Q: I’m seeing a couple who’s recovering from the husband’s affair. While the husband’s stopped all contact with the other woman and doesn’t want to dwell on the past, the wife insists on knowing the details. How much disclosure is needed for the couple to heal?
A: How much to share and when to share are issues that confront every couple trying to recover from the discovery of infidelity. It’s common for the betrayed partner to obsess over learning the graphic details, while the unfaithful partner tries to suppress descriptive information. Information that’s disclosed too early in the process can be destructive, but total avoidance only intensifies alienation caused by the affair. I actively structure the timing and the process of disclosure to maximize the healing effects of sharing the story of the affair because I’ve found that revealing the details of an affair is seldom constructive in the presence of uncontrolled emotional intensity or unresolved ambivalence about the future of the marriage.
Discovering that a partner’s been unfaithful is a traumatic event that shatters all the basic assumptions of commitment, love, and honesty. Understanding the story of what happened is an essential part of the recovery from that trauma. In most cases, the betrayed partner’s demand for information isn’t meant to divert discussion away from marital problems (as some clinicians have suggested) but to put the pieces together into a meaningful whole. In fact, research has consistently shown that individual recovery, survival of the marriage, and restored trust are contingent on honest communication about the infidelity. Nevertheless, friends, family members, and a substantial number of therapists believe that talking about the infidelity will only make matters worse. In my own survey of 475 therapists, 38 percent agreed that “a spouse’s desire to know details of the partner’s extramarital involvement should be discouraged by the therapist.”
In general, I support sharing the specific information that the betrayed partner needs to know. Initially, I reduce the pressure by asking basic factual questions (who, where, when, how long) about the affair in a calm, non-confrontive tone. I often suggest that betrayed partners pretend they’re listening from behind a one-way mirror, and I give them an index card to write down their questions, comments, or contradictions. I warn them that hearing the real facts is likely to expose previous lies and deception, but it’s crucial that the unfaithful partner’s current truthfulness be appreciated rather than attacked. I encourage the betrayed partner to bring in lists of questions that I’ll hold until we’ve laid a groundwork of caring, compassionate communication, and commitment. I delay complex questions about why the unfaithful partner got involved and explicit questions about sexual intimacy until both partners feel safe in the therapy. Of course, safety’s impossible if the infidelity continues.
With ambivalent, explosive couples, I promote a sense of security by asking for a verbal contract that both partners will remain in therapy and in the relationship for a specific number of sessions (6 or 12). One way to create safety is to have individual sessions so the betrayed partner can vent overwhelming rage and the unfaithful partner can grieve the loss of the affair partner. I advise couples to reserve sensitive and painful topics for therapy sessions and to focus on renewing positive aspects of their relationship at home. The unfaithful partner won’t feel safe if the information that’s shared in therapy is used as a weapon at home.
The most compelling attractions of an affair for the unfaithful partner are the vanity-mirroring it provides, and the opportunity to experience oneself in a new role. Therefore, I shift the focus away from the affair partners to what the unfaithful partners liked most about themselves during the affair that can be brought back into the marriage. For example, an unfaithful wife liked her assertiveness and outspokeness in the affair, but at home she was tightlipped and withholding. When her betrayed husband listened to her without criticism, she became hopeful that she could be free to be more herself in the marriage.
To explore partners’ vulnerabilities for infidelity, I assess how each threshold was crossed as the affair developed. Did the infidelity begin as a sexual attraction or as an emotional attachment? I might ask, “How did you give yourself permission to go to her house for lunch?” to uncover whether the unfaithful partner felt justified to pursue casual sex or was denying the threat of a secret emotional attachment. Or, “What did you share with him about your marriage, and when did you start lying about the friendship at home?” to define when and how the walls and windows shifted in the extramarital triangle.
For some betrayed partners, the burning need to know (about sexual frequency, mutuality of oral sex, multiple orgasms, and sexual attributes of the affair partner) often disappears with the passage of time and the renewal of love and commitment. Others simply can’t heal until they know everything. I recall one wife who couldn’t let go of her obsessive questioning until she could put herself inside the scene and picture her husband’s affair exactly as it unfolded from beginning to end. It was vital to her that she reclaim the exclusive territory that the other woman had stolen from her.
I use the content of disclosure to shift the disclosure process from the early stage of a truth-seeking inquisition (like NYPD) to a second stage of neutral information gathering (like Larry King) to a final stage characterized by an empathic search for meaning. Some unfortunate couples never get beyond an adversarial process of detective vs. criminal. They either stay together and allow infidelity to define their conflicted relationship or separate. Other couples “wax a dirty floor,” avoiding discussions of the affair after sharing a few factual details. They resume a relationship of pseudo-mutuality. An unfaithful husband who had a second affair stated that his wife showed so little concern about his first affair that he thought it didn’t really bother her much. Another unfaithful husband who had a second affair said that his wife’s constant haranguing and mistrust drove him to it. The best resolution of infidelity is achieved when both partners assume responsibility for improving the relationship and are able to co-construct a story of the affair that integrates their different perspectives.
At the final stage of mutual understanding and responsibility, couples have free-flowing and introspective discussions without accusations or defensiveness. One unfaithful husband recounted how his affair partner’s crippled child and unsupportive husband had triggered his rescuing button. His wife acknowledged that it was his compassion and kindness that made him vulnerable to damsels in distress. She also recognized that she’d hidden the vulnerable side of herself because he was initially attracted to her competence and strength. When couples reach this empathic stage of disclosure, I encourage them to do more and more of their sharing outside of therapy. One couple reported that they’d stayed up all night and gotten a lot of significant questions answered, but didn’t want to discuss it in therapy “because it was too personal.” When the level of intimacy and safety is greater at home than in therapy sessions, you know that the couple has turned the extramarital crisis into a relationship that’s stronger and more intimate than ever before.
This blog is excerpted from “An Affair to Remember,” from the July/August 2003 issue.
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Shirley P. Glass, PhD, whom the New York Times has called the “godmother of infidelity research,” is the author of NOT “Just Friends”: Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal (The Free Press). Full of astonishing revelations, NOT “Just Friends” draws on more than two decades of original studies and hundreds of clinical cases to document the new crises of infidelity. Dr Glass died on October 8, 2003.