued resentment, and a challenge to the recovery and healing process.  Dealing and not dealing with confrontation, conflict, and thus having uncertain and inconsistent boundaries will bring up anxiety and fears that need to be addressed.  Confrontation involves having and defending boundaries, while infidelity involves violating held boundaries.  The therapist has to create a safe enough environment in therapy- another set of boundaries.  Positive experiences in therapy are required to help the couple to create safe enough home processes for the partners to have strong feelings, have effective containment, and then to establish workable boundaries.

The partners negotiate some practical boundaries and actions in this early stage.  Working out how to limit computer use may be appropriate, for example when online sexual addiction or communication has been a part of the unfaithful partners’ negative pattern.  “…couples frequently need to improve their ability to negotiate basic changes in how they interact and manage daily challenges of their relationship” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 377).  A cognitive behavioral approach is useful here but the therapist should be ready to adapt from the present oriented approach because of the partners’ need to make sense of the affair.  Problem-solving current needs for stability, often includes the unfaithful partner agreeing to terminate any relationship with the affair partner as is possible.  This is often a key boundary required by the offended partner.  There may be limitations to completely eliminating contact if the affair partner is a work colleague, family member, or friend.  Cutting off communication would be relatively straightforward and simple, for example in Peter’s case where there was online flirtation with his female friends.  However, it can be more difficult as in Aidan’s case, since the affair partner circulated in the same professional arena as Aidan and there could be business dealings between his foundation and Tina’s government department.

“Because rebuilding trust is a crucial part of the therapeutic process, the therapist encourages the participating partner to be honest in stating what boundaries he or she is willing to set with the outside person at present and how that will be carried out, along with agreements for how the injured partner will be informed of contact with the outside person.  It is extremely important that the couple eventually set limits together on interactions with the outside partner, however, particularly if the outside partner insists on intruding into the relationship.  From our experience, it is clear that continued interactions with the outside partner can have the effect of retraumatizing the injured partner and eroding the progress that the couple is able to make” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 380).  The therapist or the offended partner may require the unfaithful partner to give up the affair relationship to engage in therapy or attempt reconciliation.  Refusal to work with a couple with ongoing infidelity or an affair may cause the unfaithful partner to hide the continued breach of monogamy from the therapist, offended partner, or both.  The secrecy compromises the integrity of the therapy and process making progress highly difficult.  The therapist might reframe the ongoing infidelity as an opportunity to examine the relationship and dynamics.  An active affair perpetuates rather than interrupts the negative relationship process.  The therapist should strongly encourage the unfaithful partner to disclose the continued infidelity or contact. “If the individual refuses to disclose, the therapist will require the person having the affair to tell his or her partner that he or she is insufficiently committed to couple therapy, and will make it clear that therapy will not continue unless the secret is revealed.  The therapist should be ready to provide support to both partners should the affair be disclosed” (Martel and Prince, 2005, page 1432).

Requiring termination of the affair may come from a personal and/or theoretical determination of the therapist.  If the unfaithful partner had initiated couple therapy with a request or requirement of secrecy about his or her infidelity, the therapist has to choose whether to hold the secret.  The therapist becomes triangulated with the unfaithful partner against the unknowing other partner.  If the therapist demands that the unfaithful partner tell the other partner, therapy may terminate before it really begins.  If the unfaithful partner agrees, there may be issues around control and distancing between the therapist and individual that may prove detrimental to therapy.  A theoretical and therapeutic orientation and justification for insisting on revealing the affair is that it constitutes a full commitment to growth and health- a necessary condition of making the relationship work.  The unfaithful partner may already feel he or she is the totally villainous individual and being required to apologize profusely without any possible justification for the infidelity.  If required to reveal the affair, the unfaithful partner may also think that the other partner and the therapist are on a side together against him or her.  There are strong theoretical opinions regarding this issue.  However it must be remembered that, “The therapist does not allow anything, one way or the other.  It simply is beyond the scope of what the therapist can control.  For that matter, the noninvolved spouse has no control at this level.  To the extent that the noninvolved spouse is traumatized by the continuation, that is indeed a therapeutic issue” (Moultrup, 2003, page 269).  If the therapist does not align with a particular theoretical principle and therapeutic practice, the therapist must make his or her clinical determination and proceed based on what he or she determines is in the best interests of the partners based on their specific circumstances.

The unfaithful partner may be unwilling to end the affair especially if the emotional nurturance within the supposedly committed relationship is sparse or missing.  He or she would be giving up emotional, physical, and sexual intimacy without a certainty of gaining the same in the relationship.  In fact, the unfaithful partner may be certain that he or she will not get any intimacy as the offended partner’s hurt and rage practically precludes intimacy and/or accentuates the negativity already existent.  Emotional distance increases, anger intensifies, and conflict worsens during this period.  The cold war becomes hot, not warm and nurturing with uncovering of the infidelity.  The therapist should affirm the offended partner’s instincts that maintaining the affair relationship either sexually or emotionally will fundamentally interfere with trying to restore the committed relationship.  Working on developing trust and improving intimate emotional connection with the unfaithful partner continuing with the affair partner makes the process a mockery.  The offended partner experiences the other relationship as being in a competition with the affair partner for the commitment of the unfaithful partner.  It is a competition, the offended partner cannot help but resent since relationship or marital commitment overtly specified no outside dalliances.  Monogamy is specifically a non-competitive exclusive intimate relationship.

Even though Peter was not in any sexual affairs, his resistance to cutting off his “friendships” with other women infuriated Winona.  He repeatedly allowed and responded to coy communications initiated by these women behind her back. Winona felt that she suffered emotional competition for Peter’s intimacy from these women.  She had kids to care for and bills to address, while they could be cute and playful with Peter.  To Winona, it was both a competition she should never have had to deal with in the first place, and an unfair competition to boot.  And somehow, she was supposed to work on their relationship while Peter split his attention with these other relationships.  Peter’s actions deepened her mistrust of his commitment, intentions, and capacity to change.  Any therapeutic or couples process to reduce emotional reactivity was continually compromised or blocked by the continued infidelity.  Rather than lowering, the unfaithful partner who persists in an affair keeps intensifying hurt and anger.

Baucom et al. (2006, page 385) recommend, “Hence, in situations involving an ongoing affair, the therapist should work to

(1) promote the participating partner's agreement to limit or suspend involvement with the outside person on an intermediate basis,

(2) construct a tentative timeline for reaching a more permanent decision about whether to end the outside relationship, and

(3) assist both partners in defining specific ground rules for how they will interact with each other, as well as with others outside their relationship, during the interim.”

Therapy might continue without immediate ending of the affair.  Termination of the affair would likely be the partners’ final decision as consistent and necessary to attempting to reconcile.  Therapy prompts each partner for the meaning of the affair relationship, including the unfaithful partner’s reluctance to terminate the affair.  They need to explore how the affair has affected the committed relationship before its discovery by the offended partner.  The emotional impact of discovering infidelity on the offended partner and the emotional impact of being discovered on the unfaithful partner are further examined.  The discussion turns inevitably to what needs to be done.  That means establishing new boundaries.  Most of the time, the boundaries mean the partners agreeing that the affair must end.  In that case, “the therapist may help the couple determine action they can take together, such as writing and mailing a letter to the third party that terminates the affair and any subsequent contact.  Engaging in this activity together is a form of “unified detachment,” an important… emotional acceptance strategy, as it encourages the couple to work together against an outside adversary, in this case the negative impact of the affair on their relationship” (Martel and Prince, 2005, page 1432).

Their respective sense of self and self-esteem suffer in the revelation of infidelity.  Each partner may be prone to go into an instinctive flight, fight, or freeze survival state that will compromise functioning.  A partner may have healthy or unhealthy and effective to destructive instinctive mechanisms and behavior for self-care.  The therapist should assess how well or poorly each partner has dealt with his or her emotional, psychological, cognitive, spiritual, social, and other needs.  Therapy may need to review and encourage appropriate self-care behaviors for physical well-being: sleep, rest, proper diet, physical activity and exercise, and avoiding excessive consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and other potentially harmful substances.  Who and how each person has sought out and utilized social support among friends and family should be examined.  The therapist should review what would be appropriate versus inappropriate disclosure and which persons would be appropriate to disclose to.  For Peter who had poor boundaries with female friends in the first place, there was an exacerbated tendency to further violate intimacy boundaries.  He would seek support from an emotional affair partner about betrayal issues between him and Winona.  Winona suspected this female confidant of having ulterior romantic motives in the first place.  The fact of Peter communicating with this woman in first place and second place, as well as her advice and support turned out to make things worse between Peter and Winona.  To Winona, he was going back to where he never should have gone to talk about whether he should have gone there in the first place!  Winona was torn between being incredulous and being enraged.

Cathy on the other hand, confided in a friend who turned out to have her own emotionally scarring experiences with emotional betrayal.  Her friend turned out to be very cynical and negative about relationships.  She had boyfriends and ex-husbands who had cheated on her.  Her feedback tended to accentuate Cathy’s anxieties and fears, increasing her tendency to become desperate.  She focused Cathy on the worse case scenarios and amplified anger into rage and discomfort into crippling pain.  The therapist should take special attention to direct partners to avoid “supportive” or “negative” advice givers who have their own agendas and may not consult in the best interests of the individual.  Talking with Cathy about the affair gave the woman’s cynicism and angry helplessness, the opportunity to confirm her sense of the cold cruel world of cheating assholes.  Infidelity strikes at the person’s world view of how things are and should be.  It is important to get realistic perspectives from healthy persons with appropriate optimistic balance.  The partners may also be encouraged to seek spiritual support through reading, spiritual guides, meditation, or prayer as is appropriate to their beliefs.

The therapist should check for any behaviors that each partner is prone to utilize for self-care, especially any self-medicating behaviors that can potentially be harmful.  Peter tended to further violate intimacy boundaries communicating with female “friends.”  Winona would find out eventually and get mad at him.  When upset by her anger, he then self-soothed by watching more internet pornography.  As stated earlier, Winona felt he betraying her with porn inciting more anger.  This cycle of behaviors, actions, and reactions made him more disconnected emotionally from Winona.  His choices further pushed Winona away.  Winona in turn used sweets and desserts to self-soothe.  This broke her diet, caused her to gain weight, and made her feel ashamed when she was already suffering self-esteem loss.  She added her getting fat to her list of grievances against Peter.  Aidan liked to drink a glass or two of wine in the evening to distress.  During the affair that became two or three… or four glasses before and.  He thought it was just for relaxation, but Cathy said that he was a different person when he had that much alcohol.  He was less emotionally and cognitively present.  He interacted from inside a hazy filter diluting the intimacy of their interactions.  Cathy’s instinctive reaction to stress was to keep busy, which meant further workaholic behavior.  This distracted her but also caused more carpal tunnel pain.  This added to her resentment as well.  Chase who compulsively had one sexual adventure with strangers and near strangers throughout his marriage, dealt with his remorse or anxiety over cheating on his wife by moving onto another sexual conquest or liaison.    Stopping Chase’s compulsively cyclical sexual behavior and sexual responses is most complex and seem indicative of addiction.  When self-soothing or self-care behaviors are themselves problematic, they must draw the attention of therapeutic intervention.  Affairs may trigger everything within the individual’s psychic grab bag whether healing or damaging.  As a result, just about everything within and about each individual becomes something to address in therapy.

Since the immediacy of uncovering infidelity often triggers passionate toxic exchanges, the partners can become explosive reservoirs of intensity.  In order to modulate oneself, a partner may have tried self-soothing with alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviors such as over or under eating, obsessive exercising, and workaholism.  These strategies have the potential to worsen emotional distress and become problems in their own right.  The degree of anger, hurt, and other emotions may be too intense for the individual to successfully suppress.  Rather than bursting out and further harming and complicating the hurt, shame, and rage between the partners, the partners need to develop alternative mechanisms.  Learning how to disengage may be useful.  Taking a time out from one another can be a permitted and planned behavior.  The partners are taught to recognize when one or the other has gotten to a level of intensity that will not be productive.  Both partners agree upon key words, communications, and behaviors to identify emotions that are getting out of control.  The partners agree to cut off before toxic interactions result.

The agreement is that the discussion will resume later at a specific time.  Both partners agree that time out is not to be used to dismiss or avoid interaction, but to facilitate interaction hopefully to be more productive.  Time out is structured so that the break from face to face interaction can be used to stabilize and identify effective communication, as opposed to come up with new ways to do the same aggressive things.  Time out can include physical activity, meditation, and using positive activities and persons to calm and focus.  The therapist may consider using individual therapy sessions for each partner to vent about and against the other.  Getting intense feelings and thoughts out to be processed with the therapist’s assistance can be beneficial.  The partner can be angry and self-righteous without risking provoking further conflict and hurt since the other partner is not present.  Aidan and Cathy tried to institute time-out break for when their exchanges got too intense, unproductive, and toxic.  This proved difficult to implement successfully because their respective previous experiences.  In Cathy’s family, a time-out ordered by her parents was essentially a rejection of Cathy or one of her siblings’ issues.  Cathy or her sibling would be sent away without any validation of feelings or needs.  She would have to drop her issue.  This frustrated her as a child and when Aidan called for a time-out, she went beyond frustration to angry resentment for being dismissed again.

Since Aidan was inexperienced and unskilled being introspective, he often got overwhelmed by Cathy’s relentless angry interrogations.  When he felt anxious and frustrated, he could also feel his anger rising.  Trying not to snap back at Cathy, which he knew made things worse, he would ask for a time-out.  Unfortunately, his habit of compartmentalizing situations caused him to leave whatever issue behind him.  His process of moving on to the next thing- whatever it may be, did not instinctively lead him back to whatever difficult issue that he and Cathy had gotten stuck on.  Out of the moment, Aidan often failed to bring up the issue later.  Cathy would wait for “time in” to resume dealing with the issue, but Aidan’s silence would seem to have blown her off.  Her conclusion was that Aidan was avoiding answering her questions and shutting her out.  The therapist had to work through both their habits and issues that were either ignited by trying to use time-out or complicated using time-out.  Any therapeutic intervention can be effective if it can be implemented.  However, any intervention can also trigger further therapeutic issues that need to be worked through.  Aidan and Cathy’s problem using time-out was not the only time when a well-intended intervention or strategy to deal with some issue stirred up deeper issues that also required therapeutic processing.

The offended partner often has an urgent compelling urgent need to tell the unfaithful partner how he or she has been affected by the infidelity.  The expression is in a hurt and angry tone and is about being hurt by and angry about the affair.  Telling the unfaithful partner can serve to punish him or her.  The offended partner’s pain and suffering punishes the unfaithful partner through evoking guilt and shame.  Going over distress and despair makes the unfaithful person confront how he or she has failed morally to be the partner and person he or she aspired to be.  Every hurt pain, embarrassment, need to hide the affair, subterfuge, and other discomforting feeling and activity necessary to deal with or hide revealing the affair to others is another irrefutable accusation heaped on the unfaithful partner’s pile of steaming shame.  The offended partner maintains the upper hand by shaming the unfaithful partner.  The more as Helen played the loyal betrayed good Catholic girl/wife, the deeper Bart as a good Catholic boy fell into shame.  Her needy, helplessness, and passive-aggressive behavior had infuriated him and contributed to his marital dissatisfaction and affairs.  However, her pitiful distress served also to disarm him from asserting any grievance of his own.  He felt trapped all over again.  The offended partner’s deep distress can serve to preclude the unfaithful partner from bringing up any hurtful communication or actions by the offended partner.  The offended partner may have shame and blame him or herself for not being “good enough” to keep the unfaithful partner faithful.  The offended partner such as Helen may be well aware of harm that he or she has inflicted on the unfaithful partner, but want to avoid dealing with it.

The unfaithful partner (for example, Bart, Aidan, Rosalyn, and Peter, but not narcissistic Chase or Francine) often initially feels obligated to “take his or her lickings” as just retribution for infidelity.  Over time and repeated angry and shaming lashings, the unfaithful partner begins to realize that the offended partner relishes his or her discomfort despite experiencing pain in the telling.  Cathy could admit that she wanted to hurt Aidan for what he had done, despite knowing that it was not productive.  Cathy tried to balance her self-righteous instincts to hurt Aidan with needs to vent, and whether it on or power over Bart had always been based on her helplessness that weakened his resolve for self-fulfillment.  Her pathetic whiny attitude upset him but having triggered his guilt left him no recourse but to submit to her desires.  Despite never verbalizing condemnations, Helen suffering was extremely powerful and perfectly targeted silent accusations at Bart.  Eventually, the unfaithful partner may no longer meekly submit to such accusations.  Although feeling guilt, the unfaithful partner’s anger and bitterness about receiving repeated scoldings increased.  The unfaithful partner may feel compelled to draw upon a personal Rolodex of earlier transgressions by the offended partner to make a case against the offended partner so not to feel as a totally “bad guy.”

Under what he felt was relentless attacks by Winona, Peter defended himself angrily with accusations of his own about Winona’s actions over the years.  He blamed for her turning her family and friends against him.  Peter expressed resentments for Winona siding against him when there were family disputes.  He accused her of sabotaging his authority with the children.  Of course, her blocking his communication with female friends was insulting and disregarded his feelings.  Peter depicted his poor choices as justified retaliation to her offenses.  The cumulative effect for the unfaithful partner can be losing or lowering his or her “ability to sympathize with the injured partner's feelings of betrayal.  As a result, the injured partner is not likely to feel heard and may increase demands or comments, precipitating a negative interaction cycle between the partners” (Baucom et al., 2006, page 381).  Peter was too emotionally fragile and his paranoid sensitivities were too strongly triggered by Winona’s criticism for him to retain insight about Winona’s need to vent her pain and loss.  With Aidan while it was often difficult and he was far from always maintaining circumspect attitudes and response, he understood and respected Cathy’s need to express her devastation about the affair.  With assistance from the therapist, Aidan struggled to find ways to allow Cathy’s process while maintaining boundaries against being abused himself.  He had to reign in his instincts to defend himself aggressively and retort with his litany of old resentments about Cathy.  As Aidan was able to keep his focus and refrain from snapping back and Peter was unable to curtail defensive accusations, the therapeutic process was more or less productive.

The negative cycle between the unfaithful partner and the offended partner needs to be broken.  The therapist teaches communication skills for expressing emotions.  The partners may need to “learn to speak the language of emotion. The clinician could give them a list of adjectives that describe feeling states (e.g., sad, frustrated, hurt, confused, numb) and help them identify, describe, and express their emotional experiences.  These skills will empower them with language that will enable them to emotionally engage with their partners during the healing process.  For example, techniques as simple as guiding clients in expressing their emotions when they begin to express thoughts can assist them in focusing on their emotions.  For instance, when clients begin to describe feelings using phrases such as ‘I feel that’ or ‘I feel like,’ they are in fact beginning to express thoughts, not feelings.  The therapist might say, ‘A feeling is one word: I feel happy, frustrated, sad, etc.’ and subsequently encourage clients to use language describing their feelings, not their thoughts” (Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 230).  Such work includes more effective emotional communication by the offended partner and better listening skills by the unfaithful partner.  The unfaithful partner’s receptive communication behavior needs to confirm to the offended partner that he or she understands the emotional messages being conveyed.  The therapist must help the unfaithful partner understand that the offended partner cannot understand any explanation about the causes and motivations for the affair until a critical need is met.  The offended partner needs to first feel that the unfaithful partner really gets how the infidelity devastated his or her emotions and world.  Without that, any explanation for the affair by the unfaithful partner can seem like justification for infidelity and functions to minimize or dismiss the offended partner’s psychic destruction and overwhelming pain.  The unfaithful partner must somehow convey that he or she emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually understands the depth of the pain caused by his or her transgression.  And that he or she is deeply remorseful for having caused it.  Then and only then, can the offended partner consider the unfaithful partner’s perspective and experiences.

“The hypersexual partner develops understanding of the significance of his behavior and acknowledges his partner’s emotional pain and suffering.  The hypersexual partner, supported by the therapist, begins to hear and understand the impact of his sexual activities in the context of attachment.  He reframes the pain of his injured partner as a reflection of her love for him and realizes that her suffering exists because she considers him a person of importance.  The ability to give an alternative explanation to his partner’s emotional pain empowers the hypersexual individual to let go of beliefs that her protests are personal attacks or a reflection of her own inadequacies.  He is invited to continue exploring his injured partner’s pain and suffering and elaborate on how the behavior evolved for him” (Reid and Woolley, 2006, page 228).  The alternative explanation allows the unfaithful partner to drop his or her defensive stance.  The stance is off-putting to the offended partner, who cannot help but be incredulous that the unfaithful partner acts like the victim although having been the person who committed infidelity.  The unfaithful partner may be shocked to find that it is because his or her behaviors are important and valued that his or her behaviors have hurt the offended partner so much.  This is in contrast to needing to resist being seen as entirely corrupt, which blocks true empathy.

The therapist may need to prompt multiple and varied attempts by the offended partner to convey the depth and intensity of his or her pain from the betrayal.  And also prompt multiple and varied attempts by the unfaithful partner to show that he or her truly appreciates and honors the offended partner’s pain.  There may need to be repeated facilitated interactions between the partners to discuss the infidelity for them to be able to do so without rancor, abuse, or bitterness.  The therapist also needs to address the unfaithful partner’s burden of being the transgressor.  The unfaithful partner may be filled with deep pain and have tremendous remorse for the affair.  These feelings are often functionally ignored, especially early in the process when primary attention is to the offended partner’s distress.  Although, an initial or a primary goal in therapy is for the unfaithful partner to have empathy for the offended partner’s pain, it is critical for both partners to find empathy for each other.  There is the real possibility that the partners may not be able to participate as required.  They may experience empathy for one another as a competition where acknowledging the other partner’s feelings diminishes or invalidates ones own feelings.  Either or both partners may get stuck emotionally in self-righteous stances that prevent the key steps towards empathy essential for recovery and healing.  The therapist may need to confront the partners in their sense of exclusivity in a feelings/empathy competition with a winner and a loser.  In fact, the win-lose scenario becomes a losing consequence for recovery and healing.

Since the revelation of the trusted intimate partner’s infidelity can be extremely traumatic, the offended partner can experience flashbacks of emotionally vivid sensory experiences.  The shock of the memory upon first learning of the affair may be re-experienced repeatedly.  The visual image of ones partner sexually intimate with the affair partner may flash in excruciating detail.  Seeing an unrecognized phone number on the telephone or mobile phone bill or a stray bill can trigger intense emotions about the affair.  A moment of happiness can be savagely interrupted by memories of prior oblivious happiness when not knowing of the ongoing affair.  The offended partner may suddenly realize that an odd comment or questionable schedule explanation must have served hiding sexual liaisons.  “To find out about all the intrigue and deception that occurred while you were operating under a different assumption is totally shattering and disorienting.  That's why people then have to get out their calendars and go back over the dates to put all the missing pieces together:  ‘When you went to the drugstore that night and said your car broke down and didn't come home for three hours, what was really happening?’” (Glass, 1998, page 38).  There is often an especially intense reaction if the affair partner was someone the couple knows or involves some other major moral violation assumed in the relationship.  There would have been no vigilance or concern about a friend or family member.  The offended partner would not have considered that there was anything but appropriate interactions between the partner and the friend or family member.  Being so exploited because of naive confidence in existing benign relationships creates greater anguish and anger.

Cathy had been ignorant of how often liaisons had been planned under her nose or in plan sight, because Aidan’s affair was with someone they both knew.  She wanted to know where the sexual encounters occurred.  Aidan revealed that other than a couple of coordinated rendezvous out of town, he and Tina met up at various local hotels for meals and sex.  Cathy wanted to know which hotels.  Many of the hotels were along routes that she regularly traveled to for work and social situations.  Driving pass such places or other hotels prompted Cathy questioning Aidan if this had been one of the sex places.  She might have terrifyingly vivid images of Aidan and Tina copulating.  Annual events and holidays caused her to recall Aidan missing engagements or leaving early for actual or imagined trysts with Tina.  Whether Aidan would or could confirm sexual encounters at those times (sometimes, he could not remember), her flashbacks threw her into despair and rage.   When this happened, Cathy would snap at Aidan, shut down, become passive-aggressive, or otherwise rage at him.  Aidan often did not know that Cathy had been triggered into a flashback, much less what it was about, and even less what he supposed to do.

If the unfaithful partner does not understand or recognize the offended partner’s reaction as connected to the infidelity, the intense emotional response may seem irrational.  Or if aware of how seemingly unpredictable idiosyncratic cues may ignite flashbacks, the frequency and intensity of being triggered may anger the unfaithful partner.  It can cause him or her to doubt the efficacy of the recovery and healing process.  Despite being committed to the relationship and making great efforts to change and growth, flashbacks can become very discouraging.  A flashback is re-traumatizing not only for the offended partner, but also for the unfaithful but remorseful partner.  The therapist needs to help the partners understand how flashbacks triggered by various cues are consequential of trauma.  It is not a strategy by the offended partner to punish the unfaithful partner.  It is truly horrific to re-experience the trauma and is entirely non-volitional.  Recognition of how a person becomes sensitized to react to cues that specifically or indirectly remind him or her of a traumatic experience or event is an important step to working through the experience.  Understanding ones response and the partner understanding and having compassion for the reaction can lead to a cognitive interruption that helps lessen the intensity.

The partners may arrive to couple therapy from immediately after going through the initial period of turmoil.  Or, they may come to therapy well after this initial crisis after overtly agreeing to or covertly colluding to try to let it pass or minimize it.  After denial of the affair or of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual damages from infidelity fails, the partners’ inability to function adequately has brought them finally to couple therapy. Making major relationship decisions during the instability of the emotional reactivity is often unproductive to highly disastrous.  Denial had proved for example to an unproductive decision.  Conversely, divorce or immediate separation could be an impulsive decision in the crisis that could prove problematic or disastrous upon reflection over time.  An early critical goal of couple therapy is often to help the partners work through the initial volatility of the discovery-crisis stage before making critical decisions.  As they can manage the initial crisis without blowing up any possibility of recovery and healing, they can begin addressing the affair and the hope of a healthy future relationship.

Once the initial tsunami of emotions has washed over the partners and they are still willing to seek recovery and healing, the partners individually and as a couple need to be able to find ways to reflect on what has happened in their relationship.  They will need to try on various orientations and ways to examine each other and themselves.  The immediate pain of discovery and being discovered will be augmented and intensified with injuries, scars, grievances, and resentments from deep in the history of the relationship.  Many old issues or incidents that went unaddressed and never resolved will come up.  Neither partner may have ever examined them in any depth.  The pain and disruption of the affair may ignite recriminations and accusations long held that may or may not be related to the affair.  The couple needs to understand how infidelity became a part and remain a part of the relationship.  To be determined is whether it becomes a regrettable but unresolved part that becomes a cancer to the relationship, or an unresolved but more or less successfully compartmentalized part of the relationship.  It may become instead an impetus to a healthier and functional relationship.

The unfaithful partner needs to make clear apologies for his or her infidelity and for the deep pain that the infidelity caused the offended partner.  He or she does this despite knowing that it is not enough to soothe or heal the offended partner or the relationship.  This may need to be repeated frequently as the unfaithful partner’s may not immediately understand the depth of despair his or her actions caused.  The therapist may need to be specific in critiquing his or her words in order to facilitate his or her empathetic understanding.  The offended partner asks for and the unfaithful partner promises to be transparent and honest about his or her actions and in all future interactions.  These basic steps start the process to deconstruct the personal and couple’s dynamics that made the affair possible or caused the infidelity.  As the partners can understand how the unfaithful partner and the offended partner and their relationship evolved and devolved, they may become able to see how they can restore, heal, and build it anew.  If the partners recognize how infidelity was a consequence of individual and relationship dysfunction, then they may also see how they may survive the affair to recover and heal.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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