The grief of the “unfaithful” Involved Partner is a very touchy subject in couples therapy.
In My last post, I discussed the problem of rumination and obsession of the Hurt Partner, and how Thought-Stopping is an effective way to assert control over intrusive toxic thoughts.
Sometimes an Involved Partner breaks off an affair when they come to realize that the relationship is a dead end. Some Involved Partners disclose others are discovered. But they often realize that they don’t want to sacrifice their marriage, and they can’t make promises in the dark anymore. But affair relationships can be intimate and significant. A sense of profound grief and longing may linger in the mind long after the affair has run its course.
Grieving the loss of an affair partner is an often taboo subject in couples therapy, and many “all-purpose” therapists lack the sophistication and training to engage with the Involved Partner’s grief during their individual sessions…(if they even bother to hold individual sessions at all).
Unlike the rumination of the Hurt Partner, Involved Partners who are grieving the loss of their affair partner, can not discuss their grief with their spouse. They often lock their grief away, and typically regard it as invalid and inappropriate as the affair itself.
When I am doing couples therapy, I always assume grief is in the room, but I am willing to be corrected if it’s not. When I am conducting an intensive with a couple working on affair recovery, I always have a chance to speak with the involved partner alone.
“How are you handling your grief about losing this relationship?”
Sometimes the questions startle them. They seem surprised that I know about their grief. They discuss their grief as a shame-laden dark secret because up to this point, they have been struggling with it alone. Often they are relieved to talk about it… or are grateful for my “permission” to explore it.
If they confirm that they are grieving, I normalize their grief. I tell them that it is natural for them to grieve a loss. It doesn’t mean they aren’t determined to rebuild their marriage. They should accept these feelings, and not fight against them.
In other words, affair recovery sometimes presents a therapeutic paradox; I might help a hurt partner to Thought-Stop their toxic rumination, but I might tell the Involved Partner that their grief is not toxic and that they should avoid second-guessing themselves, or their commitment to their affair recovery. The grief they feel doesn’t render them insincere. They should allow the grief to flow so that it may be discharged as soon as possible.
The sooner they relax into their grief, the sooner their grief will fade into memory.
Grief is a very idiosyncratic emotion. There isn’t a “right” way to grieve. Grief is a working process. And this process works if you don’t interfere with it by denying its reality.
Many “all-purpose” couples therapists see the grief of the Involved Partner as a serious obstacle to affair recovery. Some are even openly hostile to the grief of the Involved Partner.
They are wrong.
Working with the grief of the Involved Partner is a necessary part of affair recovery. This grief, however painful, has a utility. It often provides a roadmap to what was lost or denied in the marriage. Normalizing the grief of the Involved Partner is not a moral decision… it is a pragmatic one.
Involved Partners are assailed on all fronts. The grief of the Involved Partner is only part of their struggle. They often see their grief as something to hide, while also feeling resentment and lingering dissatisfaction with the marital status quo, depression over the collapse of their integrity, and an often anxious, angry partner who is also in grief and despair. The grief of the Involved Partner has many dimensions; grief for their affair partner, grief for their spouse, and grief for themselves over their unwise decisions.
That is why generative conversations are so critical to affair recovery. I have written about these conversations between the partners striving toward affair recovery, but there is also an inner conversation that needs to take place as well.
Some of these inner questions are more helpful and generative than others. it is not unusual for Involved Partners to do individual therapy as well as couples therapy to sort out how they are going to stay in their marriage after they decide that they want to stay. Affair recovery is often a transformational experience as well as a painful one.
I’ve written about the twin tasks of affair recovery. Blazing a path to forgiveness, transparency, empathy, and redemptive healing is always the best practice.
When we unpack the grief of the Involved Partner we often find that they feel hopelessly lost and depressed. Even when struggling to reconcile with the Hurt Partner, they may also feel a loss of excitement and vitality. How can they reconnect with their spouse and rebuild trust again?
Some Involved Partners struggle with the question about their relational dissatisfactions before the affair. “After everything my partner has been through, how can I put these issues on the table now? They’ve been through an exciting affair and now struggle with a fear of their lingering malaise with their now openly troubled marriages.
It’s not unusual for Involved Partners to carry a toxic shame for their infidelity, and wonder how their marriage could ever be restored. They question whether they’re doing the right thing for themselves and their spouse by staying. They have to silently deal with their own internal grief for the loss of their affair partner because to openly grieve would either risk derision from others or upset their Hurt Partner who already has been devastated by their actions.
But self-forgiveness is sometimes a part of this process as well. If you have split yourself off, lied and distorted the truth to cover your tracks, sooner or later you have to look back and learn. If you are authentically striving to rebuild with your spouse, you need to forgive yourself for being a good person who made some bad choices and then tried to make it right again.
Toxic shame, like toxic rumination, means that there is less of you available to your partner in the ever-critical present moment. Learn about your vulnerabilities and promise yourself not to indulge them in the future. And since you care about your partner’s feelings, be tender with your own as well.
The research tells us that well over 60% of couples struggling with infidelity never divorce. Recovery from infidelity is possible, even likely in many cases. But it the quality of the recovery that matters. At Couples Therapy Inc., we feel privileged to work with couples who take their healing seriously. They see the pitfalls of rumination, inconsolability, and shame. They become stronger and more resilient as a result of their efforts.
Our couples realize they’re not perfect, but they strive to be better, more honest, open and authentic.
And that is what really matters in affair recovery.
Call us for more information 844-926-8753 to reach me, Daniel Dashnaw.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.