What is affair recovery? Is it possible to recover from infidelity? How do you begin to address such a profound breach of trust? Healing from infidelity is possible. But it requires an emotional, spiritual, and mental determination to stubbornly recover into a fully-functional restored intimacy.
There are several different kinds of affairs; Split-Self Affairs, Exit Affairs, Conflict-Avoidant Couple Affairs, Workplace Emotional Affairs, and Facebook Affairs. Affair partners are highly unstable politically. They can be completely irrelevant or central to the conversation. Affairs can be the refuge for tender relational longing… or merely a detached narcissistic gratification. And of course, every emotional waystation in between.
We call the partners reacting to a discovered, or disclosed affair the Hurt Partner, and the partners engaged in the affair are called Involved Partners. There are 3 stages of affair recovery. The first stage is what I call Hurt Partner Stabilization.
This is now more important than ever because technology has not only facilitated infidelity for Involved Partners, it also often acts as a force multiplier for Hurt Partners.
Think of it this way. In previous decades, only the wealthiest suspicious partners could afford to hire a private detective to collect evidence of infidelity, which might have consisted of grainy photos and furtive notes of overheard conversations. But now I see clients with reams of internet transcripts laying bare the affair narrative in excruciating detail.
Hurt Partners are subject to a perplexing array of emotions; fear, rage, disillusionment, disgust, depression, and despondency. The first task of hurt partners is to obtain appropriate, marriage friendly (hey, I’ll even take marriage neutral) emotional support and engage in self-care.
Hurt Partners are highly emotionally labile. Emotional lability is a tendency towards extreme swings in mood or intense feelings oscillating in quick succession. Hurt partners usually feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions. In addition to emotional swings, cognitive impairments are also common.
Hurt partners often have difficulties thinking, concentrating and retaining everyday information. They are often distracted, scattered, and irritable. They typically report a loss of appetite and difficulties with sleep. Rumination and managing triggers are daily, if not hourly struggles.
We prefer to initiate affair recovery treatment in a couples therapy intensive retreat because we can get a lot of work done quickly.
There are fundamental conditions for affair recovery that “all-purpose” therapists usually mishandle badly. Issues of relational ambivalence (“now that I have strayed…do I even want to stay married to you?”) and whether or not the Involved Partner will “eventually” end the affair should never be part of the actual couples therapy process itself.
If either partner is highly ambivalent, Discernment Counseling is usually the appropriate next step. I have seen many websites by “Gottman informed” therapists who claim victory working with ambivalent actively Involved Partners.
Let me clarify what I mean by “Gottman informed.” The Gottman Institute has a formal training program with 3 levels of training which may lead to certification. There are only about 300 certified Gottman therapists walking the earth at this moment.
Some therapists want to use the Gottman name without doing any training. Because they can’t say they are trained by the Institute, they say that their work is ” informed” or “influenced” by the Gottman method. I often see that these therapists actually brag about how they “respect” the Gottman approach, but they just want to use his name for marketing purposes.
The greatest pressure on Involved Partners who have been caught is the confrontation. If they want to keep their marriage, they have to break off contact with their affair partner.
I know of more than one “Gottman Informed” therapist who actually brag about the fact that they do affair recovery with Involved partners who were still actively involved in their affairs. This is not Gottman Therapy!
Some involved partners would love to find a therapist who would not choose to confront them!
They’ll want to persuade their therapist that they are “working hard” in therapy, and really “want to” break off from their affair partner. What they are probably doing is recruiting their clueless therapist and Hurt Partner into a theatrical production that will prove how “hard they tried.”
If a therapist is willing to work with you while the affair is still on-going, and they are not doing Discernment Counseling, I would check their credentials carefully. They are not a Gottman therapist. This is one of the most common mistakes made by untrained “all-purpose” therapists.
The reason why I focus more on the degree of the ambivalence of Involved Partners is that a certain degree of ambivalence is “baked in the cake” of the Hurt Partner’s emotional swings. If they wanted out of the marriage, they would probably not be calling us in the first place. About 90% of the Infidelity cases we work on at Couples Therapy Inc. are initiated by Hurt Partners.
Another fundamental pre-condition for booking an affair recovery intensive is that the Hurt Partner reports some noticeable improvement in both their appetite and sleep pattern.
Hurt partners who are exhausted and physiologically and psychologically may not be ready for the work. This is, at the end of the day, a judgment call.
I have delayed many intensives because the Hurt Partner was too distressed for therapy. I often ask both partners to use me as an email journaling partner, and I may begin the assessment process online, to get them started. But I am always focused on two vital issues; the motivation, particularly of the Involved partner to heal and repair, and the capacity of the Hurt Partner to handle the serious work of affair recovery in a couples therapy intensive.
I do triage with couples by helping them to see the value in circling the wagons. I ideally want the Hurt Partner to have one marriage-positive source of unconditional emotional support.
This is someone who is rooting for their marriage to heal, and not someone projecting their own relational anxieties onto the Hurt Partner with selfish and thoughtless “divorce the bum” advice. My guiding principle is that I want as few family members to know as possible.
I remind these couples that science tells us that more than half the marriages in their situation survive infidelity, but the more friends and family members who are drawn into their crisis, the more repair work that will be required with the extended family and friendship network in the future.
Many marriages struggling with infidelity could have survived, but experienced a “death by consensus.” Don’t hold a referendum on your relationship. Circle the wagons. Keep this crisis as private as possible.
The first phase, the crisis phase, happens when an affair is revealed or discovered. The primary goal of the crisis stage is to help both the hurt partner and unfaithful partner begin to pick up the pieces and try to make some sense of what just happened.
The Work We Do in the Hurt Part Stabilization Phase Includes:
Once the partners feel de-escalated and safely engaged, we can dip our toes into the deeper water and discuss their pre-affair relationship vulnerabilities. Two things must happen here. The Hurt Partner must be resilient enough, and feel supported enough, to fully explore “how did we get here in the first place?” And the Involved Partner must clearly be willing to entertain generative questions such as “how did this happen to us, and how do we prevent it from happening in the future?”
When both spouses are less reactive and defensive, they are more inclined to feel hopeful. When they can begin to entertain the notion that their partner will work with them to build a new relationship, they are getting ready for the next phase of affair recovery.
Couples are entering the Epiphany stage when they can closely examine how the affair occurred. An epiphany is an experience of sudden and striking realization. An epiphany becomes apparent during an affair recovery intensive when the couple experiences an enlightening realization which allows the infidelity to be understood from a new and deeper perspective.
In this next phase, the couple continues to be mindful of what is required to curb loneliness and re-establish trust and safety. The couple will spend time discussing their vulnerabilities. The Epiphany phase requires a careful examination of exactly how the marriage became vulnerable, and the part each partner played in their growing disconnection.
A common mistake therapists make is to enter into the Epiphany Phase prematurely. It’s hard for some Hurt Partners to reflect on their own personal weaknesses. This is a collaborative stage where each partner acknowledges where their growing edge lies.
The Work We Do In the Epiphany Phase Includes:
In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a long-lived bird that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. The Phoenix acquires new life by arising from the ashes of its prior existence. The old Phoenix dies in a magnificent display of flames…and out of the ashes, a new life appears.
By this point, both spouses have expressed a recommitment to their marriage. They may benefit from a ceremony to renew their vows. Affair recovery at this point has become firmly established. The couples acknowledge the hard work they’ve done, and trust is being rebuilt on a daily basis.
Typically, a new sense of peace and hope prevails. Couples understand that the repair takes time, but are willing to continue in the patient effort to develop a strong, healthy, unfolding, new relationship. Every day improves on what came before. Gottman languages it less poetically. He calls it the “atonement phase.” But the idea is that the couple is collaboratives building something new together. This final phase can take anywhere from 18 months to two years.
The Work We Do in the Phoenix Phase Includes:
The strongest couples use infidelity as a tool to deepen their intimate bond. They stubbornly outlast the crisis and choose to thrive instead of merely survive. They are mindful of their legacy and appreciate that the actions that they take, or fail to take today… will echo in the lives of their children tomorrow.
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.