• 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.