Therapy

Affair Therapy Gone Wrong

Why not all infidelity help is created equal

Posted Feb 22, 2020

Janice and Mark's marriage was in serious trouble.

They came to Boulder to do a two-day session with me because they felt certain their 25-year marriage wasn't going to last. 

A month prior to our session, Janice had found out about Mark's five-year affair with a co-worker. To say that she was devastated is an understatement. 

Despite her responsibilities in her high-powered career in human resources at a large company, she could barely get out of bed in the morning. 

Throughout their entire marriage, Janice had trusted Mark completely. In fact, she chose Mark as a mate because of his strong feelings about the importance of monogamy

His own parents divorced when he was young due to his mother's affair. He didn't want history to repeat itself.

But here they were.

Janice knew Mark's affair partner but assumed she and Mark were just friends. They were colleagues at the same tech company. Although they often worked long hours together, Janice felt secure in Mark's love and was totally comfortable with the friendship

But one night, Janice picked up Mark's cell phone to see what time it was and noticed inappropriate texts from the female co-worker. This discovery prompted further sleuth work, which resulted in the discovery of many, many details about a long-term affair.

The unearthing of this information made Janice question her interest in staying married to Mark, her sanity, and even her will to live. Thankfully, Janice had a lot to live for: their three beautiful children, supportive extended family and friends, and a career she loved.

Still, she had trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Prior to meeting with me, Mark and Janice went to a marriage therapist.

Although the therapist had a good reputation and had been doing couples therapy for 15 years, she did not specialize in infidelity, nor had she had specific training about this kind of crisis in marriage.

The therapist assumed that the therapy skills that served her with other couples would also be helpful in Mark and Janice's situation.

The therapist was wrong.

When they started therapy, Janice and Mark talked about the affair and described what had taken place since the discovery.

Janice shared the depth of her despair and depression

Mark talked about his shame and remorse as a result of seeing the intense hurt his wife was experiencing.

In the sessions that followed, the therapist quickly focused on what she believed to be the underlying problems in the marriage, the reasons that Mark looked outside their marriage for emotional and sexual satisfaction.

Janice felt outraged.

She felt misunderstood.  

Although Janice realized that she hadn't been a "perfect" wife, in her mind, nothing warranted Mike's having an affair.

In fact, Janice felt "blamed" by the therapist, which added to her sense of desperation.

Compounding this was Mike's eagerness to put the affair in the past and the relief he felt with the therapist's decision to focus on marital problems rather than the impact of the affair itself.

Then, when the therapist recognized that Janice seemed angry and "resistant," she encouraged the couple to learn new communication skills to enable them to talk about Janice's resistance.

This "active listening skill" had worked well with other couples in her practice who were working on issues other than infidelity.

The therapist blew it.

Here's why.

When a couple is struggling with the crisis of infidelity, especially when one spouse has recently discovered an affair, the therapist's job is to help them deal with the intense feelings surrounding the betrayal.

That's it.

Even if there are legitimate underlying marital issues that will eventually need to be addressed, that's secondary. (And by the way, research suggests that not all people who cheat feel unhappy in their marriages.)

The pain of learning about infidelity can be excruciating. Teaching both spouses specific skills they'll need to help each other and themselves is paramount.

Furthermore, therapists are often taught that it's important to help people arrive at their own solutions, to figure out what works for them, to be self-determining.

Generally, this is true. However, here's the deal: When couples are struggling with betrayal, they're often in completely uncharted territory. They don't know what to do. Plus, every time they talk about the affair, things get so emotionally charged, their thinking brains go offline.

Couples need direction!  

They need their therapists to be directive, to take active roles in offering concrete suggestions, to provide effective and firm coaching every step of the way.

I recently did a training for a group of therapists. During a break, one of the attendees shared with me that a couple recently dropped out of therapy, telling her, "You're not giving us direction! You're just asking about our feelings! We understand our feelings but we don't know what to do to feel better."

Then the therapist added, "I guess I needed to be more directive, and I will be moving forward."

So, if you or anyone you know is hurting because of infidelity, make sure they get the kind of help that can really make a difference. Generic therapy skills are wonderful if you're experiencing garden-variety marital problems. But when there's an affair, you need to work with someone who is very experienced in helping couples heal from infidelity.

It's the primary reason I devote a great deal of time teaching other therapists the model I've developed over the years to help couples repair and rebuild their relationships after betrayal. It's the reason I wrote my self-help book for couples, Healing from Infidelity.

Infidelity doesn't have to be a marital deal-breaker. In fact, after the hard work of mending the marriage, many couples say they're more in love than ever before.

It's said that when a broken bone heals, the bone's scar tissue is even stronger in constitution than the bone itself.

And I believe it.