Affair Therapy

You may repeatedly ask yourself, “How Can We Get Through This?” You can. I know.

What is Affair-Repair Counseling?
When “a friend” knows more about the marriage than the married partner knows about the “friend,” Dr. Shirley Glass (author of Not Just Friends) tells us we are dealing with an affair. Affairs are like slippery slopes: once the affair comes to light, a lot of damage has been done on many levels of the relationship. If an affair has just been discovered, it is likely there is denial and minimization of the affair by the disloyal partner, and extreme hyper vigilance in the partner who’s been betrayed. Although it may feel like a tremendous blow, if you are willing to heal together, we now know a lot about how to go about it.

Standard recovery treatments in the past encouraged partners not to talk with each other about the affair, to keep their narratives separate, and to “forgive and forget.” But that was before we learned what research offered. For example, one large online study found that couples in which the unfaithful spouse answered all of the questions that the betrayed partner asked, 86% remained married and 72% rebuilt trust. In fact, many couples reported that open discussion and honest communication led to a relationship that was even better than before the affair (from a study by Peggy Vaughn of 1083 couples).
What Do We Know About Affairs:

  • Affairs can happen in happy, loving marriages.

  • Affairs begin when the about-to-be-unfaithful partner gets mirrored by an individual who is different from (not superior to) his or her spouse. The unfaithful partner gets to feel that a different aspect of him or herself can be turned on. It’s not usually about sexual attraction per se initially.

  • The secrecy fuels intrigue that, if exposed to the cold light of day, would quickly disappear and the affair partner would likely lose much of his or her mystique.

  • The excitement of an affair can translate into more (not less) sex at home.

  • 75% of unfaithful individuals who marry their affair partners end up divorcing them.

What are the 7 Most Important Things to Keep In Mind?
You may repeatedly ask yourself, “How Can We Get Through This?” You can. I have led couples through this difficult terrain many times over. I notice that couples who understand the concepts below invariably heal a great deal of the pain, and often improve their baseline happiness with one another as well.

  1. Healing takes time
  2. Healing cannot begin without safety        
  3. Be patient
  4. Do not conceal
  5. You are the healers
  6. Reverse walls and windows
  7. Rebuild trust

A betrayed spouse may not heal for three months to three years or more, depending upon how they learned, the duration/type of affair, and the level of deception. Keep the maxim in mind that “Slower is faster.” In most cases, repair is easier if all contact with the affair partner is stopped, and if more consideration is shown toward the spouse than the affair partner as healing proceeds. It is far better to provide distressing details to the betrayed partner than refusing to reveal anything. In the short run, the answers may cause distress. In the long run, they build trust. The therapist is only a facilitator. Research indicates that the more active and empathic the betraying partner can be, and the more curious and undefended the betrayed partner can be, the better the outcome. Be willing to hear difficult material and heightened emotion.
The Way Forward
Discussing the story of the affair is crucial for understanding the meaning of the infidelity. The concept of "windows and walls" comes from Dr. Shirley Glass, who writes about the importance of placing the affair partner in the outside of the marital triangle in every way possible. Be willing to be completely honest with one another. Voluntarily sharing hard-to-hear information (such as an unavoidable encounter with the former affair partner) increases trust over the long term. Devote yourself to authenticity, even under duress.

The work is not only about ending the infidelity. It is just as important to strengthen love maps, to re-commit to expressions of appreciation, to find ways of turning toward, to manage conflict constructively and to create new shared meaning. Some of my best couple’s therapy outcomes have been with couples who have weathered an affair. A marriage that successfully heals after an affair is stronger than just about any marriage out there.