How to Repair After an Affair
Hopefully none of you will need to use this information, but for those couples who do, please keep reading.
As a Gottman Level 3 trained therapist, I know a lot about what makes marriages work and what does not. I understand how couples distance themselves and how they are able to come together again. I know who, in my therapy room, are the masters of healthy relationships and who are the disasters. For a nice introduction into Gottman method of couple therapy, please have a listen to Episode #8 of my podcast I Think, I Can.
After infidelity, there is a certain protocol a couple needs to follow when attempting to repair the relationship. And I advise not to try to do it alone. Repair after infidelity is a tricky, circuitous path to navigate, one best done under the guidance of a trained therapist. For anyone who has gone through such a deep betrayal as infidelity, they know what I am talking about. It is not something to be taken lightly. It is a gut wrenching, mind-blowing type of hurt that is difficult to describe. It goes into the depth of your soul. How do I know this? Because I have seen it on my clients’ faces, even long after the betrayal has occurred.
And then when you turn towards your partner and ask them how they could do something like this, the classic answer is “I don’t know”.
“Infidelity is a symptom of a relationship that required daily tending, much like a garden would, yet was ignored.. When too many weeds take over, the garden cannot thrive.”
Hmmm – that doesn’t fly over well, now does it?
If I see that the betrayer authentically does not know, then we need to do more individual work. I have that person come in alone and provide them with a questionnaire which helps them to find that answer. During the couples’ session however, I might also ask the betrayer “Now ask your partner what it feels like to hear you say, ‘I don’t know’.” If the betrayer remains emotionless, as a therapist I know we have a problem.
There are three phases of re-establishing the relationship after infidelity.
During the first phase, atonement, any questions the betrayed needs to ask the betrayer is done in the safety of the therapy room. I may encourage the betrayed to write down a list of questions prior to coming in as sometimes these thoughts race around in one’s head all day – but under the pressure of a couples’ session, they can get lost. The purpose of this session is so that ‘no stone gets unturned’ so to speak. The betrayed should have every single question answered. After all, they deserve answers. The truth needs to come out. If it doesn’t, the relationship will never be repaired. The goal is to re-establish trust; without trust, no relationship will stand. Trust and commitment are the two supporting walls in any sound relationship house.
The attunement phase is when we go into the health of the relationship prior to the betrayal. How did the couple communicate? Was there communication at all? However, there are strong rules that I insist on with this discussion. There is no blame, attack, or criticism. In other words – this is my chance to see what the couple’s communication style is – and from there I teach them what communication should look like. I teach them that the four horsemen of the apocalypse (what John Gottman dubbed as the four communication breakdown behaviours he saw in his research with couples) are Criticism, Contempt, Stonewalling, and Defensiveness, and they are NOT allowed in my room. If I see these behaviours, I have no problem abruptly interrupting the discussion. I point it out in the moment so that they become better at noticing it themselves. Attunement is a place for couples to process their feelings. To feel the hurt of the other and to communicate their pain to their partner. The whole process is to bring each other closer, to help them understand each other’s own subjective reality. There are usually many betrayals that have happened in the couples’ history together and we may need to go back to these times and process the feelings that perhaps never got processed.
Attachment is the place where all couples want to get to. It is a place of peace, safety, and contentment, a place of serenity and calm. Trust is solidified during this phase. It is also a time where we establish very clear boundaries going forward. In this phase, we create a plan going forward so you feel safe in continuing this relationship, much in the same way I help couples draw up a parenting or separation agreement when I act as a relationship coach. I encourage the partners to use verbiage such as “I feel ______when you do _____, and this is what I need (from you)”.
No one wants to find themselves or expects to ever be betrayed. Sexual or emotional betrayal can be catastrophic in a relationship, and frankly can end the relationship quite abruptly. There are some individuals that have very firm boundaries that are tied in with moral values. However, the decision to end the relationship is rarely that simple. Each couple I deal with have very different personal histories. Factors that I feel most predict whether a relationship will last through the betrayal or not would be length of time together as a couple, whether there are children, whether trust has been breached prior to this incident, and cultural background.
Personally, as a therapist, it is very difficult for me to see the hurt on an individual’s face who has experienced betrayal in their relationships. I think the most difficult part of this is that it changes the individual (betrayed) on a very personal level. Someone who was once very trusting of their partner, is no longer someone who trusts. Regaining trust in a relationship can be a massive undertaking for any person. It is hard work and it takes time. However, I have a massive respect for couples that make it through this and come out stronger because of it, which is quite often the case. Infidelity is a symptom of a relationship that required daily tending, much like a garden would, yet was ignored.. When too many weeds take over, the garden cannot thrive.
To read more about betrayals, check out my blog series, 10 ways a partner can betray you, (2021).