Affair Repair

Two Contradictions That Can Help Couples on the Brink Restore Connection

Michele Weiner-Davis

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.

In theory, this outlook seems simple. But in reality, it wasn’t quite so easy to develop. What if what really works to help couples recover was at odds with my personal values? Or what if I discover that the theoretical orientation guiding me, the one to which I’ve pledged undying allegiance, falls short in terms of effectiveness? Then what am I to do? How can 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.

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.

Keeping Secrets

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.”

As far as I could tell, regardless of my personal values about the matter, my holding a secret was working in most cases. 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.

Hopemongering

Managing drastically disparate mood states, though tricky, is best accomplished through education about this challenging facet of recovery, along with repetitive, heartfelt reassurance that what partners are 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.”

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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.

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This blog is excerpted from "Affair Repair" by Michele Weiner-Davis. The full version is available in the March/April 2017 issue, Round Hole, Square Peg: If It Doesn't Fit, Don't Force It.

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Illustration © Roy Scott

Topic: Couples | Sex & Sexuality

Tags: 2010 | affair | affairs | amicable divorce | betrayal | couples | Couples & Family | divorce | divorce counseling | divorcing | have affairs | having an affair | love | love and relationships | michele weiner-davis | romance | romantic | romantic relationships | secrets | separation and divorce | sex | Sex & Sexuality | sex life | sex therapist | sexual fantasies

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1 Comment

Thursday, May 11, 2017 10:25:02 AM | posted by Katherine Mazza, LMHC
Excellent article. Appreciate the honesty about the fine line we walk while working with couples and infidelity recovery. Thanks!