After the Affair
After the Affair…what next? I want to tell you a secret.
Most all-purpose therapists don’t like couples therapy, but what they often are most uncomfortable with is a couple coming in after the affair has been discovered (usually) or disclosed (rarely). After the affair is on the table is a very rough time for most couples…and all-purpose therapists.
So you need an excellent couples therapist. A therapist who can handle multiple challenges at the same time.
Challenges like managing fear, rage and soul-shaking grief. Your therapist must not only be comfortable engaging with these feelings, but they must also be at the same time, skillfully help you to regulate them if your marriage is to endure.
Here are some ideas on what to expect if you decide to get science-based couples therapy after the affair is out in the open. Be sure to discuss these science-based ideas with any therapist you are interviewing.
You’re going to need to be comfortable dealing with incredibly overwhelming emotions. And you’ll need a therapist who isn’t a squishy powderpuff.
After the affair, primitive and primal feelings are aroused, often dredging up old wounds from childhood into the mix as well.
It’s a common mistake by all-purpose therapists to hyper-focus on the Hurt Partner, but I’ve seen equally devastated Involved Partners as well.
Ostensibly, the Hurt Partner is howling in pain, but the toxic shame percolating within the Involved Partner can fuel a withdrawal from the process of healing.
All three of you are going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I can’t sugarcoat this. After the affair…it hurts all around.
The presenting Hurt Partner often looks like a trauma victim…because they are. Their world has just been upended. Racing thoughts (we call it rumination), depression, rage attacks, sleepless nights, compulsive thinking, emotional lability, nightmares, are typical.
A good therapist will normalize the abnormal. Most importantly, a good couples therapist will describe the journey of recovery accurately. Sure it hurts bad at first, but most couples make it through to the other side.
Although the healing process can be painful and challenging, marriages can survive and even thrive after the affair is behind you.
You’ve got to be in it to win it. I want fierce couples, who are stubbornly committed to the therapeutic process. They have to be willing to atone, attune and attach once more.
Recovery from infidelity can take 2 years or more. You’ll be invited to look at yourselves, your marriage, and your intentional family in a profoundly different way. I’m going to want to know on the phone before you come if this is an exit affair.
If you’re on your way out, an Affair Recovery Intensive will be a waste of your time and money. I’m going to ask about your commitment to healing on the phone because I’ll need to know if you are both in it to win it.
I don’t see couples if the affair is still ongoing. And I wouldn’t trust any therapist who would see you under those conditions unless they were doing Discernment Counseling. Just to get started, I must have the assurance of the Involved Partner that the affair is over.
I prefer no contact, because any connection, however slight, is a profound trigger for the Hurt Partner. I am not flexible on this. Whether in person (not a good idea), by phone, or email, I have required that the Involved Partner formally end contact with the affair partner present.
Couples therapy can only happen after the affair…not during.
The grief of the Involved Partner is often a taboo subject to the all-purpose therapist. Big mistake. After the affair is ended, it’s not unusual for Involved Partners to grieve, but they feel that their grief is illegitimate.
A good couples therapist will go directly to the question of grief during a private session during the Affair recovery Intensive.
I normalize this grief and discuss topics that all-purpose therapists don’t ever bring up. I talk with them about limerence, dopamine, and the trans-personal forces that draw Involved Partners into emotional and sexual affairs.
Trust has been bulldozed. It’s common for Involved Partners to weary of the suspicions of the Hurt Partner. A good couples therapist doing affair recovery work knows how to handle the hyper-vigilant Hurt Partner.
Healing for the Hurt Partner requires a time-limited indulgence of this hyper-vigilance. The Involved Partner needs to hear how vital transparency and honesty is to the healing process.
A common mistake of the all-purpose therapist is to promote a complete indulgence of the Hurt Partner’s curiosity. They tell the Involved Partner that they must answer any question of their Hurt Partner.
This is not only lousy therapy, but it’s also just plain stupid.
One of the critical tasks of Hurt Partner Stabilization is the mapping of triggers. The wrong questions are like fresh new triggers released into the already tormented mind of the Hurt Partner. It’s a stupid blunder which borders on malpractice.
Hurt Partners need help and guidance with their line of inquiry, and a competent couples therapist will help them in this process. They will not leave them to their own devices.
In the Epiphany Phase, it’s another common blunder for the all-purpose therapist to hyper-focus on forgiveness like a German Shepherd dog chasing a frisbee. I can understand why. Forgiveness, while important, is the end of the process. Work on empathy first.
Sure, the Hurt Partner will resist empathy with the Involved Partner, and that’s why you work on the Involved Partner’s sense of Empathy for the Hurt Partner as a segue into the generative question of “how did we get into this mess in the first place?”
Exploring the narrative of the Involved Partner’s drift from their relationship, and curiosity about the conditions that created the relational vulnerabilities are the essential tasks of the Epiphany Phase.
A skilled couples therapist must not only deal with the strong emotions after the affair, but they must also help the couple acquire the interpersonal skills that were previously lacking.
Affairs happen because partners turn away from each other instead of turning toward. Failure to establish boundaries, and a complete lack of awareness as to how human intimacy develops are substantial contributing factors.
A good couples therapist will help a couple realize that if they can practice keeping their marriage vibrant and communicative, they will not become enthralled by attractive others.
Another crucial area missed by all-purpose therapists is the ecology of “who knows.” Friends and families often have very little awareness of the core issues and tend to wreak havoc when they insert their own relational anxieties into the discussion.
I warn couples to avoid these outside projections by limiting their sharing to only one marriage friendly confidant who is rooting for the couple to heal.
Affairs are dramatic, but not usually fatal to a marriage. With science-based couples therapy, a couple can recover. What is often hard for couples to take in at first is that this recovery can result in a complete rebuilding and rediscovery of the emotional ties which united them in the first place. After the affair, many couples are genuinely engaged. They ask each other and ask “how did this happen to us?” Ans with this question they embark on an adventure into deeper meaning.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.