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  • Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Practical, Science-Based Steps to Heal from an Affair

Working through an affair is tough. It takes tremendous energy and vulnerability on both sides.

Many years ago, in the Clinton era, I was asked to do an interview on whether Hillary and Bill would make it through Bill’s affair. Responding psychologically rather than politically, my answer was to say, “If couples didn’t make it through affairs, the divorce rate would be even higher than it is now.”

Working through an affair is tough. It takes tremendous energy and vulnerability on both sides. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have developed the Trust Revival Method, with three defined stages of treatment: Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment. The effectiveness of this model is being studied in a randomized clinical trial.

I’ve watched hundreds of couples try this method, and I’ve learned a few practical things about effective treatment along the way. To provide clarity, let’s use names: Jennifer and Sam are married, and Jennifer had an affair with Anthony.

Seek couples therapy, not just individual counseling

Trust is an obvious issue, and is vital to regain. But if both partners are committed to reconciling the marriage, or at least to try, then seeing a couples therapist together is most helpful. Individual therapy doesn’t help regain this trust and may only make healing more complicated. Enough secrets have been kept. Even if Jennifer is talking about the love she had for Anthony, it’s important that Sam regain his role as confidante, and it’s even more important that Jennifer be completely transparent about what happened.

Often, people who engage in an affair will balk at the idea of sharing with their spouse their struggles with letting go of their lover. The most important point? To move ahead, Sam needs to actively hear and believe that Jennifer is choosing him and their marriage.

Realize that the “truth” rarely comes out all at once

This is a tough one. Those who have had an affair, whether they’ve been caught or whether they’ve actually come forward, rarely tell the whole story initially. In this case, Jennifer will either feel guilty and extremely protective of Sam, not wanting to hurt him anymore, or she’ll be protective of Anthony. Or both.

The latter reason may likely infuriate Sam. But it’s part of the process. The “story” usually emerges slowly, even though Sam might want the truth and all of the truth right away. Jennifer may not be able to do that. Remember, she’s now committed to the marriage, and more than likely fears Sam’s reaction — that “too much too soon” may blow up in her face.

When this occurs, it’s very easy for the hurt partner to view this as more intentional deceit, which many betrayed people say is just as difficult to work through than any sexual or emotional indiscretion. The therapist needs to guide the couple carefully through the betrayer’s tangle of self-protection or protection of a lover and the defensiveness and shame that comes with it, as well as the betrayed’s desperately wanting and deserving “the absolute truth” and the sadness, rage, and fear that accompanies it.

All of this lies in the Atonement phase — a working through of anger, fear, guilt, and shame. It’s a tightrope that has to be walked very carefully, and with as much openness as possible.

The problems in the relationship did not cause the affair but are important to change

Jennifer is totally responsible for going outside the marriage to get her needs met. That is clear. But affairs happen in contexts. And that context is Jennifer and Sam’s marriage.

Sam and Jennifer will want to create a fresh, enlivened relationship where both can recommit and leave behind the relationship that was not working. The task is to learn new skills and new ways of communicating so both can feel better about their marriage. They’re not going back — they’re going forward. They’re starting marriage #2.

If Jennifer is adamant about blaming the marriage and only the marriage, that’s not a good sign. In Gottman terms, she’d be stuck in the barn with the Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse and not moving forward. The same would be evident if Sam insisted that the marriage had been great with absolutely nothing amiss or broken. Both would be locked in defensiveness and contempt.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman teach that talking about the context of the marriage doesn’t belong in the “Atonement” process, but belongs in the second “Attunement” phase of treatment. This may be easier said than done. I’ve found that as long as distinctions are being made, and very clear boundaries are formed—that nothing happened in the marriage to cause the betrayer to betray—that both can be discussed. However, it’s far better to keep them clear from one another, if possible.

Give structure to communication about the affair

Dr. Shirley Glass points out in her book “Not Just Friends” that the betrayed partner often fits criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with their emotional well-being heavily threatened and a sense of safety having disappeared from the marriage. It’s important to structure the sessions to help the betrayed work through that trauma, as slowly as is needed, and not amplify symptoms like hypervigilance, nightmares, or flashbacks.

And, in all seriousness, this process can’t happen quickly enough for the betrayer nor slow enough for the betrayed.

Jennifer’s job is evident. She must cut ties with Anthony. She needs to provide whatever information Sam needs to help him heal. Most people seem to want a lot of information, often coming in with pages of questions.

If Jennifer is reticent to proactively offer openness to what used to be more private choices (cell phone or social media account passwords, for example), that may be a signal that the hurtful impact of the affair is still not understood, or the betrayer has not fully taken responsibility. At that point, work directed at the betrayer, to try to understand their balking — whether it’s an issue still with the affair, or is it some other individual trait, such as a struggle with control — is vital for the therapeutic process to go forward.

It is best if the couple can wait and only talk about the affair in the therapist’s office. But some people just can’t wait, so we would suggest that they limit, perhaps even by strictly scheduling, the time that they talk about it. Each would need to agree that they will refrain from using the four horsemen during those conversations. This structure helps prevent emotional explosions or from the affair gaining any more power than it already has, while also honoring the need for healing.

The affair will be on everyone’s mind. But it’s got to be fenced in to some degree. You are looking for new information to use for recommitment.

People in Sam’s role can sometimes get lost in the details, wanting to know everything about the affair. For example, asking if Jennifer loved Anthony, or why she was attracted to him, may be important details for Sam to know. But Drs. John and Julie Gottman would suggest that he, and others like him, need to be careful, again recalling Dr. Glass’ admonitions concerning PTSD. He runs the risk of becoming re-traumatized by the revelation of intimate details, such as where the affair happened and what the sex was like. He can become obsessive, requesting too much information. Yet if not enough is asked and absorbed, it can lead to later regret.

What’s the goal here? Sam finally says to himself, “You know, I just don’t need to ask that question. I’ve asked all I need to ask. I’m okay with not knowing.”

Realize the need for trust travels in both directions

The last thing that Jennifer wants to realize is that 10 or 15 years down the road, Sam says, “You know, I never really forgave you for that affair. I want a divorce.” Or he might never say those words, and simply act it out passive-aggressively.

That is very sad. Couples have come to me years after doing therapy for an affair. There has been no true stage of reconciliation that Drs. John and Julie Gottman would call “Attachment.” The unforgiving spouse remains bitter, but may try to hide it. The unforgiven feels a loneliness that he or she doesn’t understand; it may be that everything “looks” fine, but underneath there is still distrust, blame, or anger.

Sam should take on the responsibility of giving reassurance to Jennifer that trust is building. He can say things sincerely, such as, “I wanted to text and ask you to take a picture of where you were at 10:00 last night when you were out of town, but I realized I didn’t need to. I’m past that.”

Jennifer can begin to feel hopeless if not given this information, or that her efforts are not being recognized. Both need to deeply understand and believe that the other is on board for a new commitment, that they both have chosen to remain, and are working on a new relationship dynamic that outshines their previous connection.

The process of healing from an affair takes time. Like all grief, it comes in waves. One day, it will seem like it happened a long time ago. The next? Either Jennifer or Sam can get triggered, and emotions will feel once again very raw.

Learning new skills of communicating about conflict, rebuilding trust, rekindling physical and sexual connection, giving time and attention to how the problems have affected the children or other family members — all of that can happen with time and energy.

There are many variations to the above. Such are the complications of being human.

The good news? It can be accomplished, and the commitment can be richer than ever. Not because of the affair, but because of the work done to make marriage #2 better than marriage #1 ever was.


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