It’s Monday morning. My new clients, Rita and Brian, are due to arrive in my office any moment. I pour myself a cup of coffee and prepare to enter “the zone,” the focused place inside myself where I go when doing couples therapy. Because I prefer starting with a clean slate, I know little about them except that they’ve traveled from Texas to work with me in my Boulder, Colorado, office for a two-day intensive. I also know that two months ago, Rita found out that Brian had been having an affair for a year and a half with a coworker—a shocking discovery, which had eventually prompted their call to me.
As I sip my coffee, I become aware of a positive feeling stirring inside. Despite what I anticipate will be a day filled with intense therapeutic challenges, I sense a confidence that grounds me. It comes from having a clear, clinical road map, which keeps me from getting lost or becoming emotionally hijacked when things get heated, as they always do in these cases.
This therapeutic North Star wasn’t always apparent to me. In my early years as a couples therapist, I was clueless about how to help clients navigate beyond the pain of betrayal. I thought I could rely on the tenets I’d learned in graduate school (which was long on theory, short on practical how-to’s) or the ideas I’d discovered as a Solution Focused therapist. But while these strategies were helpful at times, progress was rarely consistent, leaving me feeling adrift and less than helpful. In truth, there were many times when I seriously considered a career change.
Of course, since I’d had no specific training on how to help couples heal from infidelity, there was no reason that I should know what to do when faced with the tsunami of emotions that arise during the process. So I decided to give myself a break, but I also made myself a promise: rather than have preconceived notions about what should be effective when working with couples facing issues surrounding betrayal, I’d pay close attention to what actually worked. And true to the Solution Focused tradition, I vowed to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
In theory, this seemed like a simple thing to do. But in reality, it wasn’t quite so easy. What if what really worked to help couples recover was at odds with my personal values? Or what if I discovered that the theoretical orientation guiding me, the one to which I’ve pledged undying allegiance, fell short in terms of effectiveness? Then what was I to do? How could I prevent cognitive dissonance from creating a clinical paralysis? Inevitably, I’d have to grapple with snags and conundrums along the way. And, it turns out, I’d have to reevaluate some ideas I once believed were foundational to my couples work.
Blurring the Line in the Sand
The first thing I had to rethink was my hard-and-fast rule for working with couples where one person was involved in an ongoing affair: that spouse was required to refrain from having contact with the affair partner during the time we were working together. If the unfaithful spouse refused to accept this prerequisite, I wouldn’t work with him or her. End of story. The rule seems reasonable, but here’s an example of how implementing it usually played out.
Seth and Mary sought my help after Seth discovered that Mary had been having an affair with their son’s softball coach. By the time we met, Seth knew all the details about the affair that he cared to know. He just wanted Mary to end her relationship with the coach, and couldn’t understand why she’d continue her affair when she knew how much it hurt him. Although Mary said she didn’t want a divorce, she wasn’t quite ready to quit seeing the other man. “Seth has always done what’s in his best interests,” she told me. “He’s been selfish throughout our marriage. I put up with that for too long. Now, it’s my turn.”
“I understand that you want to take care of your own needs,” I responded. “That makes sense to me. But as long as you’re involved in this affair, you can’t really focus on repairing your marriage. Your energy and loyalties will be split. Plus, Seth won’t be able to feel close to you. He’ll have his emotional walls up to protect himself. So if you want to try to make your marriage work, you need to stop seeing this man, at least for the time that we’re working together.” She refused, and they stopped coming to see me. Helping them heal their marriage was no longer a possibility for me.
In other cases, the unfaithful spouse would agree to my rule for ending the affair, but even that had its drawbacks, as it often caused the affair partner to become “forbidden fruit.” And given that irresistible lure, the affair was frequently renewed. Sometimes the unfaithful partner was honest about this breach, but typically there was deceit. So when I stood back and evaluated the efficacy of my no-contact rule, the results were clear: it wasn’t working so well. It inadvertently encouraged people to drop out, yearn more deeply for their off-limits affair partners, or lie to me—not exactly a therapeutic home run. The problem is, I liked this rule. It’s what I’d have wanted for myself, were I a betrayed spouse. Still, I had to admit that this precondition for couples working with me wasn’t always beneficial.
In the months that followed, honoring the commitment I’d made to become more results-driven, I handled cases differently. Although I continued to encourage people to end, or at least temporarily suspend, affairs, offering all the usual reasons that moratoriums of this sort made sense, I didn’t insist on my agenda when I was met with resistance. Rather than assume I knew where the client should be, I followed the wisdom of the age-old adage “Start where the client is.” If our work together progressed over time and the marriage began to mend, I thought the desire for an affair might eventually wane. To my surprise, this was often the case.
By not drawing a line in the sand when clients weren’t quite ready to end their affairs, I noticed several positive outcomes. For one, they felt heard and respected—the underpinnings of any good therapeutic relationship. Plus, paradoxically, the less adamant I became about pushing my agenda, the more receptive my clients seemed to my suggestions, often ending their affairs within a short period of time. The difference was that now, rather than feeling coerced or pressured by my one-size-fits-all approach to healing from infidelity, they were taking full ownership for leaving their lovers.
Of course, not everyone ended their affair. But if after a certain period of time the affair remained ongoing and marital progress at a standstill, at least I knew it was time for a different approach—terminating therapy altogether, or working with the spouses individually. Happily, my need to resort to Plan B became increasingly unnecessary. A mandate-free approach seemed to be the more effective way to go.
Despite these clearly improved outcomes, I was still wrangling with some personal uneasiness around people’s ongoing affairs. Compounding my discomfort was the fact that the affair was usually revealed in an individual session with the unfaithful spouse, which brought up the question of how to best handle these secrets when working with couples.
In my early years, my answer was unequivocal: disclosure to the other spouse was imperative for two reasons. First, I value honesty. And second, I didn’t want to become triangulated by keeping a secret from the other spouse—either the unfaithful spouse spilled the beans, or I’d no longer work with them as a couple. But here’s what I learned about that hard-and-fast rule.
Sometimes the confession was the real turning point in a couple’s marriage. Although understandably painful, confessions frequently validated long-standing suspicions, freeing betrayed spouses from the crazy-making conversations where questions or accusations were met with seemingly airtight alibis. At last, the truth became known and the healing began. However, confessions sometimes became instant deal-breakers, the final nail in the marital coffin. No discussion: just a subsequent call to a divorce lawyer.
The problem was that when I insisted on disclosure, I couldn’t predict which people would benefit from honesty and which would take flight without looking back. Because of my career-long commitment to helping couples resolve problems and stay together, I decided that I wasn’t willing to let my insistence on disclosure be the catalyst for divorce. So I thought I’d experiment with a different approach. If I were told about an affair in an individual session, I’d broach the subject of disclosure, as well as offer guidance and support if sharing the information were something my clients wanted to do, but I wouldn’t insist upon it. Instead, I’d agree to hold the secret for a period of time, while I worked with the spouses both individually and together. And I had two conditions under which I’d continue my work with them. First, there needed to be clear signs that the affair was losing its appeal and would eventually end. Second, there had to be evidence the marriage was gradually improving.
For example, I’d hold a secret for clients if I started to hear things like “My lover texted me last night, but I didn’t feel like responding,” or “I started to realize that my marriage could be so much better if I were more honest with my wife about my feelings,” or “I just don’t want to live a deceitful life anymore.” Further, the unfaithful spouse’s actions would need to be different, with reports such as “I’m spending less time with my affair partner,” or “My wife and I have been spending quality time together for a change.” These signs of progress would indicate that we were moving in the right direction. If I didn’t see any evidence of them, I’d politely bow out, telling both spouses something like, “We don’t seem to be making much progress, and rather than waste our time and your money, we should consider taking a break for a while. If you still want to work on your marriage at a later date, feel free to give me a call. Or if you’d like a referral, I can give you the name of another therapist who might be able to help. Every therapist works differently, and you might have a better outcome with someone else.”
That said, I generally found that my willingness to hold a secret had unquestionable benefits for many of my clients. Countless affairs died natural deaths and marriages healed. Some spouses chose to reveal their affairs when their marriages were on safer ground; others didn’t, and I learned to live with that so long as positive, long-lasting change in the marriage was possible. In these cases, I wanted to make sure that the secret-holder didn’t feel lingering guilt, which might act as a barrier to future transparency and true intimacy. I also wanted to be certain that the betrayed spouse was free of gnawing suspicions about the past. I kept a close watch on the quality of their emotional and physical connection and on the goals they set for their own relationship.
As far as I could tell, regardless of my personal values about the matter, my holding a secret was working for most of them. Sure, I felt the occasional bout of uneasiness about this new approach, worrying that it might seem as though I was being complicit in a cover-up or siding with the unfaithful spouse. But these feelings were assuaged by the realization that, when holding a secret, I’m siding with the marriage, not a particular spouse. In fact, I consider the marriage to be my actual client.
A Marriage Lost at Sea
Melissa and Tom were a couple in their 40’s. Like many two-career families with young children, their marriage took a backseat to the demands in their lives, and as a result, they grew apart. Melissa worked for a cruise-ship company and traveled frequently. When she was home she made the children and household tasks her top priority, because, as she put it, Tom was less than helpful when things needed to get done. Additionally, she complained that Tom never wanted to go to new places or try new things; she found him boring. In response, Tom said, “I feel like Mr. Mom when Melissa’s gone, and I need a break when she finally gets home.” They spent little time together as a couple and had stopped having sex.
Although Tom knew Melissa wasn’t happy in the marriage, he never thought she’d consider leaving him. But before their first session with me, Melissa had told him that she was thinking about it. Tom, in contrast, didn’t want to divorce. He truly loved Melissa and, despite their recent difficulties, he felt fondly about their relationship. He was highly motivated to identify what he needed to change so that Melissa would regain her feelings of love for him. In fact, in our first session, Tom tearfully pleaded with Melissa, “I know we haven’t been getting along lately, but I really think it’s because we haven’t been prioritizing our marriage. Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll change. I want to be the best husband for you. We can make this better. Just tell me what you need.”
Melissa averted her eyes. “I just don’t know,” she responded. “I suppose you could help more with the kids when I get home from work. And I hate coming home to find their toys all over the house. If you could straighten up before I arrive, that would help.” In a monotone voice, she added, “I guess we could try a date night once a week and see if that helps.”
I encouraged them to think about the logistics of their date night—how to find a babysitter, what might be fun for them to do. Over the course of the next three weeks, Tom bent over backward to try to please Melissa, but she insisted that his efforts weren’t changing how she felt about him—which sounded all too familiar to me. When clients say things like “My spouse is doing all the right things, but it doesn’t matter to me,” it’s usually because they’re not entirely invested emotionally; and often it turns out that they’re having an affair.
Because Melissa had activated my affair detector, I wanted to schedule an individual session with her to test my hypothesis. I informed them that I often see spouses alone when I do couples therapy and that these sessions are confidential. They both consented, and Melissa and I set our next appointment. After hearing again from her that things in the marriage had remained the same, I was ready to get to the bottom of what was really going on. “I want to tell you that frequently when people say the things you’re saying and sound the way you do, there’s somebody waiting in the wings,” I said.
After a brief moment of silence, she took a deep breath and confirmed my suspicion. “I don’t want to leave my husband for this other guy,” she sighed. “But I know there’s something drastically wrong with my marriage for me to have strayed, and it’s coming to a point where I’ve got to do something.” Obviously, she was in a bind: she knew she either had to break off the affair, which she didn’t want to do, or work on her marriage, which she realized she couldn’t do while seeing someone else.
“What are you getting from your affair that makes you feel as if you might not be ready to end that relationship?” I asked.
“I just feel so alive when we’re together,” Melissa responded. “When we’re apart, we talk all the time. After we hang up, he might call again five minutes later. I love that side of him. I love his passion for me. And even though Tom calls me a lot when I’m gone, it just doesn’t feel as magical. The excitement is gone in our marriage.” At this, she grew pensive and I noticed a sadness in her eyes. Her voice lowered when she added, “I know all the things I’m doing are wrong, but sometimes I just don’t care. I don’t want to end the affair.” She paused. “But I don’t want to base a divorce on an attraction for someone else.”
“That makes good sense to me,” I replied. “But are you aware of the ways in which your feelings of excitement and interest in your affair actually affect how you’re evaluating your marriage?”
“Oh, I’m sure they do,” Melissa answered. “But if my ‘friend’ calls, I’m more than happy to talk to him. If he leaves a message, I’m more than happy to call him back.”
My gentle nudging for her to give up the affair seemed to make her more resolute to resist. Still, I was curious. “What do you think would have to be different for you to consider ending the affair?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve wondered the same thing.” For a moment she seemed lost in thought, then her eyes suddenly widened. “Are you going to make me tell Tom?”
“No,” I assured her. “But I wonder if you’ve thought about telling him.”
She was quiet again and replied, “Of course I’ve thought about it, but it would kill him. I can’t imagine hurting him like that. I’ve been cheated on before. I know how that feels. And for me to do it to Tom . . .” As she trailed off, her eyes filled with tears.
At an earlier point in my career, I might’ve confronted her about her double standard and hypocritical behavior. Instead, I chose a different strategy. “So what do you tell yourself about that? What does that little inner voice say?” I asked.
Sitting up straight in her chair, Melissa looked directly at me and admitted, “I try to shove it way down. How else are you supposed to live with yourself when you do something like that?”
“Well, some people try to rationalize it,” I replied, to which she responded that there was no rationalizing what she was doing. It was a conscious decision, and she knew it was wrong. Rather than challenge her about her choices, I decided to emphasize her own inner turmoil, focusing on the part of her that felt torn about her actions. She didn’t need me to set limits for her; she simply needed to be more attuned to the ways in which her choices really weren’t working for her. In other words, her behavior wasn’t aligned with her values.
Leaning forward in my chair, I said, “This must be hard for you.” I paused, and then continued, “I suspect that because you’re a good person—a person of integrity—and things matter to you, this must be a tough situation for you to be in.”
The change in her affect was noticeable, the look on her face seeming to say, How could you know this about me when my actions belie my integrity? It was a look that also said, Yes, you’re right. This bothers me because I am a good person. She was silent for a long time and then asked, “Is it possible for me to work on my marriage and on pulling away from this other guy at my own pace and not tell my husband about it?”
“Absolutely,” I replied. I then told her that some people in her shoes have just quit the affair cold turkey, and others have done it more gradually. “I really have seen it work both ways,” I assured her. Experienced clinicians might chuckle at this point, wise to the fact that I used an Ericksonian technique called The Illusion of Choice. Although I offered Melissa two alternatives—ending the affair immediately, or ending it slowly—both choices presuppose ending the affair. “What does it feel like to hear me say that I’ve seen it happen both ways?” I asked.
“I’m relieved that I’m not alone, that other people have found themselves here,” Melissa said. “I know that lots of people stray, but it feels good to hear how other people have dealt with it.”
I smiled and told her that I was glad she felt relieved, adding, “No matter what you decide, I think your life should be fun and vibrant. Marriage shouldn’t feel like a prison. So you need to think about what would need to change about your marriage for you to be happy.”
“I’d probably just need to give him a chance,” she said right away, “because . . . I really don’t.” I knew exactly what Melissa meant. Even though Tom had made lots of changes at home, she hadn’t given him credit for his effort. She hadn’t truly opened her heart to him. Now, she was ready to see him with new eyes.
Two weeks later, Melissa returned for an individual session looking physically transformed. Indeed, she was sporting a completely different hairstyle and appeared happy and refreshed. When I asked her how she was doing, she told me she was doing so well that she’d considered canceling her session. But she’d wanted to see me one more time before scheduling another couples’ session with Tom.“Well, tell me what’s been good,” I nudged.
With excitement in her voice, Melissa told me that when her “friend” had called and asked to get together, she hadn’t felt like meeting him. She simply didn’t feel interested. Instead, she’d spent some time alone, going to a museum, walking around in the city. We spent the rest of the session talking about her relationship with Tom and how she wanted to feel closer to him. Only this time, her unwillingness to consider ending her affair had disappeared. In a matter of a single session, she’d reversed her position and was eager for the next session with Tom to work on their marriage in earnest.
I was pleased, but not surprised about Melissa’s turnaround, as I felt certain that the pivotal point in our last session had occurred when I’d remarked about her integrity. Deep down, she knew she was a woman of integrity, and my focusing on it made good clinical sense because, as the saying goes, what you focus on expands.
Over the course of our next few sessions with Tom, their marriage improved. They were spending more time together, laughing again, having date nights, and even having sex. In a final individual session with me, she informed me that she’d stopped seeing her “friend” and felt great about it. And for the record, she never told Tom about her affair.
Of course, not everybody does a U-turn as fast as Melissa. Some people simply take longer; others end their affairs in fits and starts. When I’m privy to information during individual sessions about the challenges my clients feel in letting go of their affairs, I find I must be willing to tolerate occasional pangs of discomfort when working with their spouses, who often know nothing about these breakup challenges. I tell myself to have faith in the process. Being willing to hold secrets, even temporarily, isn’t always easy, but considering the alternatives, in my opinion, it’s still the best option.
Providing a Compass
In addition to questioning the value of my earlier prerequisites for my work, I learned another lesson while working with couples on the brink of divorce. I’ve always been a big believer in the Ericksonian principle that people have all the necessary skills and solutions within them, but over the years, I’ve discovered that there are times of crisis when their resources are offline, particularly in the weeks and months after discovering an affair. In this post-discovery period, clients need step-by-step direction about what to expect and the tasks that both the betrayed and the unfaithful spouse must accomplish to heal. In other words, they need a prescriptive psychological compass.
For example, it’s frequently the case that, in the early stages of recovery after an affair, the betrayed spouses, trying to make sense of things, insist on marathon discussions delving into the details. “Who is she?” “Is he a better lover than me?” “How long has this been going on?” “How could you do this to me?” “Where did you meet? Where did you have sex?” “What position were you in when you screwed?” “Did you love her?” “How could you lie to me?” “How do I know you won’t do it again?”
When it becomes clear that, rather than providing closure, one question begets another and another, unfaithful partners usually resort to saying, “How can you possibly move forward if all you do is keep talking about the past? This isn’t working. I don’t want to talk about the affair anymore.” And when that happens, betrayed spouses feel abandoned and alone. They protest, “If you don’t talk to me about your affair, it means that you just don’t get my pain. You have no clue how much you’ve hurt me. I can’t do this anymore.” Then, their eyes turn to me; they want to know who’s right and who’s wrong. They want direction.
Years ago, I might’ve asked many carefully phrased Solution Focused questions to help them find a compromise that would work for both of them. For instance, I might’ve inquired how they’ve successfully dealt with major differences in opinions in other aspects of their marriage. I’d have wondered out loud how they might use the same skills to compromise on their different positions right now. But these days, I take another tack, one that’s infinitely more directive: I boldly and unhesitatingly teach couples what I’ve learned about the early stages of recovery from betrayal.
I tell them that if a betrayed spouse needs to talk about intense feelings or the facts surrounding the infidelity, then that has to happen; this step simply can’t be bypassed. Even if it’s uncomfortable for the unfaithful spouse, it doesn’t matter; he or she needs to be coached to answer questions openly and honestly. Unfaithful partners often benefit from some individual work if shame is preventing them from being compassionate, empathetic, and emotionally available to their spouses. They also need to be reminded of the importance of sharing the whole truth, rather than allowing the information to leak out in piecemeal fashion. Facts about the affair that surface long after the initial discovery are, without question, retraumatizing for the betrayed spouse, and they can trigger major (and sometimes irreparable) setbacks.
In turn, betrayed spouses need to be coached about the importance of appreciating their partners’ willingness to talk about what happened, especially when their partners feel shame. And it’s important to remind betrayed spouses to acknowledge their partners’ efforts in making amends and sharing information, even when it’s painful for both parties, as it almost always is.
In professional workshops, when I discuss this strategy for dealing with couples who disagree about the value of talking about the affair, someone usually asks, “But isn’t it possible to spend too much time talking?” or “Isn’t there a point at which sharing too many details becomes problematic?” My short answer is absolutely, but the decision to put the kibosh on these conversations should be based on what is or isn’t helpful to the clients in question. To determine this, I go back to my Solution Focused roots and assess the usefulness by asking the betrayed spouse something like, “When you asked those questions last night, was that helpful to you?” If the answer is yes, we explore the reasons, recognizing that it’s often helpful for the unfaithful spouse to know that these conversations, while difficult, are healing. Indeed, many betrayed spouses have said, “Even though the information I heard was painful, the fact that she’s willing to talk to me about what happened makes me feel as if we’re on the same page again.”
Sometimes clients tell me that asking too many questions or getting too many details has actually been hurtful and destructive. In these cases, the intrusive images of the other person are in Technicolor instead of black and white. When discussions about the affair aren’t productive, I tell clients, “In the next few weeks, you might be tempted to ask questions about the affair. But since that isn’t helpful for you, what will you do to resist the temptation? Specifically, what actions will you take instead?” Here, I’m interested in helping clients create a concrete to-do list so they have a plan when the urge to engage in self-sabotaging behavior recurs. Things on the list can include calling a friend, taking a walk, writing in a journal, reading a book, playing the guitar, exercising, meditating, praying.
I admit that clients sometimes ask their spouses questions that make me cringe inside. For example, when the betrayed spouse asks for extremely detailed information about specific sexual positions the partner engaged in during the affair, I say to myself, Too much information! I wouldn’t have asked that question. But I keep my thoughts to myself and watch the results, wanting to know whether the conversation has been helpful to them. After all, it’s not about what works for me, it’s about what works for my clients.
Another thing I share with couples about early recovery is that it’s common to be starting out in completely different places in the healing journey. Many unfaithful spouses, for example, feel a sense of relief about the discovery, as the deceit and duplicitousness of having an affair eventually becomes unbearable. This is colorfully illustrated in a New York Times piece by Wendy Plump, who offered the following advice to a friend who was considering having an affair: “[Picture] yourself in the therapist’s office with your betrayed husband after you’ve been found out (and you will be found out). You will hear yourself saying you cheated because your needs weren’t being met. The spark was gone. You were bored in your marriage. Your lover understands you better. One or another version of this excuse will cross your lips like some dark, knee-jerk Hallmark-card sentiment.
“I’m not saying these feelings aren’t legitimate, just that they don’t legitimize what you’re doing. If you believed they did, your stomach wouldn’t drop on your way out the door to your lover’s. You wouldn’t feel the need to shower before climbing into the marital bed after a liaison. You wouldn’t feel like a train had struck you in the back when your son asked why you forgot his lacrosse game the other day. . . .
“This is no way for an adult to live. When you’re with your lover, you’ll be working on your alibi and feeling loathsome. When you’re with your spouse, you’ll be dying to return to your love nest. . . . You will be pulled between two poles, one of obligation and responsibility, the other of pleasure and escape, and the stress of these opposing forces will threaten to split you in two.” Once the truth is out, many unfaithful spouses feel as if they’ve stepped into the light, and in some strange way, they’re grateful the jig is up. In stark contrast to this, betrayed spouses often tell me that they’re at the absolute lowest points of their lives, especially if they believed their spouses would never cheat on them. Often they experience PTSD-like symptoms, exacerbated by the knowledge that their spouses—the ones they believe caused all the pain—are in markedly better psychological shape with their sense of relief at being found out.
Managing these drastically disparate mood states, though tricky, is best accomplished through education about this challenging facet of recovery, along with repetitive, heartfelt reassurance that what they’re experiencing is completely normal. They need to also be assured that, over time, their paths will be more in sync—which leads me to the most important lesson I’ve learned from the couples who successfully rebuilt their marriages after an affair: they need hope.
Couples trapped in a vortex of intense emotions feel downtrodden and demoralized and tend to believe their dark feelings will be permanent. They can’t imagine ever feeling “normal” again, and they certainly can’t envision feeling close and connected to their partners. They’re pessimistic about being able to reclaim important parts of themselves. Their pain has put a spell on them. And that’s where we come in. We need to be hopemongers.
To this end, I find myself making bold predictions to ease their pain—predictions that I’d never have made early in my career. When betrayed spouses ask, “Will this knot in my stomach ever go away?” or “Will there ever be a day when I won’t wake up thinking about the affair?” I’ve seen how helpful it is to reply with conviction, “You’ll never forget what happened (nor should you), but eventually, you’ll think about the affair less and less, and when you do think about it, the memory won’t carry the same emotional charge as it does right now. I promise that will be the case.”
Or when unfaithful partners tell me, “I know I hurt my spouse, but I don’t know how much longer I can handle the anger and the never-ending questions. I feel terrible all the time,” I reassure them by saying, “I know this is hurtful for you, and I can see how hard you’re working on your marriage without receiving kudos along the way. But there will come a day in the near future that your spouse’s heart will soften, and your spouse will see that you’re doing everything you can to make your lives together better.” In addition to being reassured that better times are ahead, couples need ongoing confirmation that their marriages can survive, especially when, after longer periods of getting along, they experience inevitable emotional setbacks. But the path to healing from infidelity is fraught with dizzying ups and downs. Just when a couple makes headway and starts feeling better, they go out for dinner and the waitress’s name is Sarah, which happens to be the name of the husband’s affair partner. Dinner goes downhill. The evening is destroyed. The following week is marked by silence and emotional distance.
Then, when the loneliness gets the best of them, they manage to get themselves back on track. He brings her flowers and offers her a hug. She accepts the olive branch, and they reconnect. For a while, that is—until the next trigger.
But this roller coaster ride is par for the course. Early in therapy, to preempt couples’ overreacting to predictable setbacks, I tell them to fasten their seatbelts because they’re in for a wild ride. Just when they believe they’re out of the woods, negative thoughts and feelings about the past will take them hostage. Then they’ll start to wonder whether the only way to feel better is to leave the marriage, or whether the painful process of recovery is really worth it. In the past, I might’ve thought (or said) the same things at a certain point. Their doubt used to make me question the desirability of keeping our work going. But now I know better. Though not all marriages can—or should—survive infidelity, I realize that healing from infidelity can take a long time. Patience isn’t a virtue: it’s a necessity. And when I’m patient, it appears to be contagious. In the face of their understandable uncertainty, my composure seems uplifting and reassuring.
As I reflect on the importance of this quiet confidence, I notice that my new clients, Brian and Rita, have just arrived. I’m looking forward to learning how I might be helpful to them, eager to see what new lessons and skills they’ll teach me about the healing process. After all, I consider my approach to infidelity to be a work in progress. But that’s exactly the way I like it. Being flexible and willing to modify my interventions to match the needs of my clients—rather than labeling them as resistant or ending our therapeutic relationship when our ideas about healing diverge—is what I think good therapy is all about.
Illustration © Roy Scott
Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, director of the Divorce Busting Center, is the author of the bestsellers The Sex-Starved Marriage and Divorce Busting.