Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Therapist Mistakes When Dealing with Infidelity

Not a week goes by that I don't come across a couple that has had a bad experience in therapy. I'd like to start off by apologizing for my profession. We mean well, but few therapists train in the treatment of infidelity and that's an enormous problem for those in crisis. Take for example our recent “bad advice segment” where we have been discussing much of the carnage created by bad advice. Hopefully, you were fortunate and found a therapist who was knowledgeable in infidelity treatment. If not, I’m even more sorry but hope you and your spouse feel not only welcome but cared for and helped here at Affairrecovery.com.

I pray you haven't experienced any of these mistakes first hand, but if you have, please don't dismiss the benefits of marriage therapy. On the whole, marriage therapy is extremely helpful, but the typical approach used in the treatment of marital issues isn't helpful in the initial stages of infidelity recovery. At times it is downright harmful. That being said, marriage therapy is a must for many couples if they're going to succeed. It's just that a different approach needs to be utilized at the start of this particular type of recovery. If expert help is not utilized, the entire foundation can be faulty which results in a grueling attempt to forge ahead with little to no certainty that what you’re doing is actually going to work.

The late Peggy Vaughan, a pioneer in the research surrounding affairs, documented some staggering numbers in “Help for Therapists (and their clients) in Dealing with Affairs” (research).Based on the results of a survey of 1,083 people whose spouses had affairs, these are her findings:

Did the counselor focus directly on the issue of affairs? (725 Responses)

59% focused on general marital problems

28% yes, but not as strongly or clearly as I’d like

13% Yes very directly and dealt with the issue 

Was the counselor helpful? (861 Responses)

57% - No, mostly frustrating

23% - Yes, but not as much as I’d like

20% - Yes very helpful.

How many counselors did you see? (863 Responses)

27% - One

26% - Two

47% - Three or more

What follows are the seven most common mistakes I see therapists make when treating couples recovering from infidelity. After 30 years of treating couples and individuals in crisis, I’ve seen more than my share of harmful misinformation. I hope this helps you understand a bit of what recovery is about.

1. Focusing on the marriage: 

The most significant mistake in treating infidelity is taking a cause and effect approach. Infidelity is about a breach of trust and has to be treated as such. While infidelity certainly causes a marital problem, marital problems are NOT the cause of infidelity. Two people can be in a miserable marriage, but typically only one has an affair. Certainly all marriages have problems, but until the marital boundaries are addressed and safety is recreated, the marriage is just not safe. Without an agreed upon level of safety to work on the problems of the marriage, including the breach of trust, one has little to work with.

2. Discouraging the client from being truthful: 

Infidelity is the keeping of secrets. Intimacy is a willingness to be fully known, therefore infidelity inhibits intimacy. It's impossible to be loved unconditionally if you only conditionally let another person know who are. Admittedly, disclosure needs to be limited to the relevant details, (too much detail highly increases the probability of intrusive thoughts). Alternatively though, discouraging truth not only inhibits intimacy, it robs the hurt spouse of their choice. The unfaithful mate can never regain trust unless they first trust their mate with the information. Often times the unfaithful spouse doesn’t want to hurt their spouse any further, and wonders why they need to know these jarring details. My question to the unfaithful is, why would you want to control your mate through the flow of information? The only way for trust to be reestablished is to first trust your mate with the information. 

3. Failing to educate the couple about the recovery process for infidelity: 

Much of the recovery process is counter intuitive. The needs of both mates are so diverse that failure to educate leaves the couple thinking the worst of their mate as they attempt to go through a normal recovery process. For instance, women will typically deal with trauma by processing it over and over, but men typically deal with pain by trying to compartmentalize it. If their mate continues to bring up the affair, most men will view that as their mate's trying to punish and shame them, rather than understanding that their wife is having a normal trauma response. It’s critical for both spouses to understand the many coping mechanisms of both spouses as they wade through the pounding waves of the initial recovery process. 

4. Allowing the unfaithful spouse to blame their mate rather than having them take personal responsibility: 

Far too often (as mentioned in number one) a therapist or pastor or even well-meaning authority figure will look at the problem from the cause and effect perspective. When the unfaithful spouse claims they were unhappy and speaks of their lack of sex, lack of approval, or their mate's weight gain, the cause of the infidelity is laid at the feet of the hurt spouse. It's important to acknowledge the existence of problems in the relationship, but it is important to also explain that recovery is a two-step process where first the infidelity is addressed, then the marital problems follow. 

The attachment wound created by a betrayal is extremely disorienting. Without direction these couples will continue to spin helplessly, continuing to damage the relationship in their attempts for personal survival. The process of healing and the steps to that end need to be clearly explained at the beginning. If this isn't done, the length and difficulty of the recovery process may well cause the couple to feel that they have no way of surviving. It’s at this stage where many couples consider calling it quits: not due to the infidelity per se, but the exhausting inability to find hope and gain any ground at all in their recovery process. 

5. Pushing too quickly to forgive: 

Forgiveness is impossible before cost is established. This isn't just for the sake of the hurt spouse, but also for the unfaithful. Pushing for forgiveness and reconciliation prior to establishing whether the individuals are capable of being safe enough for the relationship leaves the marriage at risk. 

6. Failing to stabilize the relationship: 

The emotional swings created by betrayal are extreme. It's imperative that couples have the necessary tools and resources to survive the emotional swings created by the infidelity. Mentor couples, pulse watches, a supportive community, and contingency plans are all necessary for stabilization. Failure to do this leaves them at risk of further damaging their bond and jeopardizes the recovery process. 

7. Failing to provide realistic expectations: 

For most, dealing with infidelity is much like swimming underwater in the dark. They have no idea if they're making progress or if they're on their last leg. Providing realistic expectations helps the couple hang on, even when the going gets tough. For instance, most couples will make radical improvement in the initial months of recovery. But, it's not uncommon for the hurt spouse to regress at about 12 months into recovery due to increased emotional flooding caused by the reminders of the one year anniversary. Failure to forewarn a couple of these rough spots may cause them to feel the process isn't working and can cause them to give up.

Here are three ways we try to assist therapists in their work with couples: 

1. Identify the problem: 

We encourage them to utilize the AffairRecovery.com Affair Analyzer (for free) to determine the four axis of the affair and create relevant treatment plans. 

2. Client education: 

We try to assist therapists in communicating realistic expectations for the recovery process. We help supplement their couples' work with our Bootcamp program and even our EMS Weekend.  

3.    Normalize the experience: 

Finally, the AR community helps minimize the isolation and emotional flooding most couples struggle with. As a therapist, I personally know that I can only be available so many hours a day. Having both a community and insight from survivors which is available 24/7 is invaluable. Couples need support at the point of crisis, and that normally isn't at their next scheduled appointment time. Processing the journey of recovery with others traveling the same course is one of the most effective ways of normalizing the recovery process. A safe and supportive community, along with therapy, helps stabilize couples at their point of need.  

In attempting to heal from infidelity, it’s not just about taking action: it’s about taking the right action. I hope you’ll consider getting help in one of the earlier mediums I’ve discussed in an attempt to get your life back. While it can seem like life as you know it is over, I’d like to encourage you with hope today that life still remains.  There is hope and there is the possibility of healing for you. As always if you’d like to talk to someone about understanding the next steps for your own journey, please give us a call at 1-888-527-2367.

 

 

1.    Vaughan, Peggy. Help for Therapists (and Their Clients) in Dealing with Affairs. San Diego, CA: Dialog Press, 2002, 2010. PDF.

 

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Comments

Marriage counseling

Great article. When you hear a famous psychologist on her radio program flat out say that a man who is happy at home, whose wife continues to act like a girlfriend will not cheat---that does not help. I think it shows a complete lack of empathy for the betrayed, places blame on the betrayed and causes much more pain and confusion.

I agree

I agree with this statement. Seems most professionals and even 'regular' people place the blame with the betrayed with their comments...well-intentioned or not.

Mistakes on counseling

Great article. Now, going back to our first stages on recovery, I realize how the lack of experience dealing with infidelity can hurt the couple. I think we kind of survived this first stage after disclosure, because of our (both) desire to find answers.
My husband (the unfaithful) was so confused with his feelings, but he knew, he needed answers. He needed to know, why still feeling love for me, and the fact we had a "happy" marriage, he had cheated on me. He wanted to know, if what he was feeling was real love or not? if that AP was really special and if this situation was different to any other situation, because of his "feelings". In my part, I was also looking for answers to similar questions.
No explanation was given to us about it, no explanations about love being a decision and the chemical reactions when having an affair. It cost us a very painful journey, where my husband continued acting out with his AP for several months after discovery, and continued lying to me thinking he was able to handle it by himself. It cost me finding pieces of truth every day for several months. It was. It IS STILL so confusing. And we are still dealing with everything what happened after disclosure, which I think hurt us more than the actual 2 year- affair.

Its being 15 months after disclosure and the trauma is still very alive. In reality, we begun our healing process just 9 months ago. It means that 6 months were hell, where he continue making the same mistakes hurting me much more.
I think things could have been different if the correct answers were given since the beginning.

It is very interesting just

It is very interesting just how unprepaired some counselors to deal with infidelity. In our case we went to a christian women counselor it was a waste and if it had not been for us stopping after just three visits it could have been real bad. My wife was the unfaithful one and when we got there my wife would not say a word about her affair (at the time I thought there was only one) and the counselor just was unable to address the affair just wanted to deal with the marriage problems and wanted to loom at how I was in part part of the reason for my wife's affair. Looking back at it now I am glad we stopped as it was I was struggling with the thought that I was to blame anyway no telling how much extra harm it might have done to us if we stayed and we focused on what I was not doing and never addressed what my wife had done. About three months later we started EMSO at least I was not being told it was my fault and I was starting to do my own research and learning more about what are some of the causes and it was not me. Even with that knowledge it still took me a while to understand completely it was not me. But had we stayed with that counselor there is no telling how I might have struggled to heal and would my wife ever take responsibility? Or would it just happen again and again?
I did find healing because if what Christ did within me not my efforts. It is so very important that if you are going to see a counselor that they are very experienced in infidelity. We never went to another counselor and we are moving along very well it has also been my observations that they are not as effective as they would seem to be.

My story, too

We did the traditional counselor for three visits, each making us feel worse than before. It was not her fault, though. She kind of gave up on us as a couple when she could not get my wife to see past "I love him (the AP) so much. I have never felt like this before." The counselor told me I should give up on my wife because as long as she felt that way, there was no hope for us. She said she had never heard a wife talk that way in front of her husband about an AP! Thank God for EMSO, or no one would have ever told my wife she was wrong and that the feeling she had for the AP was not love, besides me. After 5 years, I am still not sure because we still have little intimacy, but I did marry until death parts us, so I keep on. At least we have long term plans together, so there is still hope.

I am so grateful that we did

I am so grateful that we did NOT try traditional counseling. I discovered the AR website within a few days of discovering my husband's betrayal and have been using the wisdom on the site ever since. We did the first steps bootcamp and then EMS Online, which has been a marriage saver. We are now in Married for Life. If this marriage is saved it's not because of a marriage counselor. It's because Rick and his team have taken the time and effort to put together a web site and courses that make a difference. Thank you so very much for your wisdom Rick. You have saved our marriage.

Counselors

My husband initially arranged marriage guidance, however at that point he was still lying. He then arranged for me to see a therapist who he thought could erase my memory of the affair. He hounded her as I would not agree to go (how convenient just to wipe it all clean). She called me one day and asked if I could talk as she thought he sounded desperate and was concerned for my welfare. I did eventually agree with her that I would meet up. However, lovely as she was I felt she had her own issues with her now divorced cheating husband. Her advice was to leave and never look back. Second therapist gave me the name of a good divorce lawyer. Now three years on and still together our problems never resolved (bucket load of empty promises).. I believe he felt that I needed help to get over it so we could move on. He had promised that he too would get help but the councillor said he was just playing mind games with both of us (two sessions then quit). I know to this day he is still lying and strangely enough it's not the sex part of the affairs that hurt but the lying for years and still to this day. I am unable to rebuild our marriage as I do not, nor do I feel that I could ever trust him again.x

Can relate

Your reference to a therapist "erasing your memory" of the affair brought to mind the movie "Men in Black" and that flashlight memory eraser thing Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones used to wipe out peoples' memories of the aliens they had seen! If only it was that easy!!!

I can relate with your husband lying to the counselors. My husband lied his way through 5 different therapists. He is now almost finished with Hope for Healing and I am FINALLY seeing a difference in him and a willingness to tell the truth, although I feel that I still don't have all the info. And you are right about the lying. I have more trouble with the deceit than I do the sex, except when he tries to hold me. Then the intrusive thoughts go on a rampage!

My therapist tried to convince me to divorce him many times. He gave me the name of a good divorce lawyer too, but because I am now seeing a change in my husband, I have held off calling her to see what happens and if rebuilding is going to be possible. Trust is another matter entirely since his deceit gave me two Ddays ( Dday 2 was just 8 months ago) and covered a span of 20 years. That's a lot of trust to earn back and will probably take years to do so, if our marriage survives. Our problems are far from being resolved. I know it takes 18-24 months from the last disclosure. The last disclosure (although a small detail to him, but a huge one to me) was January 15 of this year. Yes, we have a long road ahead of us

therapists

Our therapists (they work in couple) speak about "acting the crisis", i don't know the technical espression in English, in italian "agire la crisi".
That is the cheater is the one who acts the crisis, but both spouses are involved and responsible for the crisis. It's like the cheating was the symptom of an illness. Besides, after few weeks since my husband left the ap (a month and a half after the Dday ...he told me then that it was "true love" not just sex), i was supposed to be pretty well. I was not, of course. So they said, therapists and husband, I was destructive, that I focused only on my pain instead of being positive. Now five months have passed, my husband swears he loves me and wants i forgive him, but i feel like I've done all the work by myself. He thinks his love is enough. I don't know what to think.

What type of affair was it?

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