Couple Counselling – Overcoming an Affair
HOW COUNSELLING SESSIONS CAN HELP A COUPLE OVERCOME THE DAMAGED TRUST CAUSED BY AN AFFAIR.
Copyright © Ros Welch 2013. All rights reservered
There are many tasks in the reconstruction of a relationship having had trust damaged by an affair to which the counsellor can bring focus and structure. Ensuring that the couple feel equally heard, that the betrayed party has been able to verbalise and process their pain and that their partner recognises the depth of damage caused. The counsellor can help the couple remember what brought them together, how they fell in love, reconnecting them in joint recollection, allowing them to see what is at stake and cement their determination to work through this crisis.
The counsellor can explore their conflict resolution styles, seeking examples of previously resolved conflict to provide insight for the work ahead. The couple need to understand why the affair happened and gain a holistic view of their relationship prior to the affair, recognising stressors and triggers that led to the betrayal. Commonly the prelude to an affair is of one party feeling neglect and lack of attention from the other feeling emotionally vulnerable, this could arise from work or financial pressures, the birth of a child, caring for a relative or a bereavement.
“Many couples do not always recognise these events. Indeed they may consider that the event or set of circumstances is irrelevant. This can develop a sort of ‘relationship blindness’ that prevents the couple taking action on their feelings long before an affair looms on the horizon”(Cole 2010 p131).
The affair may have provided something that was lacking in the relationship; sex, excitement or an escape from the stress of financial worries, the affair may not be defined as adultery, may not have included intimate behaviour, possibly internet based not physical but emotional disloyalty, the couple may have differing views on what constitutes an affair and should reach agreement that the relationship enacted emotional betrayal as a basis for restructuring work.
“Once six of one and half a dozen of the other has been taken on board couples are much less likely to fall into the trap of blaming during a nasty argument. After all both halves have contributed to the problem”(Marshall 2006 p58).
The counsellor can help by allowing their stories to be heard with empathy by the other, to allow them to speak and be heard without interruption. To facilitate the envisaging of the others perspective and the teaching of positive communication skills to avoid bickering and blaming.
“The counsellors task is to assist the couple to begin building and living the new story alongside the history of infidelity and pain. At the same time the counsellor should be alert to, and respect, when the infidelity story reasserts itself, and the couple need to know that this does not signify failure or a retrograde step. The infidelity story remains valid; the hope and aim is that it will gradually fade and become less dominant (Payne 2010 p159).
The affair would have had a situation or environment contributed to by both parties, it is often communication breakdown and avoidance of stress issues that leads to the trigger. The counsellor can help break stalemate, the betrayer needs to take responsibility for their actions and recognise both the damage caused and the pain felt by their partner, and their partner needs to recognise the part they played in the lead up.
An inequality, a lack of balance may well be present in the relationship, their perceptions of investment in making the relationship function may differ as each person over or undervalues their input. The value calculated by more than the investment of time, of nurturing, sex and hard work, as self-esteem and borrowed or stereotypical values play a large part in the equation. The counsellor can seek to redress the balance in the relationship by allowing the couple to view empathically the others input.
“People that perceive themselves as either under-rewarded or over-rewarded experience distress, and that this distress leads to efforts to restore equity in the relationship”(Equity Theory – Wikipaedia).
Inequity can be used to justify behaviour, the initial affair or revenge relationship, addressing the balance may prevent re-occurrence, re-introduce respect for each other and ensure a level of awareness of the other persons perceptions that will raise awareness within them. The process should also define exactly what the affair meant to both of them, its physical and emotional cost and its justification, should one of the parties level of self-esteem be much lower than the others, or should their life script and history add a certain predictability to the affair, their perception of an accepted norm may vary from societies view of acceptable behaviour.
“There is an important reason for trying to balance the scales of trust in a relationship. If you believe that you are the only one to be trusted you will burden yourself with more and more responsibility while your partner feels increasingly alienated. You could end up more like parent and child than two adults”(Cole 2010 p62).
The couple may have differing ideas of trust and personal boundaries, have witnessed different views of trust from their parents or family culture. The couple should explore their fixed beliefs, their expectations, perceived barriers to relationship success, their understanding of forgiveness.
“Questions inviting an unfaithful partner to state and reconnect with his/her values are an important prelude to the therapeutic process, as they create a positive launching pad for further work”(Payne 2010 p156).
The discovery of an affair instigates a mourning process, one that can be felt by them both, for the betrayed; denial, disbelief, anger, confusion and yearning. The hopes and dreams, expectations for the future and most importantly; trust. The betrayed party may find the need to keep hearing the story, asking for detail which their partner may find embarrassing suffering self-blame, guilt and sadness or defensiveness and avoidance, the betrayer may also feel loss, of excitement, of their escape route.
The counsellor can help manage this grief, by normalising, by allowing space for talk, by encouraging the betrayed to keep a journal or a Daily Thought Record to help process the anger and pain. The betrayed person may feel jealousy, may feel that they cannot trust anything the other says, wanting proof of where they are or, they may feel some sense of relief being able to put a name to the emotional disconnect they have felt, an explanation to the strange absences and sense of disquiet.The couple cannot go back, what was, has gone.
“Where forgiveness is premature and unearned, the unfaithful partner is unlikely ever to know the full extent of the pain he has caused, will rationalise the infidelity and forgive himself too readily. He may return to the affair, or have other affairs (Payne 2010 p154).
A pseudo or unearned forgiveness can be used to exact its own revenge and seeking a polarity of opinion from this attitude can lead to the unfaithful party being isolated and condemned without hearing and the betrayed party assuming the victims mantle. How much is told to who can be contentious, the betrayed party will want outside support from friends or family but it may make the future more difficult as attitudes will alter. If children are to be told, this should be done as a couple with a joint concept of the future making plain the couples continuing love for them and for each other.
The counsellor can help them reach agreement and identify the changes that need to be put in place, to look holistically at the couples situation, bringing issues that have been avoided to the fore; work, finances, children, social aspects, sex, housing, health or the loss of a loved one, identifying goals and time scales for manageable change.
The couple need to understand each others values, their expectations, their definition of trust, an exploration of these may uncover borrowed values that undermine the relationship, there may be divided loyalties, differing attitudes to childcare, to sex and to what the future should hold. A plan can be made for the future, small steps such as a period of constraint when mobiles can be checked, whereabouts are known, expenditure is open and honest. If their sexual relations have stopped, a period of no penetration intimacy prior to starting again. A holiday could be planned or other joint or family pastimes.
The journey to trusting again will be difficult, it may be necessary to behave as if the trust has returned prior to truly believing it, reconstructing the relationship should allow a new platform from which to conduct better negotiation in times of difficulty, a new conflict resolution style to find genuine compromise. A new honesty with themselves and their partner, acceptance of a shared responsibility for this new understanding, and potentially new, shared values.
Cole Julia – After the affair – 2010 – Vermillion
Marshall Andrew G – I love you but I’m not in love with you – 2006 – Bloomsbury
Payne Martin – Couple Counselling – 2010 Sage.
Wikipaedia 1.4.13 J S Adams – Equity Theory