Navigating the waters of marriage counseling after one partner has been unfaithful can be challenging. In my experience, the trickiest part is maintaining an attitude of what Carl Rogers famously called “unconditional positive regard” for both the betrayer and the betrayed. The therapist quite naturally leans toward having the most compassion for the spouse who has been hurt. Yet, if therapy is to be successful and the infidelity is not to recur, a therapist must have unconditional empathy and respect for both spouses—including the spouse who has done the betraying.
The rocky shoals that could wreck marriage counseling after infidelity are these. On the one hand, the therapist must sometimes take the part of the unfaithful spouse so that he doesn’t feel that therapy will be an endless series of emotional beatings. On the other hand, the betrayed spouse must hear the reasons for her spouse's being unfaithful without being made to feel that she was the cause of the infidelity.
The most typical reason that couples consult me after one spouse has had an affair is concern for their children. Especially when the children are young, the hurt spouse may decide to stay in the marriage if she still loves her spouse and feels that he sincerely repents and that there will be no future infidelity. If I am to help the couple have a healthier marriage, I have to believe this as well.
I also recommend that each spouse have an individual therapist, who can take their side unconditionally. I explain that as a marriage counselor, I am on the side of the marriage going forward, and both partners will be able to voice their needs in therapy.
What helps the couple heal?
The frame of PTSD
It helps to recognize that the betrayed spouse is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with frequent flashbacks and a need to go over and over the details of the infidelity in therapy. Going over and over events during the time in which the affair took place gives the hurt spouse a feeling of control.
This need to constantly rehash the details of the affair can be difficult for the betrayer, who typically wants to move on in the marriage and leave the past behind them. The betrayer cannot understand his spouse’s need to continuously go over the same territory in therapy, especially when the details cause her so much anguish.
Framing the hurt partner’s painful feelings as a form of PTSD helps the betrayer have more patience with the process. He must answer all of his spouse’s questions in as much detail as she needs and as often as she needs. He must be completely honest about even the smallest detail.
The narrative of the "weaker self" and the "higher self"
What I have found helps the hurt spouse understand how the affair could have happened is to introduce a narrative of the “weaker self” and the “higher self.” According to this narrative, the unfaithful partner is struggling to become a better person (higher self) than the part of himself (weaker self) who had the affair. With his higher self, he loves his wife and children and wants to be a good husband and father. With his weaker self, he tried to overcome his feelings of powerlessness in the marriage by being with a woman who desired him, and who gave him a sense of power and control.
Often a spouse is unfaithful because he believes that his spouse does not hear his feelings, does not respect his decisions, and has grabbed all the power in the marriage. Having an affair tilts the balance of power in the relationship back in his favor. Infidelity is the quintessential power play.
In therapy, the unfaithful partner learns to express his feelings directly, rather than acting out his feelings of powerlessness by having a sexual encounter.
Saying "sorry" every day
In the early stages of therapy, the hurt spouse may need to hear the spouse who has been unfaithful apologize every day for the infidelity. She may also need him to text her or call her more often during the week so that she feels that her spouse is thinking about her often. This is especially needed when the hurt souse has discovered frequent texts or calls between her partner and the person with whom he had the affair.
A ritual of burying the past
At a middle point in the therapy, I suggest a ritual of symbolically putting the infidelity behind them. In one case, I suggested that the couple bury all reminders of the time of the affair. The burial was to take place near the place where they got married. This type of ritual helps to bring back good memories of the time when the couple was courting and most in love.
The need to feel sexually desirable
Often, the hurt partner needs to be reassured that she is as sexually desireable as the "other woman." It's important to have an open discussion in therapy sessions of what each partner needs to inspire passion.
The end of therapy
If marriage therapy has been successful, the dialogue between the couple will change from constantly rehashing the details of the infidelity to having discussions of more everyday types of marital problems—finances, intimacy, how they spend their time, and so forth. By this point, the hurt spouse has regained some degree of trust and the betrayer has learned to express his feelings and needs in therapy. Though counseling a couple after infidelity can be painful and difficult--for the therapist as well as the spouses--it can often be successful. A study by Shirley Glass in 2000 found that 71% of couples she had seen in therapy after an infidelity stayed together.
(Note: I have used the pronoun "he" for the unfaithful partner and "she" for the hurt partner somewhat arbitrarily. This doesn't mean that women don't have affairs.)
Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.