Discovering an affair is one of life’s most painful experiences. For many, just getting through the day requires herculean strength. After all, most people can’t fathom that their partners are capable of cheating—until it happens.
Despite being in uncharted territory, most couples do their best to piece their lives back together again. There are endless conversations—questions, explanations, expressions of rage, devastation, depression, anxiety, shame, and guilt. Eventually, when it becomes clear that the pain isn’t subsiding and arguments are intensifying, exhausted and downtrodden couples seek professional help.
The problem is, few mental health professionals—including couples therapists—receive formal training in the area of affair recovery. Too often, they may assume that generic therapy skills, such as helping couples improve their communication, will help partners heal from the crisis of infidelity.
An affair corrodes the foundation upon which marriage is based. It jeopardizes the survival of the relationship. Therapists specializing in infidelity, rather than becoming derailed by the zigzag road to recovery, anticipate the common stumbling blocks and have many solutions to draw upon.
If therapy has been less than helpful for you and your spouse after the discovery of an affair, here are 5 possible reasons:
Assuming marital problems led to the affair. While it is sometimes the case that an unhappily married person will choose to have an affair, research suggests that many unfaithful spouses love their partners and are very satisfied with their marriages. Believing that a marriage must be inherently flawed in order for a partner to stray, a therapist may focus on identifying underlying problems. Betrayed spouses who believed their marriages were stable can feel blamed when the focus of the conversation becomes their behavior rather than the choices made by their unfaithful partners.
Working on marital issues prematurely. Some people do have affairs to fill voids in their marriages. They’re lonely. They’re sex-starved. They’re misunderstood. Their spouses are shut down emotionally. Although it’s imperative to tackle these underlying issues for marriages to heal and thrive, the timing is critical. The discovery of an affair triggers such acute, intense emotions and such a dizzying need to understand what happened, that to focus on anything else early on is misguided and likely to backfire.
Although there are exceptions—betrayed spouses who are eager to examine the ways in which their behavior might have contributed to a partner's decision to go outside their marriage, typically restoring the betrayed spouse's emotional stability will trump everything else.
Having overly rigid rules about the process of revealing details. Some therapists try to help people avoid unnecessary pain by setting time or topic limits regarding asking questions about the affair. But no single rule works for everyone. For some, knowing exactly what happened is mandatory; they need to connect the dots to make sense of their lives. For others, this sort of investigation is hurtful, prompting hurtful images, unnecessary pain, and irreversible memories.
The betrayed spouse should be encouraged to weigh the pros and cons of requiring details based on the level of help it provides toward healing. This decision must be the choice of the betrayed spouse, not the therapist or the unfaithful spouse.
Questioning the marriage’s viability during setbacks or when progress plateaus. I’ve specialized in helping couples heal from infidelity for decades, and I have never seen a couple heal their marriage without traversing a number of hills and valleys. One moment, it appears that the affair is truly in the past and the marriage is stronger than ever. The next, it feels as if the couple is back to square one. And so it goes.
When relapses and setbacks happen, most couples understandably become despondent. In fact, it’s common to begin asking, “Is the pain worth it? Wouldn’t we be better off divorced?” Although some people find relief in ending their relationships, in my experience, what people really need in their dark moments is hope. Therapists must be the holders of hope.
It’s easier for therapists to remain optimistic and reassuring during setbacks if they have seen many other marriages thrive despite the long and winding road it took to get there. Experience makes remaining steadfast in the belief that change is possible more genuine and automatic.
Being too “client-centered” vs. directive. Most mental health professionals have been trained to help people find solutions within themselves, or to use a “client-centered” approach. Generally, this is a sound practice. However, there are times when concrete suggestions are the best way to facilitate healing.
In many of my professional trainings, I emphasize the need for therapists to be directive in their work with couples as they navigate this difficult period. During a break in one of these trainings, a therapist confessed that a couple had recently dropped out of her practice, stating that they were disappointed in her lack of suggestions or concrete advice. This therapist learned the hard way that, when people feel lost, it helps to have a roadmap.
The bottom line: If infidelity has turned your lives upside down, get help now. If therapy doesn’t leave you feeling more hopeful and offer clear guidelines for moving through and beyond your crisis, rather than just questioning the viability of your marriage, consider making a change. Find a therapist who specializes in helping couples rebuild, repair, and restore their love after an affair.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.