Once infidelity is out in the open, couples typically display one of three distinct strategies for surviving infidelity. One of the reasons that affair recovery is such a common presenting problem in science-based couples therapy is that 2 of these 3 strategies are naturally occurring and tend to be somewhat problematic in the long -run.
Contrary to popular belief, although some do, most couples do not divorce in the aftermath of an affair. According to thought leader Esther Perel, the Supplicant Style of affair recovery is extremely common. With this strategy, the wound from the betrayal never really heals.
In the Supplicant Style of surviving infidelity, the Hurt Partner has made a life’s work of being inconsolable. Every time you’re five minutes late, you will be reminded of your prior transgressions and unreliability. In this strategy, the Hurt Partner is in a perpetual mode of being one-up, and the involved partner better get comfortable living in the dog house.
The Hurt Partner’s decision to forever inhabit the “one-up “position is unfortunate. Because the Involved Partner’s tolerance for contempt and emotional abuse has a limited shelf-life. Eventually, the Involved Partner will complain to the Hurt Partner that the affair happened X number of years ago, and maybe they should try to get over it. The Involved Partner will eventually tire of being a perpetual supplicant, but the Hurt Partner may never tire of being in the one-up position. The supplicant strategy is flawed because it freezes the couple in resentment, rumination, and the Four Horsemen.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find the Status-Quo Style of surviving infidelity. These couples sweep it all under the rug because their marriage is more about their respective roles and social standing than real nose to nose intimacy. This was the style that the Kennedy women employed to cope with infidelity. It’s rationalized as stoic, unsentimental, and highly focused on the business of being married.
Kids. Career. Fame. Money.
There are any number of good reasons for focusing on the comforts of wealth, position, or the familiar trappings of a comfortable lifestyle. Marriage for these couples is a partnership preoccupied with externalized goals. Status-Quo couples are typical of the Split-Self affair. These couples may see themselves as sophisticated, detached, and civilized. But the real foundation of their intimate lives is usually cold, bleak and impoverished.
When couples come to us for help, this is the strategy we teach in science-based couples therapy. However, it’s not a strategy that couples can typically navigate on their own. The goal is to figure out “What the hell happened to us?” This means that the Hurt Partner has to somehow become more curious than furious, pursuing ways to become more forgiving, rather than re-living their trauma.
In addition, the Involved Partner has to be willing to intimately discuss their mindset without feeling blamed or shamed, or for that matter, blaming or shaming the Hurt Partner.
They Ask Generative Questions. These Hurt Partners ask about the Involved Partner’s motives. They don’t feed their anxiety with questions like “Was the sex better with her/him?” “Where did you have sex? How many times? “What sex acts did you do?”
Systemic-Strategy Couples want to understand what lies underneath. Generative questions are questions which seek understanding, clarity, and context. “What was this affair about? Did you think about our marriage? Did you hope it would go on forever, or did you secretly hope it would end? What is it that the hookers did for you that was so important? What do you value about our marriage? What was it about being with him that made you feel special? What needs to change for you? Do you want to know what needs to change for me?”
Generative questions probe for the meaning as well as the motive. These systemic questions require the couple to lean into each other in a frank and intimate dialogue. Hurt Partners usually ask the wrong things, but Systemic-Strategy Couples use generative questions about the affair to go deeper.
Sordid Detail Makes for Vivid Mental Images. Hurt Partners with Systemic Strategies ask themselves “will this question help or hinder my self-care? Do I really need to hear the answers to this question? Or do I just want my partner to know that I am tormented by a particular question?” Hurt Partners in science-based couples therapy are invited to consider that once they hear the answer, they can’t un-hear it.
Involved Partners With Systemic Strategies Lean In. When they notice that their Hurt Partner is triggered, reactive, upset, or sad, they get curious. They don’t bristle with defensiveness or criticize the Hurt Partner for “not getting over it.” They understand that trust is rebuilt with regular attunement and leaning in, and noticing when their Hurt Partner is struggling.
Couples usually find what I am about to tell you hard to believe.
It takes time and effort, but many couples emerge from an affair stronger than before. They did not let the crisis of the affair go to waste. They sought science-based couples therapy and conducted a full and frank assessment of why and how they were vulnerable, and they took action to rebuild a deeper and more intimate bond. Research tells us that many couples in affair recovery often report having more frequent and intimate sex, better conversations, and a renewed appreciation for their marriage.
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.