Some therapy generalists have pretty quaint notions about forgiveness after an affair. They think that if an affair is disclosed or discovered, the Involved Partner must offer the sincerest of apologies. The earlier the better.
The science of forgiveness warns us that the problem with a premature apology is that the Involved Partner does not yet fully comprehend the full impact of their behavior on the Hurt Partner. Absent that realization… of what value is the apology?
Involved Partners, particularly those who have been found out (as opposed to fessed up), may be managing resentment, deep shame, anxiety, or fear.
A premature apology is a band-aid of closure over a deeply penetrating wound. It can be the death knell of recovery. The more the IP apologizes, the more they expect to put it behind them.“Why can’t you get over it? …I said I was sorry a hundred times.”
The Involved Partner needs to be curious about how their intimate partner’s world got turned upside down. Hurt Partners crave to be heard and understood. The Involved Partner too often stuffs an apology into the mix as a way to relieve their own anxiety, and avoid meaningful and intimate engagement around the essential question “How could you do this to me?
Conflict-Avoidant Couples complicate matters further by colluding around apologies and forgiveness at warp speed. When you apologize too quickly as a way to avoid understanding your partner’s pain, or you accept your partner’s apology too quickly as a strategy to avoid conflict, the possibility of intimate understanding leading to authentic forgiveness is thwarted.
After rumination and obsession wane, the Hurt Partner tends to become exhausted. The work of science-based affair recovery shifts at this point to begin to explore the question “Why were we vulnerable? What happened to us? How do we prevent this disconnect from happening in the future?”
These thorny, generative questions strengthen the couple’s emotional muscle. Open and candid dialogue, however uncomfortable, promotes an intimate way of talking that was previously unknown to them. They became stronger. They became closer. And they acquired a more realistic appreciation for their marriage and family.
This is where a Marriage Intensive Retreat is so profoundly valuable. I want to make a point here. I use the terms Couples Retreat, Couples Therapy Intensive, and Intensive Marriage Retreat interchangeably. There is one I term that I never use: Marathon Retreat. A marathon implies running; I want my couples to, if anything, slow down. A marathon also implies exhaustion; I would rather that my couples report to me that after a retreat, they feel restored, reconnected, and revitalized. And they do.
A science-based Intensive Marriage Retreat helps the couple to unpack all of the unresolved issues and hidden conflicts with structured interventions which are informed by a meticulous clinical assessment.
These couples connected their family-of-origin dots. They’ve learned about their individual and relational weaknesses, and they lean into and support one another. Couples engaged in frank therapeutic dialogue understand the impact they have on their kids, as they have a greater respect for how they were impacted by their parents as well.
They’ve used the infidelity to achieve a level of intimacy previously unknown to them. Their old marriage is dead.
They would never want to return to it anyway.
I can tell when a couple still has work to do when one of them complains, “I just want things to go back to the way they used to be.”
Healing couples have not only achieved a depth of intimacy through the infidelity, they probably have never been this intimate with anyone in their lives. It is exhilarating, and maybe a little scary. In our Marriage Retreats, we teach couples how to “share the scare.” We help our clients turn the “scared parts” into the “shared parts” by asking generative questions. Sure, there are bumps and setbacks. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back. This is hard work. Work that is, however, deeply satisfying and will echo through time.
Here is the counter-intuitive part: the Hurt Partner works hard to get through their rumination and obsession stage. And now we do something that would make the most mediocre all-purpose therapist cringe. Just as things seem to have calmed down, we go back into the Lion’s Den and encourage them to talk about the affair.
First, we want the help our couples discover how they were vulnerable to an affair in the first place. We want to see how attuned they are to each other’s love maps. We ask, “You’ve done a great deal of work here… how do you think either one or both of you could screw it up?”
As my wife is fond of reminding me, “We are all Bozos on this bus.” Our couple must have a felt sense of where they might blow themselves up. That way, they are less likely to do so.
This takes courage. Both partners fess up to how they contributed to why their marriage slid into a vulnerable place. There is no Victim or Perp at this stage. Just two people being vulnerable with each other about the sadness and disappointment they stuffed down for years. The final discussion involves forgiving yourself, as well as your partner. Forgiveness must be asked and accepted. It’s an infinity loop. I like for clients to forgive each other first, and then forgive themselves. Some therapists reverse this sequence. In any event, self-forgiveness is an essential part of this process.
We sometimes ask couples to design a ritual of forgiveness after an affair. If they don’t have a history of valuing ritual in their family-of-origin, we may offer some suggestions. A ritual burial or burning of an object that symbolizes the affair is sometimes appropriate. We help the couple to craft a ritual that is laden with meaning for both spouses.
Lewis Smedes’ fascinating 1996 book, The Art of Forgiving describes three distinct phases of forgiveness. These phases also apply to the therapeutic work of forgiveness after an affair. Here are the 3 things I promised to tell you that you must understand about the process of forgiveness:
For affair recovery to be successful, you must reclaim your ability to feel deeply, connect the dots from your family-of-origin issues, and grieve together. Dr. Susan Johnson, the developer of Emotionally-Focused Therapy is clear in her assertion that affair recovery in successful when the grief of the Hurt Partner is shared. Couples can emerge stronger and tougher for their efforts. And they model that toughness and emotional resilience for their kids as well.
Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw, use option 2.
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.