The way I usually frame an affair is that it is something that can mean the end of a marriage, and it sometimes does do that. OR, it can be used as a wake-up call for BOTH spouses in the marriage that can help both of you move toward creating a more fulfilling relationship. There are a variety of reasons that affairs happen. Not too many people wake up and decide to go have an affair. Most tend to happen by gradually sharing more and more of one’s self to someone not your spouse– letting someone see inside me and vice versa. This emotional intimacy (meant only for one’s spouse) leads to sexual intimacy.
There is almost always the need to bring more of that emotional intimacy into the marriage first. Affairs make sense, although that does not make them right. They do major damage to everyone involved and that pain always results — and usually for all three involved. And it always damages kids— yes, they DO know.
It takes time to heal a marriage with an affair in it. The time needs to be an active process of not just rebuilding or repairing, but of proactively creating what both spouses want. I think it is very important that the ‘betrayed’ gets to ask all the questions s/he wants or needs to — for a limited period. Then a second phase of healing (and growth) can begin.
Each spouse needs their therapist to facilitate an exploration in dialogue of what needs were not being met in the relationship leading up to the affair. Even when the person who has the affair initially has no clue as to his/her answer, they need to do some serious introspective work about what they found in the affair that drew them to it, that led them to an affair, and that gave them some of what they needed and were missing. The ‘betrayer’ needs to share this part of their reality when they discover it, and the ‘betrayed’ needs to hear and validate and empathize.
The therapist needs to hold a safe ‘container’ for each partner to explore any and all ways that disconnection and distress were experienced by them in the marriage, especially if never verbalized previously.
It’s also important that I validate (as the Therapist), even before anyone ever says it, that each probably has different needs, especially at the beginning of the healing process. They need to know (and respect) that the person who had the affair wants it to be over now and never talk about it again, and also that the person who was betrayed has a big need to talk about it — and that the three of us are going to honor both needs. I talk about shame playing into all this, about being out of integrity with one’s Self and one’s Core Values. I talk about how when the ‘betrayer’ sees the betrayed partner reacting (in pain) they will be tempted to justify why they had an affair. I set boundaries for treatment: there will be times and ways of talking about it, but we will put boundaries around when, where, and how that will happen, so it is not constantly leaking all over their marriage and their life/lives.
I also talk about trust being probably the biggest wound and the biggest thing in need of repair — and I make sense of the person’s thoughts (accompanied by painful feelings) that they can never trust the person again — why would they???? They have usually been lied to, often even when asked point blank, they have been cheated on. And I tell them they would be stupid to trust at this point. I also make sense for both partners of why they might not even be sure they want to do therapy, because what if they DO trust and end up in the same situation again? It would feel 100 times worse.
So I honor their need to protect themselves (which I think is healthy). Trust needs to be re-earned little by little. Normalizing the feelings they both have is very important, in my opinion.
And then we talk about what the betrayed person needs to begin to build back trust, and that I understand the ‘betrayer’ probably will NOT want to do a lot of that work. But, it’s simply unavoidable – s/he needs to do it if they want the marriage/relationship to work. They betrayed a trust and now the onus is on them to work to restore it — but it doesn’t let the other partner off the hook to keep reacting in damaging ways. Then I set up as a ‘Rule,’ that any contact, even an unanswered phone call initiated by the affair partner or by them, must be brought back to the betrayed partner. “So and so sent me a text message today about . . . .” The person can decide if s/he wants to read it. Or, “Here is an e-mail (or a voice mail).”
I talk about how it is important that they face the affair and the damage of it TOGETHER, as partners — not as each skulking off to their corner to handle it by themselves (or friends, or family, or ‘coaches’) versus with a seasoned professional who is pro-marriage. It needs to be the two of them vs. the affair (the event and also sometimes the affair partner who might be trying to reestablish relationship or contact.) Too many mental health professionals lack the training and expertise to help couples, and more often than not, are silently pessimistic. The fact is that, with both partners wanting to save the marriage, and supported by a specialist in the field, there is no reason that the marriage cannot only be saved, but being a superior marriage in the end.
I also give the betrayed some self-soothing skills (most who seem to stay ‘stuck’ don’t have many, if any, of these personal interventions, and so keep falling down into the hole of their pain). Although it varies depending on the person, here is an example of one I wrote to a former client who successfully left treatment:
Here are some things for you to try to help you put boundaries around the obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Remember they are normal. There is nothing wrong with you. They will gradually subside. But for right now, there ARE ways you can experiment with putting boundaries – not to stop them completely, but to help gain more control over them.
* Writing in a journal, by hand or computer, can help you put thoughts OUTSIDE of you instead of having them just roll around and around inside. Once when I went through a loss, I created a folder on my computer called The God Box. Whenever I needed, I wrote my thoughts or feelings (totally unedited) and then put them in that folder.
* Write down any questions that are really important to you as they occur to you. Take 2 times per week and give the list to your spouse for them to answer any they can, ASAP! If there are some he does not want to answer right now, just put a minus mark next to it until he is ready to answer it in the future. Bring it to therapy session.
* Start by writing this next one, just to get in the habit, (but you can do it easily without writing). When you have a troubling thought, use the following sentence structure . . .
“Just because (whatever the troubling thought is) . . . . .
it doesn’t mean . . . . . . . (and complete the sentence.) That is ONE possibility, but not the only one. Another possibility might be . . . . .
* A very traditional tool to use for loss, grief, betrayal, and all the intense emotions and obsessive thinking that results is to actually schedule ‘worry times’. With affairs, my recommendation is to schedule from 15 minutes up to an hour (you decide ahead of time), 3 specific times per day. In this time, you will deliberately think about the affair, your worries, hurts, etc. If a thought intrudes at some other time of the day or night, tell yourself that you cannot go there now, that it will have to wait until your next scheduled ‘worry time’ at _____.
This puts boundaries around the processing so that it doesn’t contaminate everything. It gives you more power over it. Over time if you’re faithful to this exercise, you will need fewer times during the day, and less time in each session.
* Imagine having a remote control in your head that can change from channel to channel simply by pressing a button. When negative thoughts creep in, treat them as programs you are turned off by, disgusted by . . . and consciously change the channel to something else. Switch to the VISION you have written together. Or you can switch to a future planned event, something YOU enjoy doing for yourself, a calm scene, etc.