by Margy Davis-Mintun
In the years of practicing couples counseling, I have found that one of the more common reasons couples come to counseling is to deal with a breach of loyalty in the relationship. While overcoming an affair is challenging and navigating the recovery difficult, the ultimate outcome through counseling can foster a healthy and hopeful experience.
Couples who are happy in their relationship do not have affairs; an affair is a symptom that something was already not working well in the relationship and enough space was created between them for a third party to step in. Sometimes I’ll hear one partner say that they thought everything was going well and felt blind sided, while the other one felt distant, ignored and lonely. Partners will talk about not being able to bring resolution to conflict and/or that resentment and anger had become the primary way of communicating. The withdrawal of one partner is another example where the pattern includes increased physical absence or emotional disengagement. The stories vary, however the common theme is that either one or both felt unfulfilled in some way in the relationship.
The initial phase of navigating the therapy process after an affair focuses on helping couples work with the feelings of betrayal and devastation. This phase is often the most volatile, where the emotional charge is intense and pain quickly turns to blaming and pointing fingers. Both partners feel the potential of loosing each other and the fear can quickly convert to anger. Difficult as it may be, it is important for the therapist to help channel these feelings so that partners can talk and listen to each other’s experience.
Once the couple begins to communicate, they also begin to evaluate their desire/willingness to restore and repair the relationship. Counseling at this point is critical so that the damage to the couple is contained and the destruction to the relationship minimized. At this point, couples may openly talk about their hurt, their ambivalence, and the fear that they cannot overcome the trauma to the relationship. Each partner has to make a decision about how much they want the relationship and how much they are willing to commit to work toward recovery.
As the therapeutic process unfolds, the therapist is charged with creating safety for the couple so that they can honestly look at the relationship and their own part in the instability prior to the affair. Here I will often hear couples talk about feeling lonely, ignored, and alone or resentful, angry, and invisible. There may be an external trigger, such as a death, a loss of job or financial stress, or internal patterns of poor communication, fighting without resolution, unmet needs and built up anger.
Regardless of the numerous factors that caused the relationship to become more fragile, or perhaps the relationship was never strong, the healing involves the couple taking stock of their contributions to this breakdown. This can be very difficult when one partner feels like an innocent victim of the other’s action. Here an individual can understand that, because they were not satisfied in the relationship, they maybe gave up, pulled back, exploded with anger, or felt overwhelmed or lost in the partnership.
It takes time for trust to rebuild, and the therapist facilitates steps toward recreating a trusting and strong relationship. This process is time consuming; while trust is building we are working with a leap of faith that trust can rebuild. It is a scary time and a hopeful time, thus it’s important for therapy to happen with regularity, for a period of months. In this phase the couple repairs old wounds, learns and practices new skills and begins to heal from the break created by the affair. Most couples are not successful in achieving a new level of functioning without professional help. It is not unusual for couples to bury the affair if they don’t get the help they need because the process is painful and the support and safety to do the work is generally not created without the expertise of a professional.
Once a couple gets to this point there is new energy and excitement between them. The new relationship is stronger than ever, the honesty and safety in the couple is firmly grounded and the skills to resolve conflict and attend to their individual and partner’s needs are an active part of everyday life. Couples will often talk about feeling important to their partner, feeling validated, and they enjoy spending time together; there is a flavor of new beginnings where the possibilities are numerous and they feel happiness with each other again, there is connection between them.
The affair resolution can also be a process in which couples thoughtfully decide whether or not their investment in the relationship is strong enough to commit to the expense and time it will take to work through the impact of the betrayal and the existing problem preceding the affair. Sometimes couples come to counseling to get help deciding whether or not they are mutually invested in the relationship and willing to move forward to save it or move forward by ending it. Partners are not always clear about whether they want to stay together and the professional can facilitate a safe dialogue to bring a resolution as to the next step for the couple following the affair. The option of ending the relationship can be facilitated with earnest discussion and understanding, rather than an abrupt ending.
Regardless of how the couple decides to move forward, there are key steps in counseling that guide the couple through a very painful and complex situation. The negative impact of an affair has a long life for the individuals affected, so whether or not the couple decides to repair this relationship, the repair to the individuals is imperative so that each can successfully re-engage in a healthy relationship with each other or future partners. Trust is a theme that must be addressed in order to promote healthy intimacy in the future. Building trust has no shortcut; it is a journey of rebuilding that can bring great strides and positive changes if time and attention is given to this process. The devastation of a break in trust is pervasive and recovery means the difference between happiness and growth or repeated patterns of loss and loneliness.
It has been my experience that most couples I’ve had the opportunity to work with through this process of recovery have successfully rebuilt and enriched their relationship and have enjoyed a lasting experience of intimacy.