Written By: Deidre Prewitt, MSMFC, LPCC
Doesn't all couple's therapy cover infidelity (affair) recovery?
The short answer is....no.
Being in relationship counseling does not automatically mean infidelity recovery. Very often, couples come to counseling to improve their relationship, but do not disclose previous affairs. They may come asking for assistance with communication or managing conflict. Many couples believe that they have "gotten over" the affair because they choose to no longer discuss it. Some avoid it until they fight when the conversation continually circles back to the breach of trust. Unresolved issues in a relationship have a way of finding their way into almost any argument. The normal way that we clinicians conduct relationship counseling needs to be adjusted to accommodate and process the trauma of an affair if the couple ever expects to heal.
Affair/infidelity recovery is a very complex experience. Some couples are able to recover without professional intervention based on their own hard work and dedication to the process. This is no easy feat, but once they are able to work through the breakdown, they can emerge stronger than ever before. Some couples need intervention because they need the blueprint to construct a new marriage out of the rubble of the old one. Learning communication tools, fighting fair, or spending quality time together will not heal the wounds of the infidelity. Doing this type of relationship work requires a special set of skills to help couples recover from the trauma and then open themselves up to co-creating their new relationship.
Ignoring The Affair Maintains The Trauma
Infidelity is an earth shattering event in a relationship. When trust is broken the entire relationship is left shattered. Some relationship theorists will discourage a couple from talking about the pain of the affair. This is detrimental to rebuilding trust going forward. After discovery, both partners have distinct experiences that need to be processed and respected. Most offending partners struggle with coping with and forgiving themselves for their actions. They may struggle with rectifying who they are with what they have done. The other partner struggles to understand the world around them. Both are hurting and reeling from the experience. Although the initial upheaval of emotion may subside over time; one or both partners will struggle with moving on completely. Decades may have passed but the pain hovers like a cloud over them. Clinicians skilled in infidelity recovery are able to acknowledge the wound and dress it appropriately, even when it is painful, to get to the healing. Avoiding the potential conflict will only continue to alienate the hurt partner and oppose the intimacy and closeness needed to allow them to be more intimate partners.
Traditional Methods May Not Get To The "Heart Of The Matter"
As a budding therapist I was lead to believe if I help a couple build intimacy, empathize with one another, or work through other issues; then infidelity scars would heal on their own. I could not have been more wrong. I found that even when I attempted to navigate the couple to heal other challenges in their marriage the infidelity would continue to resurface. Couples could complete a course of therapy and feel better only to return months or years later exactly where they were before. Traditional couples counseling was like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound. It may stop the bleeding for a short while but is not a permanent "fix". My primary goal is to put myself out of business so I had to find out what the core issue was if I wanted to prevent the revolving door of couple's therapy.
Getting to the core issues in relationship counseling is a challenge in all therapeutic relationships. The presence of infidelity trauma only serves to deepen the complexity. Partners find themselves contending with the seemingly never-ending questions of "who", "when", "how" and the all-encompassing "why". Avoiding these answers leave distrust and hurt in a relationship. The heart of the matter lies in how to prevent the infidelity from happening again. This cannot be addressed without a structured, systematic way to address what the hurt is in the relationship.
One of the most difficult things to learn as a counselor who specializes in infidelity is finding a delicate balance in validating both partners' experiences while not alienating the other. Both partners have valid emotions and neither is a bad person. Striking a balance between challenging thoughts/behaviors that destroy trust and validating the emotions that motivate them is not an easy task. The approach is much more active and directive as the couple needs to feel safe that the counselor has a direct path to healing. Many times, affair/infidelity recovery requires a crisis-oriented approach that may break the "rules" of allowing a client to find the answer themselves. It also requires that the therapist is not liked at some point as they challenge behavior that may throw recovery off course.
In finding balance in the therapeutic relationship, the clinician is also given the task of finding balance in changing or competing goals for the session and the therapy. Some couples may not come in with the same goals (reconciliation vs. separation). Sometimes it is the therapist's responsibility to help them find their true motivations to help them meet their real goals when they cannot bear to say it. Not all couples who start the process of recovery want to continue together. Both need support in their decisions.
Marriage counseling is a great option for those are struggling in aspects of their relationship. Going to therapy to heal the trauma of infidelity brings a different challenge to the situation. Many couples come into recovery in the midst of relational crisis and addressing other issues can make healing more difficult. If you are struggling with the trauma of infidelity it may not be best to assume that all counseling is "one size fits all".
If you live in Columbus, Ohio or nearby I would be honored to help you through the process. Click Here to contact me.