“Infidelity hurts in ways that words simply can’t explain!”
These words, in some way, shape, or form, are often uttered from the lips of couples who have experienced the trauma of betrayal. After the shock of experiencing infidelity in a relationship, many couples bravely seek help from a therapist. The initial instinct may be to attend couple’s therapy as the wound happened to the relationship, so “the relationship” should be in the room with the professional. This approach is very true for many couples following the shock, pain, and confusion of infidelity. However, as a therapist treating couples and individuals for many years, there are some relationships that are not ready to address these wounds in a couple’s therapy setting.
Here are 5 signs you are NOT ready for couples therapy following an affair.
1. The wound is too fresh.
Just like with a physical injury, often times there is too much external and surrounding damage to dive into the wound. Many times doctors will wait until the swelling or bleeding has reduced before they cut a patient open to treat the problem surgically. In couple’s therapy, if the infidelity is so painful that one or both members of the relationship can’t hardly talk about it without risking (a) becoming verbally or emotionally abusive, (b) experiencing an overwhelming amount of sorrow, and/or (C) they are coping by abusing substances, then the toxicity level of addressing it in the presence of their partner is possibly exacerbating the pain instead of helping with healing. In this case, individual therapy might be a better fit in effort to remove some of the toxins and make healing more manageable. This will often set the stage for couple’s therapy to be successful in the very near future.
2. The cheating spouse is NOT ready to take ownership.
When working with couple’s who have experienced betrayal, it is crucial that the partner who has committed the act or acts of infidelity take ownership for their behavior. This does not mean that the cheating partner take the blame for ALL the problems in the relationship, but it is key to own the betrayal. Statements like “Yes, I cheated but we haven’t been a REAL couple for months” or “Yes, but I wasn’t happy at home so what was I supposed to do?” are NOT statements that reveal an understanding of the pain the betrayed partner feels at this moment in time. While therapists know that remorse is not a prerequisite to ownership, being honest about what has happened and avoiding blame or excuses is key for a couple to be ready to make progress in couple’s therapy.
3. The cheating spouse is not emotionally equipped to assist in couple healing.
The trauma of infidelity creates wounds for both the acting out partner and the betrayed partner. However, sometimes the cheating spouse is dealing with past traumas and those events have connection to the acts of betrayal. This is NOT an excuse for their betrayal, but it is important and valid information for a treatment provider to have. It is not uncommon for a trauma or mental health issue to block an individual’s ability to participate in couple’s therapy. Similar to the example above, doctors prescribe physical therapy treatment after the wound has had some treatment. In the case of mental health, addressing serious mental health issues before putting a client in with their partner is often more effective and productive. It is important to note that the injured spouse/partner may not be willing to wait for the acting out spouse/partner to “get well” before addressing the wound of the relationship. This is a possible consequence the cheating party will have to accept, but s/her isn’t doing her/his partner any favors by attempting to tend to the betrayal wound when s/he is far from equipped.
4. Someone is still keeping secrets.
Secret keeping is a big problem in treating couples in relational therapy. Specifically, keeping secrets after a betrayal (potentially the infidelity was a big secret for a time) can be devastating. Sometimes a couple will enter into treatment and the betrayed partner knows that they don’t know everything; therefore; an important part of the therapy and couple recovery is about how and when the information is shared (called “Disclosure”; read our blog on Therapeutic Disclosure). However, if one or both members of the couple are keeping secrets from the therapist and partner then the relationship will not be able to heal cleanly. When this happens, couples are not able to make expected progress and describe feeling “stuck” after some time. The revelation of a secret “down the road” can often be too much for a relationship to handle due to the manipulation of keeping a secret.
5. Someone is feeling constrained due to the fear of violence or some form of retribution.
This “NOT” is pretty obvious. Any member of a couple that anticipates pain and manipulation during or following a couple’s therapy session will not be able to honestly and in a vulnerable way reveal their issues. One member will hold back to protect themselves (wisely so) and the couple will spin their wheels in the therapy room. From a therapist’s perspective, our goal is for all our clients to feel safe in the therapy room. We know that before humans can let their guard down, they must feel safe. If one or both members know that they will have “hell to pay” for what is said or addressed in session, then a those clients will rarely reveal all and a therapist will not want to continue further if they fear they are not able to “First, do no harm.” Therefore, safety is key!
Although the information provided is about NOT receiving couple’s therapy, please know that couple’s therapy is a crucial part of healing after a betrayal. When partners are ready, able and willing to work with a skilled relational therapist, the prognosis is good for couple healing. But like anything, the timing and context of this treatment can be just as important as the treatment itself.
In closing, if you have experienced the trauma of infidelity, then I encourage to wait no longer and find a therapist that is skilled in working with individuals and couples who specialize in this issue. As you are searching for a therapist, you may look for terms such as, “Affair Recovery,” “Betrayal Trauma,” “EMA (Extra-Marital Affair)” or even “Sex Addiction.” Below are some online directories that can help you in our search. Blessings.
Psychology Today | Good Therapy | Sex Help (for sex addiction counseling)