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

Infidelity Counseling: How Effective Is It?

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Have you ever done something that just didn’t work? When I was 9, I dared my 6-year-old brother to kiss a snapping turtle. Somehow, neither of us anticipated the outcome. The turtle grabbed Jay’s lip, and what followed is the stuff of legends: He ran around screaming with the turtle hanging from his bottom lip, and I was working like crazy to get the darn thing off before Mom discovered my dastardly deed. As you might imagine, it cost me a pretty penny to keep Jay quiet about my failed experiment.

I’m older now and hopefully a bit more thoughtful. Along the way, I’ve learned that if you want to run, you’ve first got to tie your shoes. It’s not OK to risk making a mess of someone’s life on a hunch and, yet, that’s what sometimes happens during infidelity counseling.

Why Expert Doesn’t Always Mean Expert

When it comes to the services offered by many general marriage and family therapists, there seems to be little positive momentum gained. I think people genuinely mean well, but there’s little to no training offered by graduate schools on the topic of infidelity. Many profess to be experts in treating infidelity when they’ve really only treated a few cases. At Affair Recovery, we hear stories about this nearly every day.

The fact of the matter is infidelity is a complex beast. Every situation is uniquely different. Our Affair Analyzer alone has more than 850 different outcomes for where people can land after infidelity. Sure, there are trends and there are markers associated with the actions of both wayward and betrayed mates; however, your situation is going to be one of a kind in how it unfolds in your individual world. It will require an expert approach, not one that’s been honed over a few years or a handful of cases.

Where Infidelity Counseling Can Fall Short

Peggy Vaughan, who passed away in 2012, conducted research on infidelity and affairs back when little was known on the subjects. For her original research "Help for Therapists (and Their Clients) in Dealing with Affairs," she surveyed 1,083 people whose spouses had affairs. Vaughan asked the following questions in her research:

'Was the counselor helpful?'

  • 57% said "no, mostly frustrating."
  • 23% said "yes, but not as much as I’d like."
  • 20% said "yes, very helpful."

'Did the counselor focus directly on the issue of affairs?'

  • 59% said "no, mainly focused on general marital problems."
  • 28% said "yes, but not as strongly or clearly as I’d like."
  • 13% said "yes, very directly dealt with this issue."

Vaughan goes on to explain that therapists focusing mainly on general problems "appears to be one of the specific reasons for the 'mostly frustrating' experiences with counseling." She continues:

"Focusing on the marriage (and specifically whatever problems exist in the marriage) inadvertently reinforces the idea that the affair was caused by the marital problems or by a failure to 'meet your partner’s needs.' Suggesting that an affair is due to 'unmet needs' implies that the hurt partner is to 'blame' when their spouse has an affair — and is responsible for keeping it from happening again."

This cause-and-effect approach to infidelity counseling isn't just frustrating, but it's also just plain wrong in my opinion.

Why a Cause-and-Effect Approach Is Problematic

At Affair Recovery, we believe that the hurt spouse isn’t responsible for choices made by the wayward spouse. We also believe the wayward spouse isn’t responsible for choices made by the hurt spouse. We are only responsible for ourselves and our reactions. When therapists blame the marriage or the hurt mate for the affair, they're likely inexperienced in treating infidelity. Again, they might mean well, but they won't be able to help you truly heal unless they're experts on the complexities of betrayal.

To that end, when therapists take a cause-and-effect approach, they might not even realize its potential to hinder healing. But a cause-and-effect approach is problematic, as Vaughan touches upon in her research, because it can reinforce this kind of misinformation:

  • If the betrayed mate had been more physically intimate in their relationship, then their partner wouldn’t have cheated.
  • If the betrayed mate just stops talking about the affair, then they’d finally develop new momentum in their relationship.
  • If the wayward mate strays, even just that once, then it’s normal for the betrayed partner to physically abuse and harm them.
  • If the wayward mate had never cheated, then their relationship wouldn’t be in such bad shape today.

When a therapist isn't an infidelity expert, they might also suggest you simply leave your mate because "that’s what they'd do.” At Affair Recovery, we believe that the pain of infidelity can be healed. We also believe that infidelity doesn't have to be the end of your relationship. For some, going through the crisis of infidelity allows them to rebuild their relationship into something better than they'd ever imagined. I, firsthand, can attest to the fact that severe crisis can lead to positive, radical transformation.

How Affair Recovery Approaches Infidelity Recovery

In our Affair Recovery programs and courses, we want participants to feel safe and validated. We also believe maintaining an objective atmosphere is necessary to facilitate healing. A cause-and-effect approach, on the other hand, can go against all of this. It can put the onus on the wrong person, and it can also open the door to blaming and shaming. This doesn't just make the other person feel bad, but it can also make it difficult for you both to heal and move forward.

In EMS Online, Harboring Hope and Hope for Healing, we stress the importance of accepting personal accountability after infidelity. We also pair participants with a small group of others who're going through similar situations. While we recognize that no two infidelity experiences are the same, we believe community and honesty are powerful catalysts for healing.

Although our curriculum is designed by experts, our programs and courses are not meant to replace infidelity counseling with an expert. Alongside therapy, we can help you restore your hope and lay the groundwork for a brighter future — whether you decide to stay in this relationship or start anew. Through our Expert Q&A feature of the Recovery Library, however, current course participants and active Group Leaders can submit questions to me or another Affair Recovery expert, such as Wayne Baker, M.A., LPC; Leslie Hardie, LCSW; and John Mark Haney, Ph.D., LPC.

Below is an example of one of my Q&A videos, in which I tackle this question from a betrayed spouse:

'How Do I Handle the Abrupt Emotional Changes?'

“Hi, Rick. How do I deal with strong emotions that change for no seemingly good reason at all? For example, one day I will feel completely fine, loved, hopeful, happy, grateful for this wake-up call and motivated to work on us (currently in EMSO) and do the best for my family. And in the next moment, I will feel disgust, dread, unloved and unloving, like I just want to leave my spouse and start my life over, one that I deserve.”

As you embark on your recovery journey, I encourage you to enroll in one of our restorative courses and submit a query of your own. Also, I want to point out that while you must be registered in a course to ask a question, you don't have to be enrolled in a course to join our Recovery Library. And once you become a member, you'll gain instant access to more than 1,500 Q&A videos like this one as well as numerous articles, mentor stories and much more. Right now, we’re offering a discount when you sign up for a six- or 12-month recurring Recovery Library membership. I highly recommend taking advantage of this robust resource during your recovery.

Registration for EMS Online Opens Soon! Space Is Limited

Our Emergency Marital Seminar Online, better known as EMSO, isn’t a program that shames or blames mates. Over decades of experience exclusively in the field of infidelity, our methodology has been honed to better serve couples as they address the betrayal, reconnect as partners and restore their lives.

“I would like to comment on the course as a whole. I am the unfaithful spouse and today on the call, my spouse said that they had started the course as a last-ditch effort before divorce, but they now see hope for our marriage. We are continuing with Married for Life, and I am grateful not only for EMSO and all that it has taught us about how to recover from infidelity, but that it has also provided us with materials on how to rebuild a solid marriage and the tools to move forward. I cannot count how many times I have thanked God for Affair Recovery.” — Anonymous EMSO participant, November 2020.

Spots fill up quickly, so you won't want to wait to register for EMSO! To learn when registration opens back up, click the button below.

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Comments

Double Life

My husband has been living a double life for the last 5 years. I discovered an email of his setting up a rendezvous. She is a friend out if the past who invited him to see her house and there it began. There trysts were contained to about 7 months a year when we were at our winter home, but he claims they were only together 2 or 3 times a month. However, they emailed each other every day claiming they loved and missed each other. My husband claims he did not love her but it seemed like the thing to say during their affair. Since I found out she sold her house and moved out of state within 2 months of discovery. He claims the only correspondence was when he told her not to email him anymore. I have my good days and bad days, mostly bad. Our marriage had been sexless for many years which was my fault. He was 68 when the affair started and it continued while he was undergoing rigorous cancer treatments while I took care of him. We are about to have our 50 year anniversary and I want no celebration. I feel our marriage is a sham. He claims he has always loved me but we hurt each other and never communicated. He is trying to put our marriage back together but sometimes I look at him and feel nothing but disgust. I feel it was more than an affair since they needed to email each other every day for 5 years. Now he's using the excuse that we're old and we need to be happy for the time we have left. So confused and don't know what to do. I'm miserable, cry all the time and losing my hair from the stress. By the way, he built his reputation on his integrity and being truthful. Always said he hated liars Now I see him for the cad that he truly is, a hypocrite. So lost right now.

Betrayed - Emotional Flooding - Five Yrs. Since D Day

I just watched a video from Rick on how do I handle the abrupt emotions? I am five years out and I have to say, this still happens to me. My spouse had the affair and I confronted him. It went on for about 1 year with someone at work. It would've been better had he told me the truth when I accused him over and over again. Now he has done everything I have asked including going to counseling himself to find out why he had the affair. He and I both have a better understanding of why it happened, but I still cannot get past it. If he acts or says one thing that brings me back to how he sounded while the affair was happening, I got straight to flooding and wanting to leave and start over and fly away. When will this stop, if ever? I sometimes still feel love for him and other times I hate him. Can anyone give me some direction on how to get past this or when I might get past it?

Keep investing in your recovery

Hi Karen, I am almost 2 years from D-day and I can say that you are not alone, I too have days when the emotional flooding is unbearable. What has helped me continue to push thru the triggers and grief is individual and couples therapy, I still go regularly by myself and with my husband to ensure I am addressing this pain. My therapist has introduced grounding techniques to help bring me back to the present when I experience flooding. There’s a phrase she taught me to say when feelings and memories from the past take over: “Thank you brain for reminding me of the past, thank you for protecting me. But I didn’t invite you to the party today, my party is with the present. Thank you for reminding me but I have dealt with you already.” Saying this can be helpful to remind myself not to second guess the decisions I’ve made since D-day and that I’m in a different place than the past.

There’s also an excellent book that has been helpful called “The Happiness Trap.” It addresses accepting your feelings and offers various techniques to help put them in perspective.

You are not alone, and while my suspicion is that you, me, anyone who has experienced infidelity will never fully be rid of the pain that comes along with it, we can move forward with time and coping techniques.

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