Being in a relationship can be at once one of the most fulfilling and one of the most difficult experiences. Typical challenges experienced in a relationship can range from frustration over lack of cooperation, to the trauma of learning one’s partner has had an affair. According to researchers Kristina, Baucom, and Snyder (2004), 40% of men and 20% of women who are married will have an extramarital affair over the course of a marriage. For therapists and couples, affairs are among the most damaging and difficult problems to address. What works in addressing this experience in couples therapy? Affairs evoke feelings of betrayal — healing from them requires a level of maturity and forgiveness that may or may not be possible for an individual or a couple. For some couples, not revealing the affair is a way of protecting the marriage; for others, not talking about an affair creates a serious block to intimacy and commitment. Viewing the affair as an expression of conflict can start the conversation.
There is hope for working through the transgression of an affair (Kristina, Baucom, and Snyder, 2004). Viewing the affair as a personal trauma and working toward healing the trauma for each member of the couple can support progress. One model (Dristina, Baucom and Snyder, 2004) describes three phases of the work. Phase one is to deal with the impact of the affair and its result on the marriage and family. It is important to set up a plan to commit to meeting to talk regularly. Phase two involves exploring the context of the affair and finding meaning. The couple examines vulnerabilities to understand the situation more fully. They explore the characteristic responses that led to the affair and discuss the details and the dynamics of the event. In Phase three, the couple moves on. They discuss any leftover questions and identify their fears.
Phases in therapy may happen sequentially or not. Each couple finds their own way to discuss their experience and may need to veer off to talk about other topics as part of healing. Accidental or purposeful disclosure of indiscretions is traumatic in itself and therapeutic intervention can provide a cushion.
Accepting the good enough quality of a relationship is part of what makes couples resilient. But what happens when only one member of the couple wants to remain together? That person is encouraged to come in first and the other member may or may not follow. Some couples find individual therapy helpful in preparing them for challenging work of talking and listening in joint sessions. Talking and listening seems so simple but can lead to significant changes. Keep talking! For more about this and other topics on making a resilient marriage, come to ACAP’s talk: Couples in Crisis on Sunday, March 20 from 1-3pm with Annette Vaccaro and Maurice Lovell.
Reference Kristina, C. G., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2004). An Integrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarital affairs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 30(2), 213-31.