Updated: May 22
When couples seek marriage counseling after infidelity, their relationship is often in a fragile state. Betrayal that happens in the context of a trusted relationship like marriage is destabilizing and can leave the injured partner feeling emotionally unsafe, hurt, and angry. For the partner who participated in infidelity, there are often an array of emotions like guilt, resentment about other relationship problems, pain at their partner’s reaction, and fear for loss of the relationship.
I use an evidence-based, trauma-informed approach to my work with couples reeling from the pain of infidelity. In this post, I break down this research-backed process of helping couples after an affair.
Betrayal Undermines Stability and Trust
When a betrayal such as infidelity occurs, the injured partner has to restructure their world. If monogamy was a basic expectation, infidelity often represents a devastating breach of trust. The new reality that your partner participated in infidelity requires an immense shift in your view of the relationship. Thoughts like “I can never trust them again” or “they did it once, they will probably do it again” are a natural consequence in the immediate aftermath of infidelity.
Because discovering infidelity is often so traumatic, the injured partner may exhibit symptoms similar to PTSD. These reactions can include:
Repetitive, intrusive thoughts about what your partner did with another person or vivid images of them being with that person
Intense emotions about yourself, your partner, and your marriage, like shame, rage, fear, and hopelessness
Feeling on your guard, like if you let your walls down even a little bit you’ll just get hurt again
These reactions are normal after a traumatic betrayal. Particularly if you seek marriage counseling in the immediate aftermath of an affair, or while the outside relationship is still active, your marriage may be very unstable. In early sessions, rather than hashing out what happened and why, my first step is to create safety and stability. I step in as needed to ensure partners do not dive into conversations they are not yet ready to have.
Creating A Temporary Structure Offers Safety
Even when you feel angry, guilty, or hopeless, you still have to live daily life (take the kids to school, eat meals, go to work). In the turbulent early days after affair disclosure, my goal is to help you set specific boundaries that allow you to complete necessary basic activities while you cope with the emotional impact.
This process is about identifying safeguards to prevent things getting worse. In general, I take the cues of the injured partner, who is likely more intensely traumatized as the information is new to them, and they have not yet had time to process. If possible, I encourage couples to delay making big decisions right now. With safeguards in place, the couple can survive the next days and weeks without making the situation worse.
Building A shared Narrative To Heal The Trauma
Once a couple has enough safeguards in place, we explore why the affair happened in the first place. We very intentionally review different factors such as your environment, each person’s history, personality, and skills, and your dynamic. I help you consider how your relationship was vulnerable to infidelity by looking at your broader context. This never involves “blaming the victim” as it is ultimately always the participating partner’s choice to engage in infidelity. The goal of this stage is to create a narrative, or story, about why the affair happened. This story should feel right to both partners, like they have been seen and understood.
Naming And Believing The Reasons To Stay Together
Finally, I help partners decide how they wish to move forward. Even for couples who are certain they will stay together, it is still helpful to articulate why they are making that choice. Without this explicit clarity on how and why they decided to continue their relationship, the infidelity may pop up in heated conversations for years to come. Verbalizing your reasons for staying creates a sense of coherence and concludes the story of infidelity in your marriage. Neither of you will forget that the affair happened, but therapy can help you close the chapter.
Will Our Marriage Survive The Affair?
Clients coming to therapy after infidelity often want to know - can we get through this? Though affairs are symbolic for many couples, particularly for those who have never considered or imagined that infidelity could happen in their relationship, infidelity is similar to any other big challenge in marriage. Depending on the couple, their motivation, and the support they receive, recovery is possible. In fact, a promising research study examined spouses who told their partner about an affair right before or at the beginning of behavioral couples therapy (the form of marriage counseling I use). At the beginning of therapy, these couples were in a lot of pain, and expressed more relationship distress than other couples who had not experienced infidelity. However, when they left couples treatment after 26 weeks of sessions, these partners had made major progress and actually reported as much relationship satisfaction as the couples without infidelity. Healing can begin when the wounds of infidelity are brought into the open and processed.
If you or your partner has participated in an affair, effective treatment is available. I strongly recommend the self-help book Getting Past the Affair by Douglas Snyder, Donald Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon if you want to begin the recovery process on your own. If you are ready for professional help, I am here to help you stabilize, process, and move forward.