When a partner becomes aware of some form of infidelity – including emotional and/or sexual affairs – it is extremely painful, even traumatizing. There is a deep sense of hurt and betrayal, often accompanied by anger and rage. Despite the deep wounding, many couples want to try to recover. and psychotherapy can an important resource in rebuilding trust and recovering – not only for the sake of the couple, but also for any children who are part of the family.
Recovering from Infidelity and Affairs
Infidelity may surface as an isolated instance in the relationship, or as a repetitive pattern in the relationship or relationship histories of the partners. Although every couple is unique and we seek unique pathways and solutions for each couple, there are principles and approaches that generally apply. In the early stages of the reparative process it is usually very important for the betrayed partner to be able to fully express the painful feelings that have been triggered; and for the partner who has been unfaithful to be able to tolerate the process and respond with empathy. This can be a great challenge for both people – as the betrayed partner may be flooded with emotion, unable to contain, and simply rage at the other. This usually leads to a defensive reaction by the unfaithful partner which makes things worse. Part of that defensive reaction – in the form of rationalizing or minimizing for example – may represent the unfaithful partner’s attempt to maintain self-esteem, ward off guilt and shame, and somehow attempt to justify the behavior to him or herself, as well as to the wounded other. Yet often the person who has been unfaithful is actually violating their own values. Therapists can facilitate a more constructive dialogue in which pain can be expressed in more vulnerable ways that are easier to receive, and the offending partner can begin to more fully express remorse. This can be the beginning of a emotional healing process that can lead to reconciliation.
Part of that process will of course include insight into how this happened in the first place – and how each partner in an empowered way can prevent it from happening again. There can be elements of individual problems and couple level problems that lead to infidelity, and that assessment can clarify if some combination of individual and/or couples therapy is indicated. An example of an individual problem that can be linked to infidelity is alcoholism or drug abuse, which impairs judgement and fosters impulsivity. On the couple level, the infidelity can sometimes be thought of as a form of “acting out,” that, while clearly destructive and in no way justified, does reflect cracks in the foundation of the relationship and feelings of dissatisfaction. Part of rebuilding trust involves the couple gaining confidence that problems can be talked about – not “acted out” – and resolved in a caring, mutually satisfying way.
The end result of a therapy process that goes well can be very gratifying and emotionally healing. This can enable the entire family to get back on its feet and become much more open and responsive, increasing couple connection and intimacy, hopefully to levels beyond anything experienced before, in an ongoing and deepening way. (This is called “second order change” in family systems theory.)
There are other issues that can be part of the experience of infidelity. Most often couples are in agreement about what constitutes infidelity. Sometimes however, one partner’s definition of infidelity can be confusing to the other, who sees the behavior in question as more innocuous. Attempts to resolve the different perspectives can lead to escalating conflicts that further alienate the partners from one another. Couples counseling would be an opportunity to work towards a more constructive dialogue that ultimately brings clarity to these issues and allows partners to resolve them and reconnect.