Job Lopez
by Job Lopez, M.A., LPC Associate
Member, EMS Weekend Specialist

What Does Doing the Work of Infidelity Recovery Mean for the Unfaithful - Infidelity Recovery

I am often asked by unfaithful spouses, "What does doing the work mean?" This is a valid question because infidelity recovery can be overwhelming and confusing. Most do not even know where to start. We are not offered a class in college called "Infidelity Recovery 101". I also hear people say, "I am not a sex addict." "I only had one affair." "It was only a one-night stand." "Do I have to do the same type of work?" Below are three evidence-based components of infidelity recovery. They are relevant regardless of the type of affair.

The first component of "doing the work" is individual therapy. A study evaluating different types of therapeutic approaches found that a primary factor in promoting change was the secure relationship between the client and therapist. The therapeutic environment should model safety and compassion, promote curiosity, and develop emotional awareness, acceptance, and empathy. My therapist's attunement, responsiveness, engagement, direction, and acceptance provided an environment for me to be vulnerable and develop emotional vocabulary outside of angry, pissed, frustrated, and annoyed.

A therapist should also help educate the client to understand the basic biology of the human nervous system. For example, it is important to understand what happens to our nervous system (and our partner's) when triggered during recovery. This includes recognizing emotional flooding and fight, flight, or freeze. After discovery of my infidelity and prior to getting into the right type of therapy, I thought my wife lacked self-control and was undisciplined when she emotionally flooded. I would try and reason with her, shame her for lack of discipline, give her pep talks, and was dismissive of her emotions and experience. Psychoeducation taught me that the part of my wife's brain involved with reasoning was offline when she was emotionally flooded and in the middle of a panic attack. This education helped me gain empathy, patience, and compassion for the trauma she was experiencing, over and over again. It also caused me to consider how the dysregulation of my nervous system was linked to addiction. In the book, Trauma Induced Sexual Addiction (TINSA®): A neurological Approach to the Treatment of Sex Addiction, Michael Barta discusses the increasing evidence that sexual acting out is linked to nervous system dysregulation.

Regardless of the type of affair, a trend I observe in cases of infidelity is nervous system dysregulation in the form of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, etc. and the inability of the unfaithful to have productive ways to cope with the dysregulation. Working with a trauma therapist that specializes in approaches like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), emotional transformation therapy (ETT), brain spotting, polyvagal theory, and/or interpersonal neuroscience is important toward building emotional resilience and sobriety.

The second component of "doing the work" encompasses group work. These programs include 12-step work, topic-focused group therapy, and/or psychoeducation groups. Twelve-step programs, which are deep dives into understanding how our past impacts our present, typically promote the development of one's spirituality. Research indicates that spiritual practices aid in long-term sobriety. The topics that come up in the group work can also be taken to an individual's therapist for further insight and processing. When I worked through 12-step programs and psychoeducation groups myself, the topics would trigger guilt, trauma, and shame that I would need to process with my therapist. Additionally, by listening to others in the group share, I could relate to their experiences and realize I am not alone. It helped destigmatize the shame and helped me take personal responsibility my actions.

A strength of group work is that it has the potential to model healthy relationship dynamics. A productive group will discuss emotional safety parameters and boundaries. The members typically listen for understanding and respond with empathy and compassion. When there are relational violations and ruptures among members, the group leader can facilitate repairs between individuals. The topics discussed in groups, the interactions between members, the community culture, and the support felt throughout can help the unfaithful rewire their nervous system to develop secure, pro-recovery relationships with others.

The third component to "doing the work" is relationship therapy. The goal is to take everything learned in individual and group work and implement it into the relationship. A word of caution: working on the relationship and repairing the attachment rupture of infidelity prior to establishing safety parameters, such as a full disclosure, can damage both partners. Once therapeutic disclosure is completed, couples therapy with a trained trauma and attachment therapist is important. Something that struck me during our recovery was watching our therapist model compassion, patience, attunement, and responsiveness (all aspects of secure attachment) to my wife. I wanted to run away from her triggers because I grew up in a situation where reparative and productive conversations were not had during or after ruptures. After infidelity, the idea that we were going to talk about the betrayal, what happened, and how badly it hurt my wife were novels concept to me. Watching my therapist interact with my wife helped desensitize my shame and showed me that talking about the betrayal would lead to emotional intimacy so we could grieve the relationship together and grow closer.

Couples therapy also helps individuals understand healthy and unhealthy attachment styles, which research indicates is essential for long-term relational satisfaction. It is important that individuals know if they are avoidant or anxiously attached, or if they get into cycles where they bounce back and forth between the two. Good resources to read to understand attachment styles include books and videos from clinical psychologist and expert couple therapist, Dr. Sue Johnson, books and research material from clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, Dr. Dan Siegel, and The Attachment Theory Workbook: Powerful Tools to Promote Understanding, Increase Stability, and Build Lasting Relationships by Annie Chen, licensed marriage and family therapist.

An additional aspect of couples therapy is that it helps individuals define intimacy. Often, intimacy is viewed as sex. However, intimacy also includes emotional, spiritual, financial, and intellectual connection. It is important that the therapist helps couples connect to deeper forms of intimacy while the sexual rupture is being repaired.

Infidelity is likely the most devastating event that a couple can go through, and recovery is difficult. My hope is that if an unfaithful is lost, overwhelmed, or confused with the type of work that is needed to recover, this article can provide encouragement and guidance. Patience, self-compassion, and curiosity are important when navigating the unknowns of infidelity recovery.

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The affair

My husband had an affair 3 years ago after 26 years of a happy marriage he isn't a flirt or a womaniser and we never argued. He is still with the woman in her house, but we have had a few nights together lately, I asked him if he feels quilty his reply was ya a little. He has filed for a divorce but said he's not getting married. I still love him and the sex is so much better than it was before and he also said the same. I really want him to come home and I don't want a divorce. The affair was so out of character for him he was working away in covid and only came home for 3 nights every 2 weeks I think he had his head turned or was having a mid life crisis because when the job finished he never went to see her. He lives in her house with no family around him but he has started coming over more and more and staying at our daughters house for a few days then we get together we are hoping to go away for a week soon to sort our apartment out in Spain and I know it will be lovely spending time with him. In one of your articles the type of women most of her friends I think are male and you say most men don't stay with their affair partner and its lust or limerence. What is your thoughts on this should I wait or let him go I love him so much he is my world he fell in love with me the first time he saw me Surly you only have a love like that only once in your life. He was such a family man and it ripped me apart and our daughter and grandson's too. I'm so in limbo 3 years on what do I do.

Kind regards

Believe in yourself

I found the book The Empowered Wife and the podcast by the same name very helpful in supporting and saving my marriage. My husband has had numerous emotional affairs and one physical that I know of. Please know that you are not alone and I stand for you and your marriage.

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