Couples sometimes come in to see me after truly devastating infidelities. Often one partner has engaged in serial infidelities (sometimes sexually addictive in nature) and his or her partner has been totally unaware and is utterly traumatized by the discovery. Though it is not always the case (and although I treat many gay, lesbian and non-traditional couples) for the sake of this blog, let’s assume that we are talking about a heterosexual, married couple in which the husband has engaged in multiple infidelities while his wife was completely unaware. Some people will argue, how could she not have known anything? Trust me, it’s very possible. And if she may have suspected something, she might have even broached the topic with him and he may have gaslit her – acting totally offended and simultaneously hurt at the implication, even turning it around on her – enough to throw her off and make her question her intuition. Of course there are usually problems in these relationships outside of the infidelity but most long-term relationships have problems and many people aren’t unfaithful. So let’s get back to my typical couple in which there have been many grave infidelities. The woman often exhibits PTSD-type symptomology. She has trouble sleeping and nightmares imagining her husband cheating on her, she has similar types of flashbacks during the day and many easy triggers through everyday events. She’s having a hard time eating, feels too ashamed to talk to her friends or family about what has happened and often fears if she confides in these people, they won’t ever be able to forgive her husband. So, she starts to isolate. She cries often and sometimes rages at her repentant husband. After a few weeks of the same, and many tearful apologies later on his part, he starts to feel utterly hopeless that she will ever be able forgive him. At this point he calls me on the phone and soon thereafter the couple is sitting on my couch. Not every couple makes it through this. But if both can really reach down deep and start to do things differently, they can. Healing from infidelities takes a heck of a lot longer than a few weeks or months. Yet, the couples who hang on, have a relationship worth fighting for, a connection or family they want to save, come out on the other side of intense therapy with the strongest most enviable marriages that I have ever seen. That is truth. We at Psychotherapy Works have many concrete helpful tools for couples in this situation. I’ll give you my starting advice free of charge here. For the betraying partners: don’t minimize and don’t rationalize whatever it was that you did to hurt your marriage – big or small. Whatever you do, do not call her crazy. Validate that your past actions caused the extreme hurt and anger she is now re-experiencing. Own it. Apologize most sincerely again. Let her know you are currently 100% faithful right now (if indeed you are) and ask her if there is anything you can do to help her in this moment. Listen to her answers and respond accordingly. If she is angry and yelling, don’t slink away, but instead, move towards her (and this is very hard because like a deer in headlights you will want to avoid her pain and avoid this conflict). Avoiding conflict is part of what got you into this mess. Come into therapy, I or another talented therapist on my team can truly help you. One book (out of many excellent others) that I often recommend is After the Affair by Janis A. Spring, Ph.D. Check it out. And, take heart; there truly is hope if you just hang on.
- Dr. Suzanne Pelka